Executive privilege

Today, The Tartan returns to publishing its annual April Fool’s issue. The 2004 joke issue, called The Natrat (“Tartan” spelled backwards), hinged on disgracefully offensive and tasteless material and nearly resulted in the collapse of the organization. After a year’s absence, we have made the decision to reclaim the tradition for its original purpose: intelligent satire.

But as we move forward, let’s take this opportunity to remember the past. History is the greatest teacher.

On April 1, 2004, The Tartan published racist, misogynistic, and demeaning content that set the Carnegie Mellon campus ablaze. I’d been studying at another university when The Natrat was published, but I was taken aback just hearing my friends’ accounts of the issue’s publication and the aftermath. It was clear that the event struck a sensitive nerve; it exposed and inflamed underlying issues of the Carnegie Mellon community.

The reaction was strong. Students lobbied to expel those responsible. University President Jared Cohon condemned the author of the egregious piece and the editors who let it run. The Tartan stopped publishing for the first time in years. Everyone on campus was left enraged, bitter, and disillusioned.

But in the months following April 1, 2004, students spoke up in public forums, wrote about their experiences, and talked with each other. A commission led by John Hannon, of the Office of Student Development, worked with The Tartan to help it get back on its feet and moving in the right direction. Members of Carnegie Mellon’s administration had a new reason to think hard about the issues of respect, diversity, and creating an inclusive community. In short, we were able to channel much of the anger, pain, and disappointment that the event caused into finding positive approaches to solving the problems our campus was facing.

Shortly after stepping into my current role, I wrote in this column, “The explosive, fiery debate ignited by the 2004 ‘Natrat’ taught this community a lot about itself. But the fire has died. Our campus has returned to its aloof status quo: an environment bereft of debate among most students. In such an atmosphere, underlying problems will not change, and it is inevitable that some event in the future will cause another wildfire of anger and disgust.” Exactly one month later, Malik Zulu Shabazz, the bigoted and militant leader of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, provided just that event.

Again, the campus was in an uproar. It felt as though we’d learned nothing. But through forums, debates, and discussions, our community turned it into something that was largely positive.

I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable each time The Natrat was mentioned in the public forums after Shabazz’s visit to campus. For a long time, I’d hoped that the campus would forget The Natrat as quickly as possible. I came to understand, however, that students’ memories of The Natrat informed the discussion about Shabazz, just as their memories of Shabazz will some day inform the way they think about the next controversy they will inevitably face.

It sometimes seems that the crisis situations are the only times the big issues, such as race, sexuality, and many others, get any attention on a broad scale. Of course, they come up briefly when first-years arrive, but after that there isn’t much. By and large, we depend on controversy.

That’s not all bad. Those experiences are the most potent. But by engendering a more robust discussion around the hot issues when we’re not in crisis-mode and people aren’t so emotional, we will be better prepared to process the complexities of crises when they happen — and they will.

It is all of our responsibility to hold onto the memory of our recent history and use it to find new ways for the members of our community to address the many sensitive issues that have challenged us time and again.