Administration’s message does not show support for independence

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Though I had intended my last Op/Ed in The Tartan to be a congratulatory note to Sí Señor for adopting a spotty yet delicious vegetarian menu of seitan and tofurky, Friday’s message to the campus community eschewing the screening of pornographic films by the Activities Board provided me with something that is more substantial to discuss.

I have grown used to the official communiques about how much money the university does not have anymore, and I think it is excellent that President Jared L. Cohon decided to be so transparent. But Friday’s campus-wide e-mail was not about transparency, or an emergency, or even a pressing issue. After having been here for four years, I don’t care anymore that the Activities Board shows pornography twice a year. Maybe I thought it was a scandal once, but now I don’t think it’s scandalous, or heinous, or offensive. I don’t really think about it at all. Sadly, after being here for 104 years, the administration cannot, as I have, just get over it.

Once upon a time, I was in a tough spot at The Tartan when a writer and I could not decide whether to go to CNN with a story that happened here at school that could have been potentially damaging to the Obama campaign and, while there were no bare breasts involved, may also have cast a bad light on the school.

At the time, we were given a surprising message: The directors of Media and Government Relations, though I am sure they would have preferred I just let the whole thing drop, both told me they were confident in the ability of students to make decisions. They didn’t know me well at the time, so their confidence was not in my reputation, but in the respect they shared for all students.

When it comes to the specter of pornography, I can empathize with Student Affairs’ situation: With the recent debacle over the University of Maryland’s nearly getting their state funding cut, the chair of the Activities Board’s going on record with the Post-Gazette, and what I am sure was a slew of scathing e-mails, it probably seemed like a good idea to clarify to everyone that it was not a school-sanctioned or -financed event. It wasn’t.

The message the entire campus community got from the interim dean was not the same as the empowering one that I got from the administration a year ago. Student Affairs, in an attempt to distance themselves from their students instead of support them, essentially threw its hands in the air and said, “We told them not to. It’s not our fault!”

The ill-conceived message took on the condescending tone of a parent apologizing that their child has just knocked down a pyramid of cereal boxes at the grocery store. The correspondence that we received said that “while university policy supports freedom of expression, the university strongly objects to showing such films.” It is dismaying that the university community did not receive exactly the opposite message, stating that while they do not support showing pornography, they do support freedom of expression and the decision-making capabilities of students.

It’s not a question of semantics, it is one of priorities. Especially in Student Affairs, students should be number one. Everything else should be number two: unequivocally, and regardless of internal or external pressure. It seems that Student Affairs decided not to prohibit the pornography because they are hindered by the university’s commitment to freedom of expression, not because they are motivated by it. In the face of mounting pressure, there should not have been an apology, but a defense: not of porn, but of students, and of their ability to make independent decisions.

The chair of the Activities Board defended the porn screening in the Post-Gazette as something absurd and light-hearted, and that is certainly true, but the decision to show porn is also supported by historical precedent that has developed into part of the campus’s student culture. It is a visible demonstration by the student body that Carnegie Mellon’s students have the freedom and will to defy social norms in visible and substantive ways. We are not told what to do or what to watch.

Decentralization is one of the cornerstones of Carnegie Mellon’s administrative culture, and has manifested itself in Student Affairs as a supportive but hands-off approach to student organization advising. This commitment to quasi-laissez-faire advising has generated acts of genius and complete failure within student organizations, but is a trait that makes us unique and progressive. The interim dean’s message confirmed that instead of embracing the consequences of supporting a culture of student independence, which is of immeasurable value in ensuring healthy student leadership development, the university will move to cover its tracks when things go wrong by calling student organizations out in front of their all of their peers.