Late on Friday afternoon, Nov. 3, an all-campus email entitled “Our Life Together” was sent out by Jim Smucker on behalf of the Student Life directors. This particular email angered a lot of students, and I would like to share some of those concerns.
I have a ton of respect for the members of Student Life. They consistently go above and beyond their time commitments when it comes to engaging with the student body, and in a lot of ways, they are the reason EMU has meant so much to me. I recognize the many hours of energy, stress, and thought that EMU Student Life has poured into the creation of this policy and email. Nevertheless, in the spirit of honest conversation and growth — of “mutual accountability,” if you will — I would like to offer a few critiques on the chosen direction of this particular policy.
The main reason the CLC was ineffective, from a student’s perspective, was its inability to recognize the power differential between Student Life staff and students, which led to disciplinary processes that were supposed to be restorative, but, in most cases, left the students involved feeling hurt and unheard. The reason I have thus far been excited about the Life Together document is that it does, in fact, name this dynamic and presents several commitments addressing it.
I pulled a couple of excerpts from “Life Together” that stand out to me in this regard.
Under the first heading: “We seek relational, collaborative, and restorative approaches to teaching and learning, administration, policy, and discipline.”
Under the third heading: “We commit ourselves to show respect for the rights, dignity, and full personhood of one another.”
Under the fifth heading: “We commit ourselves to mutual accountability motivated by love in a spirit of generosity and grace.”
This is exciting stuff. Mutual accountability, restorative approaches to discipline, and recognition of full personhood of students: EMU is ready for these ideas.
So far, I think Student Life has stayed true to the document in these ways. But Friday’s email marks a drastic turning point, from my perspective. The word “education” has been introduced. For Student Life, I think “educational approach” means “there is a problem, and let us learn together about how we can find solutions to that problem.” But for many students, there is a far more unwelcome translation.
Touting this kind of educational approach is definitely an improvement over punitive disciplinary measures, but it is a long way from restorative. For me, and I think for a lot of students, this approach reinforces rather than addresses the power imbalances at play with substance abuse issues among students. What we thought was a transformation of power dynamics has instead turned into a shifting disguise, in which the practices meant to be restorative still refuse to recognize the agency and wholeness of students.
Maybe all of this means that we students just are not cut out for “life together” at EMU. But if the Student Life staff cannot create a policy or even an email without angering a significant number of engaged and highly involved students, then I am not sure they are either.
This is complicated, and I do not have any easy answers. But I am confident that this type of educational approach, unless executed with tremendous care and intention, will continue to strip students of their perceived agency by ignoring their own very real understandings of the issue at hand.