A strange thing happened at the University of Alabama last week. One of its now-former female students, in a showing of horrific judgment, thought it would be appropriate to post a video online of herself offering commentary on society mixed with the repeated use of a racial slur.
To make matters even worse, after considerable backlash and apparently some reflection, she told herself to “hold my beer” and made another video proclaiming to be justified using the racial slur.
That part of this story is awful, but it wasn’t the strange part.
Immediately the University of Alabama issued a statement proclaiming the remarks “ignorant and disturbing” and informed the public this perpetrator had been reported to the Office of Student Conduct.
In the end, at least according to news accounts, this dreadfully misguided young lady was expelled from the university.
Luckily for the University of Alabama, she decided not to fight it. But what if she had?
Considering the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus has buildings labeled with the names of people who freely used the “n-word,” how can a state-run institution legally expel someone for speech they posted online, presumably off the grounds of the campus?
Is there a list of words one can’t utter in an online setting? When you submit your application to the University of Alabama, do you agree to surrender your freedom of speech if admitted?
It all seems very subjective and subject to legal challenges. It also appears to be a missed opportunity.
What may have been a teachable moment for students at the University of Alabama about why it’s morally and ethically wrong to use racial slurs, it ended up being a textbook case of corporate public relations.
The University of Alabama immediately issued a statement and promptly expelled the woman. Perhaps they feared it would lead to the other recent race incidents at the university reappearing on the front pages of newspapers, and those in charge sought to make an example to prevent it from happening again.
They did what they thought they had to do: act immediately and decisively. Otherwise, there might have been an uprising among the students and faculty. That would have meant more bad press, and suddenly it’s flashbacks to 1963 and former Gov. George Wallace standing in front of the schoolhouse door.
The communications shop at the University of Alabama now seems to serve primarily the function of crisis management. That probably wasn’t the original intent of this office. It was to showcase the positives of the university — create positive press and show the public that its namesake institution is making the state proud.
The University of Alabama isn’t alone. Auburn, South Alabama, Montevallo, Jacksonville State, etc. — they all have public relations employees that have to be capable of responding to unfortunate incidents.
Why such an emphasis on this? It is a symptom of a more significant problem.
Consider all the components a university must take into consideration when doing anything.
For starters, you have a predominantly liberal faculty. Their political leanings aren’t to be ignored with any major action a university takes. Something like a vote of no confidence by the faculty senate would just create more negative press.
Next, you can’t offend the sensibilities of the school’s wealthy donors and financiers. The smallest of things can cause them to withhold a contribution. In addition to that, often they are politically connected.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most critical variable of this equation — you have to curry favor with state and federal legislators. They are the ones responsible for line items in budget and appropriations legislation that allocate money to the school.
A wrong move and this funding becomes subject to politics. That is why public universities have a lobbyist function. In the case of the University of Alabama, it has a team dedicated to government affairs. That includes Jo Bonner, the former congressman for southwest Alabama who left the House of Representatives to serve in this role.
With all of this taking place behind the scenes, what about one of the primary functions of a university — you know, to educate? If the emphasis shifts to protecting the brand, wouldn’t that detract from what is important?
Alabama’s public universities are dealt a peculiar set of circumstances. Given they are public and not private, they’re beholden to public funding and have to operate as a government institution.
They exist in a conservative, Republican-voting state. Unlike the public institutions in the Northeast and on the West Coast, tax dollars pay the salaries of staff and faculty that have views that aren’t necessarily in line with those of taxpayers.
For example, statistically the population of Alabama is highly evangelical. However, college faculty seek secular solutions to problems. Alabamians rely heavily on the Bible for answers, while some professors urge looking to Plato’s “Republic.”
Therefore, when these problems arise, the solution often isn’t commensurate with the one you would expect from the philosophical laboratory known as the university classroom.
Why does any of that matter? College is now big business. Its costs are increasing at a rate of 6 percent annually, nearly three times the rate of inflation.
Everybody goes to college after high school, even if you can’t afford it. Student loan, government grants — it makes enrolling possible, and every school competes for that enrollment. Why? The more students, the more revenue — be it from tuition or directly from the government.
To lure more students, campuses have to be bigger and better. The quality administrators and faculty have to be paid more and more so that they don’t go to another school.
The result is a perpetual bubble fueled by public money.
What are the taxpayers getting in return? Indeed, public higher education adds value to the state on a number of levels. That is not in dispute.
But over time the mission seems to have gone a little off track with the push for positive press and favor in Montgomery and Washington, D.C.
The result is a very cynical approach to governing institutions that presumably exist to serve the public good. In the end, they are just serving themselves.