Nobody actually distressed? Just say it anyway!

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An Institute of Public Affairs freedom of information request has revealed that our universities are seeking to protect students from distress – even when it’s not clear anyone’s feelings have actually been hurt.

Back in April a furore erupted at the University of Melbourne after anti-Islam graffiti was sprawled on campus. The offensive writing included the phrases “Islam is not a race”, “Freedom of Speech”, and “Stop the Mosques”.

The graffiti was discovered before 7.30am, and immediately wiped off by students, as well as university cleaners.

Nevertheless, the little bit of chalk instigated frenzied activity within the highest echelons of the university, the IPA’s freedom of information request has discovered.

Just after midday a teleconference was convened with the chancellery, security, cleaning and media. The student union and the university co-ordinated statements.

For maximum effect the university put a statement on Facebook in the vice-chancellor’s name:

Many are aware a number of offensive slogans were written in chalk on the Parkville campus today. While the University community moved quickly to identify and remove offensive messages, they still have caused distress.

Interestingly, however, before putting out the statement the university leadership was informed by email that:

No students have come forward to UMSU (the student union) expressing personal distress arising from the chalkings and hopefully, given the very prompt cleaning… few people witnessed the slogans.

Despite no actual reports of personal distress and a quick cleaning process, the university felt the need to release a statement claiming the opposite.

The university simply assumed that somebody must have been distressed. And, as a communications strategy, published a statement accordingly.

In fact, it is likely the mass publicizing of the graffiti, giving it an audience far beyond that it was ever naturally going to achieve, may have helped establish distress that otherwise did not exist.

This series of events signals a worrying developing culture at our universities.

University administrators are being forced to spend hours of their day not on teaching and education, but rather responding to relatively minor cases of graffiti.

Meanwhile, Australian academics are using trigger warnings, seeking to protect students from emotional responses in class. It is no longer about resilience to challenging ideas, it’s about covering students with bubble wrap from the realities of life outside campus.

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