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Learning from Twitter to build a toolbox for life

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College, Chapel Reflection, April 30, 2019

Scripture for the Day: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)

As many of you know, a video recording of two Augustana students speaking in hateful and misogynistic terms recently circulated on social media. At least two students — both males — clearly felt threatened by Augustana’s policies designed to protect our community against sexual violence, and they lashed out against those policies while spewing vile, toxic rants.

It’s true that I am Augustana’s resident optimist, but I know I am not alone in having hoped that such attitudes would by now have been abandoned.

But I have come to learn that when I am discouraged, one positive response I can choose is to practice deep listening — meaning that I listen to try and make sense of something that disturbs me. Now deep listening is hard for me. I’m a lawyer and a college president and that means I enjoy the sport of a good argument.

I had sent the Observer story on this incident and the related video to my bosses — the Augustana College Board of Trustees, each of whom I deeply respect. Several responded, but I especially ppreciated the thoughtful response from Natalie Kessler, a business owner and 1992 graduate of Augustana. She wrote:

“This incident is not what we would have hoped ... but here it is, another opportunity to rise to the occasion. This is an opportunity to continue a conversation that really hasn't even begun in society. I consider it lucky the Augustana community of young adults has a safe place to confront the topic and work through some of their concerns. The initial recording is a puerile version of what lies outside of the Augustana community. The antidote is to keep the conversations and education at the forefront and invite input from students where you can. It will be another skill they can put in their ‘Toolbox for Life.’”

Wow, a trustee saying that we should listen and learn from the students about this: an “opportunity to rise to the occasion” and build a stronger and more united community.

I also gained insight by listening to the students in the response video the Observer put together. The words of student Emily “MJ” Mason were especially insightful:

“It is a people issue ... people have to be willing to be uncomfortable to take a stand, to put their own social reputation on the line for the benefit of defending a person that can’t protect their own. So, I just wish people would recognize that this is their fight — it is the people’s fight.”

I hope we will heed MJ’s advice, and be united in challenging harmful attitudes and to have the courage to say: “We are both members of the Augustana community, and what you are saying is not right. Let’s take time to talk about this more deeply.”

So, may we, as the Augustana College community, be united in the fight against misogyny and sexual violence. I’m proud of so many Augie students who have rallied around this issue, whether it is the students who worked with the faculty and administration over the past years in improving our procedures to student groups raising awareness and promoting bystander intervention. And I am proud of our students who came together this past Friday. You are right to encourage our campus members to hold each other accountable and live out our community principles.

Trustee Natalie Kessler was right — we need to begin to talk more deeply in the coming months and years about topics that are hardly being addressed in the wider society you as students are preparing to enter and lead. And MJ Mason is right that this is not “their” fight, it’s our fight. And men, we need to help lead the way by speaking out with humility, not conceit. I will do my part by listening and by using my influence to continue to improve policies at Augustana and advocate for sound federal and state policies protecting students from sexual misconduct. Our faculty members are likewise committed to facilitating difficult discussions around issues where society has barely scratched the surface. What will SGA do? What will Greek groups do? What will sports teams do? How about classes, service clubs and residence hall leaders? What will you do in this fight that belongs to all of us? 

Finally, students, I hope you will carry what we’ve learned in the last few weeks with you beyond your time at Augustana. In just a few weeks we will be giving our graduates an Augustana A to carry with them after commencement. As our graduates carry that A into their lives and careers, I challenge them to speak up when they witness the use of cruel language, to know the power of their words, and not be content to be silent bystanders. And together, I know we can develop a collective toolbox to prevent and fight hate at Augustana and in our broader communities. We can develop a Toolbox for Life.