On Common Ground
For a few weeks last fall, learning at Denison was defined largely by how we live… together.
On January 21, 2008, as part of its commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the State of Ohio issued the first-ever Dream in Action Award to the students, faculty, and staff of Denison University. In receiving the recognition, the Denison community was credited with moving “to direct positive action” and “promoting understanding, racial unity, and the appreciation of diversity.”
Ironically, in order to achieve this honor, we, the Denison community, first had to lose our direction. We relaxed our grip on the communal steering wheel known as the Campus Compact, a statement of principles that the college adopted in 1996 – principles that each student and employee inherently adopt when committing to Denison. Some of us forgot how clearly they define the college’s core values, “foremost among these… a commitment to treat each other and our environment with unconditional respect.” Or that “civility is a cornerstone of our community.” Or that “we celebrate diversity as a strength from which we grow and learn from one another.” And some of us just stood by, instead of taking “responsibility for acting in accordance with… and for reporting violations of (our community’s) standards and rules.”
But last autumn, we found the chance – not to mention the absolute need – to collectively embrace the premises of our Campus Compact and proclaim the type of place Denison University should be. We came together not in the roles of students, faculty, and staff, but in the roles of citizens, genuinely invested in the life of our community.
The opportunity came as a result of several unfortunate allegations and incidents, when someone – or some several – among our ranks uttered nigger against African American students. Someone chose to scrawl faggot – and worse – on residence hall doorways. They mindlessly vandalized the property of others and the college – a less-targeted but still blatant disregard for our community’s values. They committed these acts, while others among us simply allowed them to occur. And in ways less deliberate or obvious, we allowed ourselves to perpetuate stereotypes about people because of the color of their skin, where they came from, or whom they considered a friend. And, as we should expect on an increasingly diverse campus, there were things said or done by which we meant no offense – a professor’s question to an African American student about the black view of a particular issue, white students who donned black face to dress as their favorite NFL coach or athlete for Halloween – but we offended nonetheless.
However infrequent or unrelated or even unintentional the offenses seemed, the actions of a few took their toll. The repetition amplified a sense of marginalization among a growing number of Denisonians who felt that they couldn’t have the same peaceful and rewarding opportunities as others because of what made them different from the majority – Denisonians who took the same tests, who lived by the same rules, who paid the same financial and physical and mental dues, and who began to feel the college community wasn’t doing enough in response.