Rice: A commentary on the lack of leadership at Northwestern

Jeff Rice, Op-Ed Contributor

After more than half a century at Northwestern, I can honestly say that I see a substantial lack of leadership on the part of President Schapiro and Provost Hagerty exemplified by the exchanges between the administration and representatives of NU Community Not Cops. Students feel unsafe and that is not a good thing.

Arriving on campus in 1968 just months after Black students seized the Bursar’s office and won their demands, I have observed first hand, repeated instances in which the University has disappointed successive generations of minority students – look at the commitment Northwestern made to students in May 1968 and measure progress in those directions. I heard from my contemporaries fifty or so years ago and I hear from my students today about incidents on campus, in classrooms, in Evanston, that students of color do not feel safe from the local police. I have seen the Evanston police roust Black people in downtown Evanston, have read about graduate students being thrown to the ground for “driving while Black” and when I co-authored an assignment with a Black friend, a professor asked me how much my friend did, but the same professor never asked how much I had done. Fifty years have elapsed, and consistent racism remains a factor in everyday life.

We have a new iteration, namely the public and non-public exchanges between the administration and those students wishing to defund the police. This goes back at least as far as the public statement offered by President Schapiro in October, which even he has admitted was poorly worded. But, was the problem one of wording? I think not. We are told repeatedly by President Schapiro that the Evanston and University police are here to protect the students, that this is their mission.

The police are responsible for enforcing the law, maintaining order, and keeping us safe. In fact, we learn that the only legitimate source of policing is the state, otherwise we are talking about militias and other such extra-legal vigilante groups. Is legitimate policing intrinsically a good or bad thing? I would argue that we cannot fully answer that question without asking about the nature of those who issue the order and what order and safety actually mean. When the police protect people from being attacked on the basis of their race or sexual orientation – guaranteed, like dissent, by the Constitution, then policing would be justified. To enforce laws protecting us from assault, theft, rape, etc. is a necessary and a good thing. Policing is always policing on behalf of an end. It does not exist in and of itself. It is more than a strawman for its critics and less than comfortable for its defenders.

But what happens when good folks do not feel safe from the police? Something is very amiss when some of our students feel very unsafe and targeted by the police. Let me just say, as an aside, that in my undergraduate days I was gassed, chased, and had guns aimed in my general direction and I did not feel safe and I am white. I can at least try and understand the feeling many students have on campus today.

I am highly skeptical that this is only a verbiage problem, which a more nuanced statement alone could correct. If I might observe that President Schapiro states, in his condemnatory statements, the students had crossed the line. It always fascinates me when the “line” is brought up. Who sets that line? Is it the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection under the law and the right of dissent? Should the line guarantee a feeling of safety? Perhaps, President Schapiro was genuinely uncomfortable or even felt threatened? But the line referred to appears to be one-sided. If students draw a line or even want to talk about a line they get nowhere. From what I read in the Daily, the Administration did not even appear at this recent meeting prepared. People in power set the lines and they tell those who are less powerful to stay on one side.

In this current conflict between the administration and some of our students, the issue is clear to me: How can Northwestern make its students safe and feel safe, both from crime and from law enforcement? If the Northwestern administration cannot appreciate these competing concerns, this double bind, then they have failed in their job of educating, nurturing, and protecting the students. They have failed at the fundamental responsibilities of leadership.

This was written in response to my watching the hour long Zoom video of a meeting between members of NUCNC and President Schapiro, CFO Johnson, Dr. Clyde Yancy, Provost Hagerty, and Associate VP Payne-Kirchmeier. The author has been deeply involved with Northwestern since 1968. And has a long memory.

Jeff Rice, WCAS ‘72
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Emeritus

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Associate VP Julie Payne-Kirchmeier. This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. The Daily regrets the error.

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