WHEN THE CHANCELLOR of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst walked into a meeting on Beacon Hill last Wednesday, he expected to pacify state legislators irked by his failure to discipline lawbreakers on the state's largest public campus. By the time he walked out 90 minutes later, David K. Scott had done more to infuriate the Legislature than any UMass official in memory. Beacon Hill has traditionally allowed UMass-Amherst to be run as its chancellor sees fit. After Scott's performance last week, that hands-off policy may be changing.
It's about time.
The Goodell Administration Building at UMass was occupied for a week — just one more act of lawlessness on a campus where such acts have grown routine.
UMass-Amherst may be the most lawless college campus in America. UMass administrators are almost certainly the most spineless. Illegal invasions and building takeovers have become common occurrences at the university. The weeklong occupation of the Goodell Administration Building in March - which crippled the audio-visual department, delayed graduate applications, and disrupted the controller's office — was only the latest act of criminal trespass at a school where criminal trespass has grown routine.
At least 25 times since 1972, offices at UMass-Amherst have been stormed and occupied, usually by radical student groups with extremist demands. Over time the demands have changed - from the expulsion of military recruiters (1975) to the preservation of coed bathrooms (1981) to explicit racial quotas in admissions, hiring, and funding (1988, 1992, 1996, 1997). What hasn't changed is the university's response: The lawbreakers are almost never disciplined, and their demands are nearly always met.
It is hard to know which is worse: the fact that UMass administrators routinely give in to the campus militants, or that they do it with such obsequiousness. Year after year, takeover after takeover, UMass-Amherst bends over backward to appease the demonstrators.
When Chancellor Henry Koffler's office was occupied for three days in 1980 (by protesters demanding more Spanish programming on the UMass radio station), he promised that no one would be penalized. When 200 students barricaded themselves inside the New Africa House in 1988, Chancellor Joseph Duffy brought them a fruit basket. But the height of appeasement was reached during the Goodell occupation in March, when UMass provost Patricia Crosson actually applauded the trespassers for breaking the law.
"University education is about freedom of expression and the balance between civil disobedience and the enforcement of laws and policies," she wrote to the faculty. "Though unplanned and disruptive, these activities do provide learning opportunities for our students."
The university ombudsman followed up Crosson's Orwellian memo with one of his own, hailing the invasion as "fundamentally educational in nature" and urging instructors to grant "soft responses" to the students who were involved.
All of this was too much for state Representative Dennis Murphy, a Springfield Democrat. In a bristling letter to Scott, he suggested that instead of negotiating with students who take over buildings, UMass ought to suspend them and revoke their financial aid. Scott replied diplomatically, agreeing "that a firm line must be taken" and offering to meet with Murphy.
But it wasn't only Murphy who was aroused. When Scott arrived on Wednesday, 36 legislators and staff members were waiting for him — and 71 new signatures had been added to Murphy's letter.
For an hour and a half, the chancellor was grilled on his handling of the Goodell takeover. "I would do things differently now," he said at several points. Murphy asked him if he endorsed the provost's opinion that building occupations make good "learning opportunities" — an opinion that Murphy called "the most idiotic expression of educational theory I've ever heard." Scott said he didn't.
Yet his disdain for those in the room was palpable. He said UMass would review its rules for handling illegal takeovers — but when asked to consult with the Legislature before finalizing any new policy, he bluntly refused. The chancellor's demeanor "was very aloof," Murphy recalled. "His tone seemed to be: Have your say, but nothing's going to change."
What especially galled legislators was Scott's casual view of student lawbreaking. "He told us that it happened in the '30s and the '60s and now in the '90s, and we should just accept it as a normal part of the academic cycle," said Representative Jacqueline Lewis of Bridgewater. "He kept telling us it was part of the student culture."
Of course, the vast majority of UMass students don't storm buildings or engage in illegal violence. It is scandalous that those who do are pampered instead of punished. Even more scandalous is that the Legislature has never interfered.
Perhaps now it will.
"We provide an extraordinary amount of money to UMass," House Speaker Thomas Finneran said on Friday. "For some reason, the administrators there have a very complacent attitude about letting students take over buildings and not resisting. This is public property. The taxpayers paid for those buildings. Do they think the Legislature is just going to sit back and watch?"
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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