Back in 1977, due to under-enrollment, a small public college was deeply in debt. The Washington State legislature, wanting to cut its losses, proposed to close it. The college, designed to be a stark alternative, had no stringent academic requirements, instead encouraging students to love learning, with faculty and students collaborating in a relaxed woodland setting.
It attracted mostly East Coast “hippies” and quite a few prestigious faculty anxious to leave the Ivy League rigmarole. At the time, Washington State students avoided it like the plague.
In a strategic move to avoid imminent closure, The Evergreen State College board of directors, hired a new president—one of its founders—the highly respected, former Washington State Governor Daniel Evans.
Just after he arrived on campus, President Evans was a keynote speaker at a dinner honoring some student scholars from across Washington State. I was among the students there and we’d been asked to speak briefly about our college and intended major. I listened as the other students proudly spoke of their reputable universities and advanced fields of study.
As a sophomore at the wildly unpopular Evergreen State College, I loved being part of the challenge to save it, so I stood and gave a three-minute impassioned promotional speech. Game on.
The next week I was summoned to the President’s office…. for his personal thanks.
About three months later during preparations for President Evan’s official investiture at Evergreen, I received another call. The president had asked if I’d be willing to speak at the ceremony, representing the Evergreen students. Absolutely!!
The event was tremendously impressive—fitting for a former governor. Seattle TV reporters were in a section of seats. Dignitaries from across the nation, along with the disgruntled legislators wanting to close the college were right in front. Politics at its finest.
The college did an admirable job hiding most of the long-haired hippies while ushering everyone into the VIP invitation-only event.
It was a night to remember. But what I never anticipated was the vitriolic attack from my fellow students afterwards. It started in the school newspaper, then caught the notice of the city newspapers.
I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the students felt that I was a mere public relations prop and had no right to represent them.
They had a valid point. But did I have to be publically shamed? It wasn’t what they said, it was how they said it.
This is a long story to make a brief point: There’s plenty of public shaming on social media—from politics to patriotism. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but freedom of rudeness is a choice.
I like Isaac Newton’s definition of tact: “the art of making a point without making an enemy.”