More discussion is needed to unite a divided upper school

My friend and I had an interesting conversation with Dean of Students Ralph Geeza on the afternoon of the Friday of homecoming week. Before Mr. Geeza showed up, the two of us were sitting outside of Robinson Hall discussing diversity and exclusion on campus. I found that in the four years I have been at this school, I had become desensitized to many of the social problems that pervade Westminster’s student culture. The fact that I shrugged off the largely divisive problems of homecoming week so easily was testament to this.

To those who may not know, the adminstration banned American symbols during homecoming. These restrictions were created with the intention to safeguard the students and their sense of comfort on campus. However, as seems to be the case with almost anything Westminster administration decides to do, the decision to disallow the wearing of slogans was met with retaliation from much of the student body. For example, the day of homecoming week that became the most problematic was USA day. In typical fashion, the administration not-so subtly changed “USA day” to “Red White and Blue day,” in an attempt to ban symbols of the country we live in.  In lieu of “Red White and Blue day,” many students opted to raise awareness for nationwide civic inequality by wearing solid black, as a replacement for American colors or symbols. Meanwhile, another portion of students disregarded the “flag ban” claiming that they should be allowed to show pride in their country.

While both of these messages are reasonable, they created a dynamic on campus that was both unhealthy and polarizing. Ironically, this was the exact setting that dress code restrictions aimed to avoid. These problems will always exist, especially in the increasingly divided social climate of America. Rather, the question is how we can foster a healthy environment at Westminster, which is but a microcosm of the larger problems at stake.

The man on campus who is tasked with dealing with the brunt of the conflicts on campus is, of course, Mr. Geeza. I believe that the problem he is faced with can be boiled down to a single statement: you can’t please everybody. In our conversation with Mr. Geeza earlier this month, my friend and I found out that he fully understands this. He fully understands that no matter what restrictions he places or what speeches he makes to the student body, he will alienate somebody out there.

“If that’s the case,” I asked him, “and conflict will always be inevitable, is your job as dean to act more as a mediator than a problem solver?” He told me that it’s both. The way he saw it was this: if there is a problem with any student, he has to help that student, for he told me that he cares for everybody on campus equally. If there is a polarizing opinion that could potentially   even more division on campus, he has to first and foremost acknowledge it, then deal with it. If there arises a situation with two options in which one pleases more people than the other, he has to choose the former. Such is the life of the dean of students. And on that note, I believe that any antipathy directed at Mr. Geeza and Westminster administration is unwarranted, for their job is inherently impossible. Mr. Geeza, for example, is tasked with pleasing everybody in an environment where pleasing everybody is unachievable.

That being said, there are ways in which the student body can help with creating a healthier environment on campus. Mr. Geeza summed it up perfectly: we need more dialogue on campus. Students with strong opinions currently have little to no voice at Westminster. Although I believe that genuine discussion is one of the hardest things to facilitate at any place, not just Westminster, I also agree with Mr. Geeza that it is undoubtedly necessary. I believe that, like most things, discussion needs to start small. Friends need to talk to one another about their opinions about inclusion on campus. From there, dialogue can expand outwards, perhaps even to the two extreme ends of the social spectrum. The spectrum that exists, but is hardly ever acknowledged, at Westminster.

Mr. Geeza and other faculty and staff on campus have already put forth efforts towards facilitating more dialogue on campus, with opportunities for students to express themselves available with things like Student Voice and Open Mic Café. Many students still wonder if these school-created programs are truly open for discussion, or just for show. There are undoubtedly more unspoken opinions on campus that still need to be addressed, and the only way to do so is to talk about them. Students shouldn’t have to be afraid to voice their opinions, and campuses around America have created an environment of stifling censorship. Small group discussions, leadership workshops, even idle conversations on Friday afternoons are all perfect avenues for discussion.

Even if certain student voices will contradict or offend others, there are very few things that are completely irreconcilable. At the very least, if we are to have a school where everybody can feel comfortable and included, students need to have and take advantage of every possible opportunity afforded to them to express their opinions without fearing the consequences of doing so.