Not all hard college lessons learned in classroom

By Published On: March 30, 2012

STARKVILLE – This column reflects no one’s view but my own and certainly not the views of Mississippi State University. But for me, the first thing one accepts when given the privilege of working with university students on a daily basis – as I have been here at MSU – is that these students live in that tenuous region between adolescence and adulthood.
In great measure, I have been amazed at the difference in student attitudes and behavior since my own college days here in the 1970s. On balance, the current crop of MSU students are bright, focused, self-disciplined and hyper-aware of the fact that they will enter the world with their degrees during a down economy when competition for good jobs is fierce.

Even the fraternities that had the rowdiest of reputations during my days at MSU are far less “Animal House” and far more “The Social Network” as students see emerging technologies connecting them to a collective social media universe that my generation had yet to envision or explore. News and their daily lives unfold for them in real time on Twitter, Facebook and texts.

But one thing that has not changed since my late father’s days at Mississippi State College during the 1930s is that young adults away from home face a plethora of choices that lead to an even larger plethora of consequences. For universities, there is a difficult balancing act between allowing and fostering all the choices students have the legal right to make about their lives and conduct with the responsibility to protect and preserve a safe and nurturing campus environment for the students, faculty and staff with whom the students live and interact.

My first experience in dealing with that came during my first month on the job in the MSU Library. Part of the orientation for MSU staff members is a requirement to learn the specific emergency procedures that apply to the staffer’s area of work. On the day of the violent 2011 storms that leveled Smithville and slammed Tuscaloosa, Ala., those of us in the Mitchell Memorial Library were charged with getting students to the ground floor of the multi-story building and away from the large windows until the tornado warnings had passed.

I learned quickly that the students had minds of their own, smart phones of their own, and opinions about the weather’s danger that didn’t always mesh with the “Maroon Alert” system in which the university was urging safety. Most students cooperated, some didn’t. Some chose to walk out of the library into the teeth of the storm despite all urgings from the staff to the contrary.

I thought of that stormy day when news of the shooting on the MSU campus Saturday night began to circulate, again with the first hint of possible danger coming from the first of a rapid series of “Maroon Alert” messages. That system automatically generates text messages to students, faculty and staff regarding possible threats to the safety of the university community.

When young adults reach the age in which they are allowed by law or custom to make choices about their lives, their conduct and their safety, universities – very much like parents at home – can do everything reasonable and proper within federal and state laws and university procedures to protect students and still see them tragically fall victim to the consequences of their own choices.

Regardless, it is exceedingly difficult to teach and work with college students on a daily basis and not feel the weight of unspeakable sorrow when one of them is lost to illness, to accident, or yes, to crime. The hard fact is that Mississippi universities can do everything right, anticipate every eventuality, take every precaution that the taxpayers will fund and allow, and still experience these awful days when we are left to grieve together at the intersection of choice and consequence.

That undeniable truth makes the reality of what happened here and at Jackson State no less difficult to accept.

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Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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