Each September, educational institutions across the country celebrate Constitution Day. This is a time when we commemorate that “on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created.”
This document, the Constitution of the United States, was signed by 39 delegates. The namesake of my institution, George Mason, was among three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution. “At the Constitutional Convention, Mason vigorously opposed the provision that allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808 (despite being a slaveholder himself), … he also vehemently objected to powers granted to the new government, which he believed to be ill-defined and overzealous. … His criticism of the rights given to the federal government over the people and states helped bring about the Bill of Rights as an addendum to the Constitution.”
Topics within The Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791, are still debated in our country today. Our campuses are navigating issues of freedom of expression, gun rights, due process concerns, voting rights, and citizenship.
Our roles as Student Affairs educators are to help students manage what can be the uncomfortable process of learning. We encourage students to listen to diverse perspectives, consider ideas that are different from their own, and make connections with other individuals who will stretch their comfort zones. We support and advise using words to counter words. The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1.html )
While the First Amendment provides the freedom for people to express their thoughts and opinions, how do we, as Student Affairs educators, manage that fine balance between protected speech and the safety of our communities? How do we simultaneously support students (and faculty and staff) who feel that their safety could be at risk, while also ensuring that individuals have their right to engage in free speech?
The motto of George Mason University is “freedom and learning.” George Mason University President Angel Cabrera shares that this motto “reminds us that freedom and learning are mutually interdependent. One cannot happen without the other. In order to be free—free to be who we are and who we want to become, free to act for positive change—we can never stop learning. In order to learn, we need to be free. As an academic community, we are committed to advancing both.” (https://president.gmu.edu/freedom-learning-forum/ )
As Student Affairs educators, we strive to be compassionate leaders who listen, help, and serve everyone within our communities. Our roles are not to silence, but to create opportunities and provide resources for greater learning, knowledge, and support.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” ( https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution )
Constitution Day has provided me the opportunity to reflect on our country, both past and present. The re-reading of these foundational documents have helped to renew my sense of purpose. Could it be that we, as university educators, are the people for our campus communities – establishing justice, striving for tranquility, providing safety, promoting welfare, and securing liberty in an effort to create a more perfect community, and ultimately well-rounded global citizens? I believe that we, indeed, are the people.