In a short video that was posted online late Wednesday, a student advisor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia is seen confronting a black student in the college’s advisement office, telling him that continuing to wait for an advisor after being told to fill out an appointment form is “harassment.” Twice in the thirty-second video the advisor — who is white — threatens to call campus police, and the video ends with her leaving to do so. The clip has gone viral on social media today with the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanKSU, and Kennesaw State has tweeted that “a formal complaint process” is underway.
The student’s demeanor is calm and agreeable throughout the video, and there is no indication that he has caused any disruption — he’s sitting in a chair in what appears to be the office’s public waiting room.
The student, Kevin Bruce, has posted an account of the context of the incident. In it, he says that he had previously attempted to resolve an advisement issue by email without success, and that when he was told to speak to an assistant he said he’d prefer to wait for the department’s head academic advisor, Margaret Tilley. (The woman in the video, Abby Dawson, is another member of the advising staff.)
Now, it’s possible that there’s some backstory here that would render Dawson’s actions more comprehensible, but it seems relevant that a number of KSU students have gone public today with complaints about similar behavior on her part. At least two of those students have posted what they say are screenshots from recent email exchanges.
One of the screenshots is of a complaint a student lodged against Dawson just three weeks ago. In it, the student — a recent tranfser — says that he showed up at 12:47 for a drop-in appointment scheduled for a 12-1 window, and that Dawson berated him for lateness and failure to follow protocol, refusing to help him or give him her name.
In the other exchange a student writes to Dawson saying that she’s waitlisted for a summer class that’s a pre-requisite for two she needs to take in the fall, and asks — politely — whether it would be possible to take the three as co-reqs instead. When Dawson responds that this would violate policy, the student responds with a quick “Thanks! So even if it’s going to put me behind there are no overrides?” Dawson replies, “I will not continue to answer the same question.”
Again, it’s possible that these accounts are fabricated or doctored or incomplete in some way. But on their face, they seem to show a pattern in which Dawson repeatedly reacts to minor breaches of etiquette or protocol with abrasiveness and aggression. It’s not unreasonable to show up at a quarter to one for a quick consult that was slated for a one-hour window ending fifteen minutes later. It’s not unreasonable to ask whether there might a way around an academic regulation that’s threatening to stall your progress toward your degree. It’s not unreasonable to offer to wait in an administrator’s office until she has time to see you in person rather than trying to deal with an aide.
Administrators don’t have a responsibility to accede to these kinds of requests — some rules have no loopholes, some late arrivals can’t be accommodated, and some admins don’t have time to deal with unexpected drop-ins. But to say that you can’t always accommodate a student’s wishes doesn’t mean that you have the right to respond abusively.
And it absolutely doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to bring in the police. We’ve seen over and over in recent months how quickly and unexpectedly interactions with the police can turn deadly — particularly, though by no means exclusively, for young black men. When you escalate a minor disagreement with someone by calling the cops, you’re putting them at risk. Risk of violence, risk of death, and risk of unwarranted arrest and imprisonment. When a student advisement professional does it, it’s an appalling breach of their duty to the students of their campus.
Maybe there’s an explanation for all this. Maybe none of it is what it seems. If that’s the way it shakes out, I’ll be first on line to say so.
But right now it all looks very bad.