Suggestive Moves Provoke Questionable Response

Suggestive moves are by definition not declarative. And so, University of Oregon Board Trustee Ginevra Ralph should be commended for asking what certain cheerleading moves are meant to convey. As one of the new leaders of Oregon’s flagship university, she demonstrated educational excellence on multiple levels.

Universities across the country recently have been embroiled in a constellation of issues that point toward sexual predation. This is a nettlesome issue across society but it’s more complicated on campuses, where all sorts of expression and freedom are being explored. Creating a single “student body” monolith doesn’t help.

There can be no single standard for student body behavior when half its population is striving to become young adults and the other half is choosing to act like children. To make matters more confusing, many or most of those students straddle that adult-child divide, switching sides as circumstances change.

Add alcohol and assorted pressures (peer, parental, financial, and academic) and you have a tinderbox set beside a spark collection.

If anyone has made a case that graduated quarterback Marcus Mariota and expelled basketball player Brandon Austin are roughly equivalent in anything but athletic maturity, I haven’t heard it. But that’s not the conversation we’re having. Instead, we agree that the line is blurry between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. We’re more comfortable with blurry lines than with blurry people.

But the strategy to clarify what’s blurry is the same. If it’s unclear, you ask questions. So when the topic turned to sexual assault and campus culture, that’s what Ralph did: “Where does the [cheerleaders’] … bump-and-grind, pelvic-thrusting dancing … fit in this context?”

Inquiring minds should be encouraged to ask questions. The leaders of those inquiring minds should do the same.

It cannot have been easy. No other trustee followed her lead. She wasn’t sticking to the script. Ralph asked her colleagues to engage in a genuine — unrehearsed — discussion about the issue. Now, thanks to the attention her question has brought, they probably will have that discussion.

Leaders often want to skip the discussion, head straight into deliberating specific proposed solutions and then deciding which solution to support. Discussions are harder to predict and much harder to control. They can slow the orderly decision-making process considerably. But no one benefits when an ineffective decision is reached efficiently.

The UO Board of Trustees has been asked repeatedly to be more open and transparent. Ralph showed them the way this week. Other board members have probably already done this in private, but they should publicly thank Ralph for that momentary discomfort her openness created. They should embrace dissent and engage the discussion.

Students will be watching, including ones who want to learn how to suggest adult responsibility in opposition to their peers’ adolescent tomfoolery.

This “teachable moment” is a new one. Never in the University of Oregon’s history has its leadership been both local and collective. Ralph spoke as one-of-many, not as one-of-one. She led with a question, carefully posed — not a dictate.

Most important decisions that most of us will make in life are the product of just the sort of give-and-take that Ralph invited her colleagues to undertake. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but many of the subtle signals people exchange around sexuality would benefit from exactly this same sort of verbal give-and-take.)

Navigating group dynamics to reach collective decisions is an essential skill for the good citizens our university hopes to train. Those skills will be on full display during the next Board of Trustees meeting. If they do it well, they’ll be earning that trust, making it easier for the students and teachers to follow. Trustees need trusters.

As author James Surowiecki showed in “The Wisdom of Crowds,” we’re calculably smarter together than any of us are individually.

Intelligence is good, but it cannot match the power of open dialogue, shared intent, and community values. Again, Ralph has shown the way. Asking hard questions is where it all begins, and the university should be the best place for that beginning to occur.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs