People tend to grow into the roles that are given to them. Stanley Milgram gave a famous proof of this in his prison experiment. He placed average, mentally healthy students into randomized roles of prisoners and guards and watched them grow into them with alarming and dangerous accuracy, speed and ‘success’ (the experiment was ended early because a ‘prisoner’ had a mental break down).
I bring this up to help explain my deep distress over the University’sresponse to a recently-discovered, shockingly vulgar, Redsuit Songbook. On the positive side, the University’s speedy denouncement of this book, as well as their call for an independent investigation, is completely appropriate. It is offensive – even a bit frightening – that the disturbing images in the songbook appear to have been written and repeated by McMaster students. However, I find it hard to justify the University’s choices to:
(1) Fail to consult the associated groups, the McMaster Engineering Society (MES) and Redsuits
(2) Disempower and publicly condemn the student leadership in the MES and Redsuits, and
(3) Punish and disempower the entire faculty by banning all events involving alcohol (it affects grad celebrations, EngMusical, and clubs and teams trying to attend/compete in events).
The thing is that the engineering songbook in question was not in popular use. Few seem to have even known of its existence. I find it hard to believe that many engineers would support the violent songs like “S&M Man,” which are receiving so much attention, or wish it to be perceived as part of their culture. Unfortunately, the University has not given students that option. The media, faculty comments, and the structure of punishments all send a clear message to all members or observers of Mac Eng: McMaster engineering is home to an extreme culture of sexism and violence, and it can only be controlled through drastic action. This is an unfair attack that puts anyone wishing to defend engineering culture against those condemning the songbook – an unnecessary division in a student culture that would already denounce the unusual vulgarity of many of the songs in question.
In addition to creating an unnecessary divide between the Faculty and some of its students, the University’s reaction is also deeply disempowering to its students. It dishonours the work of many hard-working, non-sexist, non-violent students who are trying to pursue their passions, nurture their ideas and contribute to their community. This is not an example of working with your students to build a better campus (and a better world). It is an example of unfeeling bureaucratic behaviour that I would hope the University is teaching its students to question, not obey.
It also upsets me that there is evidently a poor trust-relationship between the Faculty and its student leaders in the MES and Redsuits. This is something I hope both sides will work to address in the future. The lack of consultation with engineering student leadership seems to imply assumed guilt. This is damaging to a young person’s sense of self-esteem, justice and leadership.
If there had been sufficient trust, I believe the Faculty could have seized this upsetting incident as an opportunity to promote leadership, ethical behaviour, and partnership by bringing student leadership into their decision making process from the beginning. This could have kick-started a process in which Faculty and students work together to determine what changes McMaster eng culture needs, and how they will be executed. I want to go to a school that is training its students to engage in this kind of process, rather than responding to uncomfortable situations with wild attempts at control through discipline and fear.
Thankfully, there is still time for the University to switch strategies, and I hope they do. I am not sure why this authoritarian track was taken. Perhaps because the lyrics in this songbook do evoke an extremely large emotional reaction – this may not have been a rational decision. Perhaps it comes down to very low Faculty trust in student engineering leadership. Perhaps, the University has taken this as an opportunity to roll out an unrelated agenda. In any case, I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that the means justify the ends. When you act like an unfeeling bureaucracy, you may find yourself growing into the role. And when you treat students like poorly-cultured, untrustworthy children, you may discover you have created exactly that.