Rogers State University administrators say they updated the student handbook for the first time in five years after a student’s free speech dispute grabbed the attention of a national advocacy group.
“We’re trying to look at things and make them better,” said Tobie Titsworth, vice president for RSU’s student affairs office. “We’re not opposed to students having their freedom of expression.”
Lynn Brown, the student activities director who was hired in June, left the university on Oct. 18 after student Renee Morse-Heenan told the New York-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that Brown was violating her speech rights.
FIRE criticized Brown for refusing to let Morse-Heenan distribute fliers and blocking her attempts to create a student rights organization. The group also called some of the university’s student activities policies unconstitutional.
Administrators would not comment on the allegations against Brown, but did say they have begun recording unwritten policies about the student government association and its level of control over student organizations, a key topic in FIRE’s criticism.
“We don’t want to limit freedom of speech,” said Jimmy Hart, public relations coordinator. “We want to help students get their views out. We want to be seen as a helping mechanism.”
While RSU has never allowed administrators to censor fliers based on content — FIRE’s main complaint against Brown — officials are looking at installing student bulletin board around campus not subject to the normal oversight.
Students typically require permission to post fliers on school bulletin boards.
Officials also emphasized support for Morse-Heenan’s student rights organization, which was approved last month and now uses a newsletter and campus activities to inform students of their rights. The Organization for Advocating Student Rights on Campus has already helped students work out problems with administrators.
“I think it’s fantastic what Renee is doing,” said Misty Smith, director of student development. “I think students are of course more comfortable going to other students with problems.”
Reaching out to students is traditionally a responsibility of the student affairs office, but Smith welcomes the help. The organization’s first newsletter tells students that they cannot use cell phones in class against professors’ wishes, but urges them to not be afraid to create a controversial student organization if they want — it’s legal.
“That newsletter in itself is a good way to get information out to students,” Smith said.
But officials hope students continue to view the student affairs office as the ultimate frontline support in disputes with administrators, no matter what the issue. With no formal grievance filed about Morse-Heenan’s complaints, administrators say they were left scratching their heads when FIRE intervened.
Students can complain about faculty, staff or policy by requesting a grievance form from the student affairs office. They can also schedule a direct meeting with any administrator, right up to university President Larry Rice.
“I didn’t know about any of this until (receiving) the letter from FIRE,” Titsworth said. “We wish there was a way for people to know they can come to us and don’t have to go to organizations like FIRE.”
She said a student once complained about campus trees being cut down and the student affairs office solved the problem. That student could have gone to an environmental group with much less success, Smith said.
“Dr. Rice never fails to remind us in any meeting with the faculty and administration why we’re here. We don’t have a job if we don’t have students,” Titsworth said. “If we didn’t have students, we’d all be out on the street looking for a job.”
Administrators say that’s why they have been stepping up their efforts to encourage involvement in student activities and interaction with administrators in recent years.
This year, the new Blue Up program offers students rewards like t-shirts, flash drives and large pizzas from Little Caesar’s in exchange for attending RSU athletic events or events hosted by the university’s campus activities team.
And students have long been able to communicate directly with the administration through the Vice President’s forum, a segment of each public Student Government Association meeting when students convey concerns or questions to the SGA vice president, who takes them to administrators.
“It’s my absolute favorite part of SGA meetings,” Smith said.
It’s all about helping students advance their careers and nurturing their independence and leadership. That’s the point of a college education, Smith said.
That’s also why universities are the freest, most open places on the planet, Titsworth added.
“What we do with our students at RSU is we intentionally give students leadership skills,” he said. “A lot of people will wait till they are 30 or 40 to say, ‘I think I’ll run for city council now.’ We want students to have those skills now.”