MCSG removals disrespect the liberal arts experience

I’m in my fifth (and final) year at the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus. I have a fascination with communities surrounding higher education and, as a result, I read a lot of college student newspapers. Since I began reading The Mac Weekly last spring, it’s painted a detailed picture of a fascinating community not dissimilar to my own at UMM. I found the discussion surrounding the forced MCSG resignations particularly notable.

At UMM, there are no academic restrictions on holding leadership positions beyond academic suspension. At UMM, you are put on academic probation when you end a semester with a term or cumulative GPA below 2.0 and are suspended when you end a semester with a term and cumulative GPA below 2.0 while on probation. Reading these articles, I’d sighed in relief at my good fortune.

Despite my current status on academic probation, I’ve stayed a part of my community. During spring semester of my second year and my third year, I served as Editor-in-Chief of our student newspaper, The University Register. Now, I sit on the MPIRG Board of Directors, and I chair our campus’ Consultative Committee (chairship of a Campus Assembly committee being a privilege received by only one other student in the past decade). At monthly meetings of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, I’m one of two normal attendees representing Morris. The other is our Chancellor.

I might not rule academics, but I’m reaping the benefits of my liberal arts education.

But two weeks back, our campus Student Affairs Committee heard about a proposal that will be discussed over the coming months keeping students on academic probation and/or students whose GPA is below some number (2.0, 2.3, and 2.5 were discussed) out of student leadership roles.

When I heard about it, I thought of the conflict at Macalester, and I subsequently had a lot of feelings.
I graduated from high school with a 2.7. Other factors allowed me entrance into the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus, but the sign was always there.

I came here for a degree in mathematics in fall of 2009 and am taking a fifth year now to realize that degree. After my first semester, I had a GPA that fell below 2.0 but above 1.9. I was on academic probation. After I returned home from my first academic year in Morris, I anticipated that I hadn’t done enough and would be on academic suspension; I had visions of taking away a year of gaining friends and personal growth, spending it maybe taking classes at a nearby MnSCU two-year college.

I was wrong. It was a miracle. I don’t even know where my life would be right now if I had needed to take a year off. I would have never fallen in love with The University Register and suddenly have become exposed to the sense of community that flows through a college campus.

It’s not like I found god after that, though. I suffer from an intersection of ADHD, anxiety and depression. Every single semester of school I have been through has been a close call. Anxiety caused my term GPA for last fall to land below 2.0, landing me a spot on academic probation. This past spring, I dropped nearly all of my classes right before finals week because of a terrible bout of depression. I remain on academic probation.

I don’t like engaging with professors in my discipline. Seeing them makes me feel guilty. Every meeting with my advisor is like hearing a rant about how much of a disappointment I am. Attending weekly meetings with professors feels about as good as taking your scheduled trips to your courthouse piss test. I feel like the math faculty hates me as much as I hate myself for not being able to get my fucking work done.

But I thrive in student activities. I’ve discovered a reason to not hate every moment of my undergraduate career. I’ve found a way to learn without constantly feeling like a failure. My UMM degree will indicate I’ve become not just a mathematician and a scholar, but an activist, a journalist, a writer, a politician, a manager and a leader.

But yes, I still struggle. Early this October, I posted a frantic, desperate note on Facebook when I was terrified for my future after numerous anxiety attacks coincided with two months’ worth of Xanax having gone missing. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get any more from my psychiatrist. Every message of goodwill I received made me burst into tears. I even got a message from Vice Chancellor Sandy Olsen-Loy reaching out, and I met with her later in the week. I was very touched that a Vice Chancellor actually noticed my strife and reached out. That week involved imagining myself without a college degree in 10 years and many other scenarios I thought I might have to live through. I investigated all of my options, from academic suspension to trying my damndest to pull out of courses. Some of these options, by the way, UMM and the University very intentionally do not advertise.

I eventually did withdraw from some classes, though not all, bringing me below the eight-credit threshold to serve on Campus Assembly. I have no qualms whatsoever with my removal as per the qualifications for membership outlined in the UMM Constitution. Thankfully, this was the only position I lost, although, oddly, Director of Student Activities David Swenson saw fit to tell Morris Campus Student Association President Hazen Fairbanks to notify me of my removal, even telling her exactly how many credits I’m currently enrolled for.

I not only believe that developing a policy restricting student leadership based on academic success is a tragic idea but am, in fact, upset and offended by it to my very core. Following the meeting in which I learned about this possibility, I found myself so distraught that I was physically shaking. With my struggles in academics relentlessly persisting, anyone like me would have their one route to success in college blocked.

Why am I offended?

I am offended because those reportedly constructing the policy, Olsen-Loy and Swenson, have become not just people I work with, but friends. I have had numerous conversations with them this year, some of them very personal. Knowing my situation and dealing with me so often, I’m sure that while discussing the policy I must have at least popped into mind more than once.

I am offended because I recently wrote an article about how the University can make students feel unwanted by treating them like a GPA and, thanks to my status as a fifth-year student, a blemish. Olsen-Loy read that article and assured me that I am wanted and valued by this institution. Hearing about this proposed rule, I have never felt more unwanted by UMM.

I am offended at the prospect that my identity as a struggling student who thrives outside of academics is something that may no longer be found acceptable.

I am offended because upon hearing of the Macalester controversy, I could proudly say that UMM was free of this problem.
I no longer feel like telling them about our relatively incredible similar governance system and feeling proud as my community stands above all the others.

I am offended because just this weekend I told students from other Minnesota colleges about Morris and they thought it sounded like a paradise that they had never before heard of, expressing genuine regret at not having applied. I no longer feel that pride.

I am offended because this is paternalistic. To faculty and administrators, I am touched when you care about me and the things that go wrong for me, but you have to realize that while you might form some of these relationships and expressing your concern is always appreciated, many of us aren’t looking for more parents. Unrequested paternalism and hearing you jump to conclusions about the roots of our failures is belittling and disrespects students as members of your community.

I am offended because while I’m taking out student loans, people are telling me why I’m here. I’ll have you know that if
I were here first and foremost for my academics, I probably wouldn’t even muster up the passion or care to finish school.

It’s baffling how UMM administration wasn’t even aware that Macalester, one of their 14 comparison schools, was having a conflict regarding policies like this. Do we not think to look at the world around us? Must we relearn the lessons others have learned the hard way?

Measures like these further stigmatize low GPA or academic probation, each of which already causes me self hatred every day of my academic career. If passed, I will no longer be particularly proud to be receiving that degree from UMM, where until now I had always felt not like a statistic, but a person.

No appeals process would be satisfactory. Forcing already discouraged students to go through an appeals process is just a bad solution. For many students for whom cocurricular involvement is supposedly a hindrance to academic achievement, removing their co-curriculars will remove their only positive relationship with their community, and with that, personal investment to stay a part of that community. Instead of negative reinforcement to maintain GPA, make better efforts to treat mental health and offer disability services. Maybe then students will feel cared for rather than simply antagonized, with their problems being even further stigmatized.

I understand that there are numbers that administrators want to keep up. I understand that most people think of a degree as a completion of courses, but at colleges like Mac and UMM, it means so much more. And sometimes I wonder if we’re a dying breed, but some of us actually care about the liberal arts experience.