Language of Distance
by Kasey Mathews | published Feb. 4th, 2019
The language we use can make or break us. In crisis situations, it’s imperative to communicate decisively and efficiently. Yet language is much more than the words we use — it includes the tone, as well as non-verbal messages. Sometimes, the strongest language is that of silence.
Every community is prone to unrest and discontent, a university like RIT being no different. When this discontent comes about, the response from those in charge can mean the difference between uproar and applause.
I miss the applause.
So often crises come about and the administration seems to act like a PR machine. Any questions on the matter must be filtered through a specific office or specific individual for a response. The response is always the same, too: RIT is doing the best it can to care for their most important stakeholders — the students.
If that were true, though, students would be able to take comfort in the words of the administration. These administrators should empathize with the students, understanding their concerns more personally. It’s true that students want answers — that much is human nature — but moreover, students want to feel secure in the campus they’ve come to call home.
As transgender healthcare became a question in the summer of 2017, the administration was faced with student concern. In response, they closed ranks and filed all questions through a select few channels, leaving an unofficial moratorium on the subject for all other staff.
Democrat & Chronicle reported on the situation several times, covering student protests as well as the administration’s response — a complete defense of their actions in firing the doctor who had previously provided transgender care. It was this response that continued to stoke the flames. While informative, the stoic defense seemed to further the cold idea that administrators had little empathy for the communities of students they were supposedly putting first.
"Just saying, 'You’re safe' isn’t enough."
Reporter staff have found it exceedingly difficult to gather information from the Student Health Center, as staff are apparently prohibited from commenting on the record about even the simplest things, such as what services the center provides for students, without direct approval from their director.
While trans healthcare has now been restored at RIT, the lasting effects have left a scar on students’ trust. To worsen the distaste, RIT still advertises itself as a university that wholeheartedly supports trans healthcare and rights.
After a student's tragic and public death by suicide on Oct. 31, 2018, the administration once again took on a defensive role. Information was difficult to come by. Students learned more from one another than they ever did from the administration they’re expected to look to in times of crisis.
Faculty and staff didn’t have the luxury of the students’ network. They were largely unaware of the events that had transpired the previous night and were oblivious to the effects it had on the student body. This only exacerbated those effects.
By this point, students had pieced together what had happened. They had come together and consoled one another. Nov. 1, 2018 was a solemn day.
President Munson released a “message of caring” the same day. The message began ill-put, with Munson touting RIT’s "commitment to promoting a culture of caring and support” in just the short second paragraph.
Never in the message was there a moment of personal emotion. The message, in its entirety, read as a press release more than a true message of support. It covered expansions of counseling and health services, including both those temporary expansions in response to timely need and previously scheduled expansions unrelated to the incident. Noticeably absent was any sense that Munson and the administration were in any way affected by the tragedy, or that they could at least sympathize with those who were.
While it’s important to not fake empathy for the sake of coddling support, a sympathetic tone should still be felt in times of such trauma. Instead, administrators have kept their stoic visage, serving as a news agency more than the support network they tout themselves to be.
Lack of Access
Moreover, further information and opinions beyond those that are discussed publicly are difficult to come by. In preparation for this article, an interview was scheduled with President Munson. While certainly productive in explaining some areas, such as clarifying the parents’ wishes to keep the victim’s name anonymous from the press, other areas were far more disappointing.
"Never in the message was there a moment of personal emotion."
Joining the interview unannounced was Bob Finnerty, chief communications officer for RIT. While putting forth the assurance that he was present only to listen and record soundbytes that may later be able to be utilized, Finnerty instead answered the majority of the questions in the interview, steering the discussion to a realm of positives over those of questionable negatives. For every question, a vague answer. For every attempt, a dismissive defense.
The university has a history of making the wrong move and defending it to the last breath. From trans healthcare to mental healthcare, an educational entity that should be putting its students first instead seems to be closing itself off from any sense of understanding.
I truly believe RIT has the best intentions in mind; however, their actions so often betray a lack of self-awareness that can be startling to say the least. There must be an understanding on behalf of administrators that students require more than simple information. Just as the president of the nation would console its citizens during a crisis, so too should the president of the university act to console its students. Information is important, but so is the need to feel safe and supported. Lists of avenues for support simply won’t make due. A personal touch isn’t just an added bonus — it’s necessary.
Students need safety as one of their core requirements. Just saying, “You’re safe” isn’t enough.
A language of silence, of apathy and of distance won’t suffice any longer. If administrators expect the approval of students, they have to ensure they take great care with student lives.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the students and do not reflect the views of