Quis custodes ipsos custodiet? Who guards the guardsmen themselves?
Originally appearing in the Roman poet Juvenal’s “Satires,” the phrase in this context referred to notions of marriage fidelity. The overarching message suggests the impracticality of having individuals (“guards”) ensure the proper behavior of another, when those individuals themselves are capable of being corrupted.
However, from its original context the phrase alone has taken on a much more significant message. Appearingin both political messages about the accountability of organizations to references in popular culture such as in Alan Moore’s graphic novel, “Watchmen,” it has come to be known as, “Who watches the watchmen themselves?”
In this context it can refer to any form of power or influence that goes unchecked. Duke’s self-proclaimed unwatched watchman is The Chronicle’s Editorial Board.
Now what exactly is the Editorial Board? It is made up of a group of about 10-15 undergraduate students with a couple graduate students thrown in the mix. This group then comes together about twice a week to write five editorials that seek to capture the soul of campus.
It is commendable that they seek to address the problems associated with a variety of campus organizations and dialogues but frankly over the past year they have failed to do so.
I am not laying the blame on the individuals who currently serve on the Board. Rather, I hope to identify distinct problems with the content published in the editorials. Furthermore, before I begin, I would like to make it clear that I did apply for the Editorial Board and I was unfortunately not granted membership. However, as I will go on to discuss, the reason I applied was in the hope that I could bring to light and improve some of the following issues.
Regarding their research methods, “thoughtful opinions on a variety of issues” are great for the student body but only when the Editorial Board backs them up with research. I recognize that I am not qualified to speak on all of their editorials. Nevertheless, I have chosen “Is pre-professionalism a prerequisite?” and “Giving independent housing meaning” as two pieces to exemplify a major issue.
In “Is pre-professionalism a prerequisite?” the Editorial Board makes the broad argument that because students are pre-professional they inherently sacrifice aspects of their liberal arts education. Putting aside whether or not pre-professional majors actually dominate the student body, the question remains as to whether pre-professional students are actually giving up opportunities like “DukeEngage and the Peace Corps.”
If the Editorial Board did their research, I think they would find that, if anything, pre-professional students seek out opportunities to complement their major. From my own perspective, despite being pre-medicine, I have participated in DukeEngage, taken a foreign language, majored in the classics and conducted research abroad in Italy for my thesis in the classics. Pre-professionalism does not make students any less valuable to this University. After all, Duke as a university should support their students in whatever career they pursue.
Moreover, according to an exit survey conducted on the Class of 2011, while Financial Services and Consulting were part of the top five hiring industries, Education, Engineering/Technology and Government were also all dominant career paths. These industries also do not even include the fact that almost a fourth of the Class of 2011 went on to further their education and that close to another 27 percent were either unsure of what they wanted to do or still looking for some form of employment. Ultimately, broad, unsubstantiated claims such as the ones presented in “Is pre-professionalism a prerequisite?” serve only to mislead students and to do not provide any constructive voice to campus dialogue.
In a less complicated manner, “Giving independent housing meaning” contained multiple errors that have since been corrected (see “Correction” note at the bottom of their editorial). These errors range in severity from not knowing who actually came up with the idea for a Living-Learning Community to mislabeling the community as just an extension of the Focus program. The problem lies in the fact that errors such as these could easily have been prevented had the Editorial Board actually reached out to the individuals or organizations associated with these communities or perceptions.
Moving beyond research, the tone and implicit bias of certain editorials further separates the written work of the Editorial Board from their overarching objective. Take, for example, one of their goals expressed in “Join the Editorial Board.”
“Our process is simple…We brainstorm the topics that matter most to students…we then define, examine, and pick apart issues, arguing until our debate comes to a head.”
If such debates are occurring, then where are the debates expressed in its writing? Each piece should be collective statement, which offers readers two, or more, perspectives and one consensus opinion from the Editorial Board. As it stands, the Board does not give students the opportunity to ponder various sides of an argument. It essentially implies to them what they should or should not be thinking, written without revealing any debate leading to the unanimous opinion.
Take the issue of safe spaces. As a moderate and someone with at least a modicum amount of common sense, I think the Editorial Board and I are both in agreement on two issues. First, that safe spaces already exist inherently on campus in the form of various social groups. Second, that safe spaces can be advantageous and do not imply the elimination of opposing views or the censoring of professors.
My issue, however, is not with the specific content of this editorial but the tone. It is far from objective and very easy to see on which side of the political spectrum the Editorial Board falls.
For this example, let us specifically use “Exploring safe spaces and freedom.” Over the course of the editorial, it is heavily implied that anyone who disagrees with the notion of safe spaces is unable to comprehend notions of “common decency.” The editorial expresses one extreme and fails to take into account those who might in fact believe that safe spaces should extend to classrooms and go beyond “common decency.”
I believe it is the Editorial Board’s responsibility to choose to include both extremes of the spectrum and explain the reasoning for siding with one end. It is much better to frame editorials in the context of an objective and clarifying discussion than a condescending attack from one perspective of an argument.
I will touch just briefly on representation. In “Take the bait,” the Editorial Board jokes about not having any Greek members. For an organization that claims it tries to capture student voices, I find it highly ironic that they toy with not having a single member from organizations that represent close to thirty-five to forty percent of undergraduates in the spring.
Rather than point fingers at organizations like Duke Student Government, perhaps the Editorial Board could begin to work with these organizations towards a mutual student interest.
If it is ultimately the case that the Editorial Board believes that it has been capturing the voice of all students, then the Editorial Board is only exacerbating the misperceptions already construed in the minds of Duke students. How can they seek to accurately capture the plethora of diverse voices on this campus? On the other hand, if they are just seeking to give voice to some already misconstrued perceptions, then the Editorial Board is in fact part of the problem they pretend to address.
Either way, if progress is stagnant, the Editorial Board will continue to be the unwatched watchmen of this University. They hold as much influence as an entity can in the dominant publication and collection of voices on this campus. I only hope that as they continue to address issues important to students, they illustrate a greater variety of arguments and provide some transparency on their meetings. The Editorial Board has the potential to create so much good on this campus; I only hope they do so.
George Mellgard is a Trinity senior. His column, “esse quam videri,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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