Portland State University is like no other campus in Oregon and it sure is treated that way. It is urban, diverse, and largely open to the public. The city Park Blocks and streetcar trolleys are among the principal attractions that lend validation to this point. Students may take refuge in classrooms, recreation areas and offices, but for the most part, stepping outside any of these buildings means exposing ourselves to whomever happens to be walking by or passing through. The pros and cons of this reality are many and it is hard to say which side outweighs the other. Portland is as vibrant as any city in the western United States and its citizens as vivid as any city could wish for.
The variety of lifestyles, goals and practices exuded by PSU’s inhabitants all mesh together to create an intricately woven tapestry spun of beautiful colors that display what it means to be alive in the northwest. When snags occur, or something becomes off color, we are reminded that there are imperfections in the tapestry of life and at times we may feel it necessary to remove them. The point of this cheesy metaphor is to pose a simple question. On an open campus that values diversity and experience, whom do we welcome and whom do we shun?
It is hard not to condemn the members of society who come on campus and detract from the sense of united community and the peaceful ambiance we cultivate. Every day it is possible to have an unwanted encounter, and I am personally a little tired of being asked for spare change. If panhandlers had seen the last report card for the funding of higher education, they would probably know that all we college kids ever have is change, and most of the time we cannot spare any. I would not request their removal, however, because I really wish I did have the means to help all those who have a genuine need. On the other hand, I am tired of seeing older men lurking around the buildings, calling out vulgar remarks to young women. Predators are a real threat on campus and I know that we are sick of being preyed upon. Is it possible to draw, or even see, the line between whom we accept as a harmless passerby and a dangerous one? Probably not.
Last week in the Park Blocks, we got a taste of the controversy that can occur when the right to free speech is exercised in the public arena. Religious radicals came to a place of learning and tolerance bringing their messages of hate and hypocrisy. I have heard from some of you who were personally attacked by their verbal messages of racism, sexism and basic discrimination. It was painful to hear, and I am sure that it makes all of us angry to be so blatantly violated. We pay thousands of dollars to study on this beautiful campus and deserve to be respected by our peers and colleagues.
One of the basic rights in this country, however, is the mandated right to free speech for all. I believe that the instigation of physical violence is never OK, but it made me very proud to see some of you exercise your right to retaliate through speech. Signs with positive messages affirming our right to existence, whatever our belief system or lifestyle, were more in tune with the spirit of Portland State than any expression of intolerance ever would be. I want to thank you for your strength and determination on that day.
If it were possible, which it is not, for Portland State to become a closed campus, would we even want this to happen? I think our nature as Portlanders and students would cause us to reject this idea because of the message it would send. No one should be denied access to the atmosphere an institution of higher education can create. If certain characters choose to exploit the acceptance we appear to extend to all, then we must meet their heinous actions with community-based solidarity.
What are the benefits of a non-PSU-related people on our campus? You never know whom you are going to meet. Foreign tourists often come to Portland State either through curiosity or by taking wrong turns in their exploration of the city. American tourists find their way onto our campus as well and they are often the easiest to spot. Making the sprint between Shattuck and Lincoln, you’ve probably come across folks with large, unfolded TriMet maps, huge umbrellas on a sunny day (obviously our reputation precedes us) and questions like, “So, uh, is it true you guys make a lot of beer here?” You might reply, “Yes, it’s true, Portland is the microbrewery capital of the world, but dude, seriously, I’m just trying to get to class.” These interactions are neutral in substance, with no large amount of conflict or quality in them. We can find value, however, in meeting someone whose perspective is not by and large represented on campus. Someday, we might even be able to rustle up a real conservative.
We cannot forget the human side of public life. Many people choose to visit our campus for the simple fact that they know they will be part of a community, a bustling throng of artists and scholars living together in peaceful harmony. Some are simply waiting for the chance to attend this school. I know I wandered through once or twice as an adolescent. It is for these people that Portland State should keep its arms wide open, welcoming the community we work so hard to improve. We must let knowledge and an accommodating spirit serve our city.