Who Shapes Campus Culture?

There’s been a lot of conversation about campus culture lately.

A lot of this conversation has centered around the sexual assaults that allegedly occurred last September at two different fraternities. This heated debate focuses on the causes of the culture ingrained in fraternity and sorority life, the alcohol culture and the rather nebulous concept of a society-wide “rape culture.”

More important than the conversation about who is to be blamed for creating these cultures, however, is the conversation derived from deciding who is responsible for changing them.

The most evident answer, and the one most often pointed to, is that campus culture is shaped by the students who attend MSU. Though only here a handful of years a piece, a population of 15,000 students is the cornerstone of university life. Coming from different backgrounds, interests, studies and fundamental ways of thinking, campus culture is a disconjointed combination and collision of all these different lives. Therefore, if students want to change campus culture, it is up to us to change ourselves.

Yet I fear that though this is the easiest answer, it is also an incomplete one. After all, in an institution with a 125 year history, how much impact can a student really have in four (or, let’s be honest, five or six) years here? Plus, coming from all different backgrounds, any facade of unity is short lived. We can change ourselves all we like, but without mobilization and direction, the change fails in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

So maybe it’s not all students who change campus culture, but the student leaders who self-select themselves to. The students who pour their blood, sweat and tears back into campus life and organizations to facilitate conversation and hope to make an impact beyond themselves. But in this I fear that without connecting to the students beyond our immediate friends and organizations, we falsely represent student culture, and therefore cannot change it.

As much as culture is built from the bottom up, there’s a legitimate argument to it being shaped from the top down, namely by staff, faculty and administration. While students are here fleetingly, some faculty and staff members have been here 10, 20 or even 30 or more years. These are the people who can re-write institutional policy with the stroke of a pen, and can hire, fire, demote or promote those that share their vision. Even so, changing a policy is much different than winning the hearts and minds of the collective community. If student leaders are out-of-touch, is there any way a further removed administrator can be connected?

To fail to consider the other factors shaping MSU’s culture would be equally ignorant. Bozeman in itself is a community that constantly intersects with campus life. Major events, both national and international, have vast and unforeseen circumstances on day-to-day life.

Obviously the answer to what shapes campus culture is exceedingly complicated and is decided more on a case-by-case basis than by any one thing. But I think it’s a question worth exploring — especially at a time when it is in the limelight.

In the end, campus culture is more than Fraternity and Sorority Life, it’s more than student organizations and classes, it’s more than staff, administration and faculty meetings, and it’s more than the history found on dusty shelves and in the echoes of building hallways. Campus culture is a combination of all those things and it’s what connects us all. Maybe the only way to change campus culture is to be aware of campus culture and to be aware of how our actions, however small, affect the university around us.

As always, I can be reached for question and comment at editor@exponent.montana.edu.