by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Where have all the posters gone?

This past academic year, my colleagues and I experienced a major restructuring at Emporia State University.  I have strong opinions on these events, but this is not the place for a play-by-play.  Instead, I refer readers to this thorough report by the American Association of University Professors, who conducted a detailed investigation.

While processing all of this, I can’t help but think of a seemingly-minor move made by earlier administrators back in 2012.  That was when they took away the posters.

These earlier plans included an attempt to eliminate the political science major.  We fought back and extended the program for another ten years.  But those earlier administrators had other plans, too.  They restricted the opportunities for students, faculty, and community members to put posters up around campus, directing us instead to a new online announcements site.  This never quite worked – announcements got overlooked, and the online site was not used as frequently as had been hoped.  Later, TV screens were posted on campus which featured these announcements – at least, the ones receiving administrative approval.  To be fair, this latter change marks a notable improvement, making the announcements much more visible than they were when they were online-only.

But it’s still not enough.

For me, some of the most remarkable things I see when I first visit a college or university campus are the posters.  I don’t mean neat, clean, PowerPoint and Photoshopped announcements designed to be eye-catching and broadcast on a flat screen.  I mean the old posters and handbills that cover outdoor wooden surfaces all over campus–bulletin boards, utility poles, and even roofed wooden kiosks designed specifically for the purpose.  I love the riot of concert posters, class announcements, club meeting flyers (free pizza!), political messages left and right, and perhaps most of all, those iconic home-printed advertisements for roommates or items for sale– the ones with the slits cut in the bottom so you can tear off the phone number.  These are now being replaced with QR codes.  Many of the items have dates that have already passed, and of course the surfaces to which they are attached have hundreds of rusting staples from a generation’s worth of postings.

These poster-covered surfaces are what college should be – complicated and messy.  They are wide open and small-d democratic and depend on each member of the community to be considerate – which they usually do.  Sometimes, the material is outdated, sometimes, it’s cutting-edge, occasionally, it’s even vulgar.  It has material on top of material with the corners of the older stuff still sticking out, and things are sometimes stapled on crooked.  It has experimental artwork, rough edges, loose ends and messages that contradict.

The apparent goal of eliminating these was to make things tidy and efficient.  The obsolete was eliminated, the rough edges cut off.  The result? To me, it makes a campus look a little more like a corporate office park, and a little less like a university.

I say, there should always be outdoor surfaces at a university that are covered with posters and flyers, and what goes on in the classroom should be just as eclectic.  There should be a few cantankerous old professors, notoriously stingy with the A’s and complaining about the decline of standards.  There should be poets that have those students who are able abandon their chairs and sit cross-legged on the floor.  A university should have classes that students take just because, and coffeehouses just off campus with live music and conversation.  There should be an independent bookstore with a cat on the counter, where only the owner understands the filing system and often has to get an old wooden ladder to find the book you want – and they always find it.

For traditional-aged students, a university should be the place where people who didn’t fit in during high school finally hit their stride, making close friends and discovering their passions.  For the “nontrads” it should be a break from their crazy-busy lives of work, commuting and the kids, a place where they go not just to earn a degree, but to escape.  Here – even if only for a few hours each week – it is ideas, not schedules that matter.

A university should have old buildings with complicated hallways, with a few students that get lost on the first day of the semester and end up in the wrong class.  These should be interspersed with newer buildings in such a way that they often don’t go together.  Students should have funny nicknames for the buildings.  There should be a fountain, statue, or lake that is a legendary site of pranks.  On nice days, students throw frisbees to dogs or each other on grassy commons, while others put up hammocks and still others actually try to study.  Real-life odd couples form when neat freaks learn to coexist with messy roommates – for the most part.  Sometimes, these turn into lifelong friendships.  There are always a few students just a little bit older than the others, because they keep taking just one more class or earning just one more degree.  They really don’t want to graduate and leave.  Everyone on campus knows them by name.

This is college.  It is messy and open-ended.  It is wooden surfaces covered with crooked posters and ads for roommates with slits cut at the bottom.  It looks like nothing like the corporate office park, nor should it, nor should what happens inside.

Critics might note that my picture of college is exaggerated, the way universities are portrayed in movies.  Fair enough – but there is a lot of truth to those images, even if few campuses fit this archetype perfectly.

At a deeper level, today’s critics say that my idea of college is a privilege for the wealthy and upper middle class.  If students want this and can afford it, let them attend the Ivy Leagues, flagship state schools, or elite private liberal arts colleges, where they can still have these experiences. Everyone else needs career training – fast and efficient.

I say this misses the point completely.  When the whole college experience is available at regional state universities, it democratizes the experience.  Experiencing college as college should not be an elite privilege.

A few years ago, a group of students visited our campus for Constitution Day.  They came from a high school in a community that had a large immigrant population.  Most had never been on a college campus before.  They were surprised that it was not surrounded by walls.  Until that day, they had never thought of college as something that could be open to them.  It should be – all of it, the whole college experience.

This sense that the college experience – all of it – is for everyone, not just students at elite schools, is exactly what is being sacrificed to the career-track, corporate office park model.  The price is too high.  We should all fight to preserve the complete college experience, for all students, whenever and wherever we can.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter