When it comes to Penn State President Eric Barron’s recent interaction with student protesters, the gesture that should be talked about isn't that he put his hands in the air but that he put his boots on the ground.
What Barron did was not wrong. The act of joining his students in peaceful protest — of supporting students who felt marginalized — is exactly what a university president should do. Talking with students, listening to their concerns and expanding their thinking should be in the job description of university administrators across the globe.
That said, what Barron did wasn’t exactly right, either. Barron might wish he could have a do-over, given the uproar his gesture caused. He could have just patted the protesters on the back and thanked them for participating in democracy rather than stepping onto the latest battlefield in our nation’s ongoing culture war.
The Penn State president clearly did not intend to insult the law enforcement community when he joined a Dec. 3 student protest over the treatment of blacks by police and made the “hands up” gesture that has become a symbol of protests after the August killing of a young black man in Ferguson, Mo.
Barron’s gesture was a well-intentioned effort to show support for peaceful student protesters who a day earlier had been subjected to vile, racist online comments. Penn State’s history with strained race relations makes Barron’s presence there all the more important, and significant.
Unfortunately, putting his hands in the air changed the conversation and caused more strife than was necessary.
His actions rate, at most, a raised eyebrow. It is unreasonable to demand, as state Rep. Jerry Knowles did, that he “issue a public apology ... or step down as president of the university.”
Has Knowles never done or said anything that some group somewhere might find objectionable?
Some folks, for example, might find it offensive that Knowles issued a public ultimatum to a public official whose actions, while disagreeable to some, fit within that official’s overall mission of inclusiveness, civility and education.
Barron’s aim to make Penn State a place where peaceful protests over divisive issues are welcomed rather than subjected to anonymous online attacks by ignorant fools is worthy of another gesture, in our minds: thumbs up.