Sunday, November 18, 2012

What is Marshall University's identity?

How does one go about making themselves a pariah in Huntington, West Virginia?  Any number of methods would suffice.  You could tear up the Rose Garden in Ritter Park.  Or perhaps steal the bust of John Marshall on the university's campus.  Those acts would definitely draw the ire of the citizens of the Jewel City (that's a legit nickname, by the way).  But if you really sought to make yourself almost universally hated in the region, speak ill of the 1970 tragedy that took the lives of 75 Marshall football players, coaches, boosters, fans, and flight crew.

Every year, on November 14th, the university holds a service at the Memorial Fountain, where the water is shut off until spring.  The service has become an annual tradition at Marshall, and holds significant meaning to the community, particularly those citizens who lost a loved one in the tragedy and folks who have been long-time residents of the Huntington area.

Last week, on November 15th, Marshall's student run newspaper, The Parthenon, ran an article by Henry Culvyhouse, in which he questioned the continued remembrance of the plane crash.  The response was immediate, and scathing.

Culvyhouse deserves some of that criticism.  His article was poorly written and his thoughts came through as insensitive.  The timing of the article, printed the day after the memorial service, could not have been worse.  Although I don't know Culvyhouse's motives for writing this piece, the way in which it was written has the feel of an article wanting to be noticed.  Mission: accomplished.

State newspapers and television stations ran stories about his article and the Internet has blown up with commentary, mostly deriding Culvyhouse as an 'outsider' and a heartless derelict liberal.

The Marshall Memorial Fountain
Though I can't agree with how Culvyhouse presented his ideas, I wish the response to his article was different.  Moreover, I also think the article raised some interesting questions.

First, what is Marshall University's identity and how well do we present that?  (Note:  As a resident of Huntington and graduate of Marshall, I will use 'we' throughout this post.)  Though unmentioned in the op-ed piece, I think this is a fair question to ask.  People who aren't familiar with the university or the region, might mistakenly presume the plane crash has become who we are.  And if Culvyhouse, a West Virginia native, cannot see the school's identity, maybe we ought to consider how we present ourselves.

What really defines the school isn't the plane crash itself, but its and the community's response to that tragedy that has defined Marshall University.  The people who lived through the difficult period after the crash, the ones who pushed forward, need to help provide Marshall students with a mindset of where the community was on November 14, 1970 and how Huntington did move on while still remembering.  Responding to tragedy and adversity -- that is the real identity Marshall should present.  The city of Huntington should promote that, should instill that in her people.

I completed both my undergraduate and graduate work at Marshall University, and truly loved being part of the school and community.  I enjoyed it so much, I decided to make it my home.  But, as a student and now as a resident of Huntington, I don't believe the city has fully promoted that concept of responding to tragedy.  As much as I care about the community, I see a general complacency among the population and students at Marshall University.  This provides a nice segue into the next question that should be raised.

If we care so much about Marshall, then why do we fail to support its academic pursuits and athletic programs?  Marshall presents a number of academic presentations that are terribly attended, despite having renowned scholars speaking.  Football games, which should be a major rallying point, have been poorly attended.  Basketball and other 'minor' sports receive little attention.

Students definitely don't understand how far the school has come.  Marshall has a number of academic, cultural, and athletic events that are free to full-time students and they neglect those.  This season, the 'student section' at home football games has been practically non-existent.  Would it not stand to reason that if they really knew how low the program had been, they would come out in droves?  Students and citizens would take advantage of every opportunity afforded to them in Huntington if they had been there during the low point.

Huntington residents old enough to remember the plane crash also need to realize that 'outsiders' cannot fully understand what happened.  The lack of understanding isn't for lack of sympathy, but because this generation is so far removed from an event that took place 42 years ago.  Current college students may not even have parents that old.

Today's college students will not be able to understand the plane crash any more than the significance of Vietnam, Watergate, the gas shortages of the 1970s, or the Iran-Contras.  It's up to the people who were there to help others understand.  Otherwise, it's just another piece of history, no matter how localized it may be.

Finally, Culvyhouse's article should have Huntington asking how it will respond to the other tragedies in our area.  What will we do about the 29.4% of people in Huntington living in poverty?  What will we do to stymie the loss of industry?  How will we respond to the pervasive substance abuse problem and associated crime in Huntington?  How will we treat people when they do not agree with our point of view?

I hope our response to these will be as strong as the one given to the plane crash.  I hope we don't lose our identity along the way.  I hope we continue to remember how far we've come, and to temper that with the need to keep moving forward.  Huntington still has a number of tragedies to overcome.  If we are going to be a community and school that 'rises from the ashes', we must do so continually.  Every generation must answer the call to difficulties the world presents.

No comments:

Post a Comment