Plain cluelessness has never served us well

By Martin Hackworth

Perhaps the easiest way of shutting down a conversation that one lacks the acumen in which to participate is to disparage other conversants with some negative label. Last week Pocatello City Council member Eva Nye referred to a number of us who’ve raised concerns about behaviors among a specific group of international students in our community as bigots. In a column of ill-conceived platitudes that have very little to do with the specific situation at hand, Councilwoman Nye dressed us down for lacking the savoir faire to appreciate the wonders of the international community.

Well allow me to retort.

It’s evident that Nye didn’t bother to reach out to members of the local business community who’ve gone on record with concerns before crafting her ostentatiously ill-reasoned piece. I wonder if it ever occurred to Nye to contact ISU faculty, local law enforcement or local public health officials who have routine contact with these students? Of course not, because had she gathering facts before merely dismissing what she does not comprehend as bigotry her column would have read differently.

Councilwoman Nye is hardly a disinterested observer when it comes to ISU. Her op-ed byline failed to disclose her recent service as a member of the Idaho State University Servel House committee. The committee that provoked a fair amount of outrage by proxying the claim that one of the most highly compensated individuals in our community should receive a better free house that the one that he already does not put to good use. Nye has other connections to ISU as well. Not that any of this necessarily influenced her view on this matter, but it all does seem awfully reminiscent of the Vailas administration playbook when it comes to controversy and crisis management – go light on the facts, heavy on disdain for critics.

Nye should confabulate with Dr. Daniel Hummel – ISU faculty member and fellow apologist for really poor behavior. Nye, like Hummel, seems to have nary a clue as to the appropriate weighting of various societal ills. I’m pretty sure that in their world view the individual who recently followed my wife around campus, then got into a car and followed her four miles home, was merely practicing some new international friendship program, and that students who have attempted to bribe and then threaten myself and my staff are just trying to live the American dream.

It’s indicative of a fair degree of arrogance that Nye deemed it appropriate to pontificate on the perils of insular thinking to a community that includes a many hundreds of academics (and others) with international experience that doubtless exceeds her own. As nice as it is to learn that she views ISU as a window to the world, perhaps the New York Times would serve her better in this regard.

If Nye were to take her lead from international news instead of ISU officials she’d perhaps be familiar with Raif Badwi, a progressive Saudi Arabian writer who was recently arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail and 1000 lashes for advocating, among other things, better treatment for women. Badwi has become something of a cause célèbre outside of the United States where people actually do tend to understand the world beyond their borders. Badwi, his wife Ensaf Haidar and other progressives in Saudi Arabia have paid dearly for standing up for basic human rights. And therein lies the problem. We currently have in our community a very large number of young male students who have come here from straight from very wealthy, very religiously-strict, very male-dominated cultures where things work a whole lot differently than they do here.

Yet despite all of this and Nye’s assertions to the contrary there is simply not much sentiment out there that international students, on balance, are bad. As an instructor at ISU for 23 years I’ve taught, hired and worked with folks from all over the world. My Chair is from Bangladesh, my colleagues from a dozen different countries and my students from all over the world. I’m reasonably sure that I and most everyone here gets the whole international thing without Nye’s help.

The problem is that ISU has elected to bolster declining admissions by recruiting a large number of students from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Many of these students have meager academic credentials and do not understand that rules here are not a matter of negotiation. Academic dishonesty is common. Yet having said that, a number of KASP students are just fine. And if you ask the serious KASP students (who tend to be exceptionally well-mannered) what’s up they’ll profess embarrassment. They understand that poor behavior is what it is much better than Nye. I feel bad for those kids. I really do. I’ll do anything that I can to help them too.

ISU officials clearly view KASP revenue as manna floating down from the heavens, and after they get it everything else that comes with it is someone else’s problem. And a problem it is. These are somebody’s kids we’re talking about; kids who are thousands of miles from home and immersed in a strange culture with zero mentoring from the folks who brought them here to use like ATMs. These kids behave the way they do in part because it’s acceptable where they come from and in part because they are young and free for the first time. Without appropriate guidance the result is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the lack of any accountability on behalf of the people ultimately responsible for all of this.

The real problem here isn’t bigotry, it’s greed. Well that and a fair dollop of cluelessness among a few water carriers.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist and the editor of MotorcycleJazz.com.