Canary in a Coal Mine: Q&A with Mars’ Hill Co-Founder Bruce Beck

Canary in a Coal Mine: Q&A with Mars’ Hill Co-Founder Bruce Beck

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Editor-in-Chief, Katie Maryschuk, sat down with Mars’ Hill co-founder Bruce Beck and talked about the purpose behind creating the paper and the presence of having a newspaper voice on campus. Katie Maryschuk (KM): Explain to us your involvement with Mars’ Hill.

Bruce Beck (BB): I was the editor of the official campus newspaper in my junior year [1987], which at that time was called the TWU Today. In my junior year, I ran for and won the election for student body president for my senior year. In the course of the campaign and the months that followed that, there was concern on the part of senior administrators here at Trinity that I might be an inappropriate leader. They impeached me on a technicality. They said my cumulative GPA was 0.09 below the standard, so I couldn’t serve in student leadership, even though numbers of students, including varsity athletes, had GPAs far lower than mine.

So, the administration, in the wake of that decision, which was announced the first week back during O-Week, the editor of the campus newspaper resigned in protest. The administration put in a sophomore, who was basically a term we used derogatorily then, we referred to as “catalogue kids.” I don’t know if that term is still around on campus. We referred to them as admin suck-ups. That young lady wrote an editorial in her first or second issue of the paper acknowledging the changes and supporting the decisions from administration and basically, if you don’t like it, then do something about it.

So, a group of six or seven of us formed an underground newspaper called Mars’ Hill. We ran our first issue in the spring semester and ran two issues. The first issue was profitable, we made enough revenue from the advertising profits for the entire production. At the release of the first issue, the university administrators confiscated 500 copies on campus and only under the threat of legal action returned them. [Admin] called every single advertiser from the first issue locally and said “If you advertise again at Trinity Western, we won’t do business with you again” so we had 100 percent turn over of our advertising in the second issue. We made twice the money and we were the first campus newspaper to have colour advertising. So, that’s the Reader’s Digest version.

KM: Now, you said the editor said to “do something about it.” Was that the drive and the heartbeat?

BB: I think there’s always, and not just at Trinity, been a tension in post secondary education between the sensibility and priorities of students and the sensibility and priorities of administrators and leaders. That’s an inevitable good tension to have. I think that the tensions had built up for a long time and my impeachment, for better lack of words, served as a catalyst. I don’t think it, in it of itself, was a big deal, but I think people were so outraged at the transparent self-servingness of the decision. When we started talking about an underground newspaper - you have to understand this was the 80s, no desktop publishing, no internet, and every keystroke we did had to be laid out on transparencies and taken to a printing press - it was a big deal logistically.

KM: So it was as simple as that.

BB: Well, we were willing to think outside the box, because the previous newspaper had always relied fully on student fees to meet their budget. This was how much they got each year and they had to live within it.

KM: Did you expect it to grow as big as it has?

BB: No, the short answer to that is no. We did it as an exercise of defiance. We did it as an exercise just to see if we could do it. Again, logistically it was a nightmarish challenge to do, especially in your final three or four months of your academic career and you’re planning for marriage and jobs and all those things. It seemed important enough at the time to do it, so the idea that it would become the official newspaper is an irony that when we get together, individually or collectively, we laugh about it. No, we didn’t expect it to continue the following year.

I think the combination of giving voice to the disenfranchised coupled with producing a reputable, quality production, given the technological and budget restrictions at the time. It wasn’t just something someone had typed up and stapled to a telephone pole to rant and rave. It was an actual publication that people could be proud of that wanted to be part of in the way of the contributing.

It invoked real debate on campus, pro and con. There was always a fear in the official newspaper that there was some sort of censoring-ship. There were one or two people who thought that it was conspiracy theories going on, but I think there was a legitimately small minority of people who thought “okay, if I send this into the school paper, they’ll know who it was and if they know who I am and they don’t agree with me, they’ll tell the administrator and suddenly my scholarships are going to be in doubt.”

Now that never happened in all the years that I was involved, but there was a perception I think and sometimes perception is more powerful than reality. The nature of it being underground and the appeal, certainly.

Professors would pull us aside and we made a point of going the motions of protecting the editor. It’s a small campus and at that time maybe 1000 students. Everybody knew what everybody was doing. So we said you can’t prove that it’s me, but you could suspect but not prove it. I had professors pull me aside after class and I was fully expected to be quoting several passages of Scripture, and they would say “God bless you for doing this” and “How do I get a letter to the editor?”

We never lacked for contributors and we never lacked for advertisers. We never misrepresented ourselves. That was the one thing we made very clear.

We were determined to maintain the highest standards because we knew that lawsuits and legal action were a distinct possibility. So we operated in an overabundance of caution. We made sure that when they confiscated the newspapers that we knew before we threatened them that we had every right to do distribution. There wasn’t anything in the student handbook that prohibited it.

We went out of our way to be upfront with our advertisers, our readers and it gave the school no wiggle room to stop what we were doing because it all its years of existence, it had never crossed the mind of any administrator to make a ruling or a community standard that said you couldn’t do what we were doing. So in the absence of a no, we assumed a yes.

It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. That was our operating manual. We pushed the envelope every chance we could get and every time we did, we had all sorts of majors, we ran those decisions through a small collective group saying “Let’s turn the chessboard around. If we were them, what would we do?” When we found out that the worst that they could do was threaten us, it was like, whatever! We were four months away from graduating, they could take away our diploma, in which case we would have gone to the main media with the story.

Everything they tried to do, we were two or three steps ahead of them. Which speaks not so much to our genius as to their lack of it. We weren’t smart, they were just incredibly stupid. You can quote me - all those people are now retired or dead. The administrators of the day were incredibly stupid or short-sighted.

There is an eternal tension in places like this, especially places like this, around what we are. Are we a university that happens to be Christian, or are we a Christian institution that happens to be a university? That is the eternal tension and it will never be adequately resolved.

If it could be - if every stakeholder, student, administrator, parent, or donor could say that we are X, 80 percent of the conflict in this place would go away. Probably 50 percent of the people would go away too, but 80 percent of the conflict would go away. But, you can’t serve two masters, and I believe that’s Biblical so I’m allowed to say that. Are we going to pursue to the exclusion of all other considerations, that which is academic or are we going to the exclusion of all other considerations that which is Christian? Because you cannot serve two masters.

So there’s this internal tension and each generation of students, faculty and staff and administrators define that tension and contribute to that tension in ways that their unique personalities are going to. But it’s the eternal tension that is maybe this places’ greatest weakness but also may be its greatest strength. If it was defined as exclusively a university, then there is no opportunity to introduce questions that our spirituality can answer. If it was a Bible college, there is no opportunity to bring the rigours of logic and science to make us define and defend our beliefs.

Student dissent should be like a canary in a [coal mine]. It should be the early warning signal to the leadership that there is something wrong. The chirping may be annoying, it may be mindless, it may be uninformed, it may come from a completely gilded-cage perspective. But the minute chirping stops, something bad is going to happen to everyone that is concerned. The absence of chirping is the danger sign, not the chirping itself. And many many people, not all of them (there have been some very notable and inspiring exceptions in the time I have been involved at Trinity) see the chirping as disrespectful, they see it as un-Christian, unspiritual, and those people are idiots. I’m sure there’s a more Christian polite way of saying it, but they’re idiots.

God help the family that raises children who never push back or question because they’ll never be fully formed adults on their own. Chances are they have mutilated pets in their bedroom. So, the tension that students and the age group that a university tends to represent, the focal point of that tension has to be the student newspaper. If it’s not the newspaper, then the [masthead] aren’t fulfilling their mandate. The newspaper and journalism should not define the answers, but they should help shape the questions. They should give voice to both sides.

The student newspaper is the canary in the [coal mine] and God help the leaders that try to kill the bird because they’ll never know when the early warning signs are when something is horribly wrong.

KM: On that note, how do you balance a voice when some people just don’t care?

BB: I would answer that question two ways. As a recovering politician, I served a couple of terms in municipal government. Someone once told me something very wise once that applies to what you’re talking about. In any situation involving more than 10 people, you are always going to have the following breakdown:

As a politician or as a leader, there is always going to be 20 percent of people that think I’m a genius. It doesn’t matter how big of a moron I am or how stupid I am. There is always going to be a significant portion of people who agree with a leader. There is going to be an equal number, about 20 percent of the people you’re involved with that think, no matter what that person does, that leader is a raving lunatic. See also Donald Trump. Donald Trump could cure cancer and there would still be a significant portion of people that would think he is a raving lunatic.

You will never ever change the 20 percent that are for or the 20 percent that are against.

Of the remaining 60 percent, 20 percent will never care. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say, they are completely indifferent, they are self-absorbed and maybe they have really good reasons for it, or maybe they’re just shallow, petty and incapable. When you’re seeking re-election or votes, you don’t waste any time with that 20 percent who think you’re a genius, because they’re already for you. You don’t spend a nickel trying to convert the people that think you’re an idiot because they’re never going to change. You don’t spend any time or money trying to change the people who will never care. The battle is for the hearts and minds and votes of the 40 percent that are left.

So you accept the fact that in any community, in any group of humans, there will be people who think you’re right, there are going to be people who think you’re wrong and there’ll be people who are never going to care, one way or another, and those aren’t the people whose minds and hearts you want.

Because that 40 plus your 20 is 60 and that’s all you need.

It’s not your job, as a newspaper or as a journalist, to change the minds, it’s to frame the questions. And, to give both sides courteous, respectful opportunities to present their side without judgement. I will give you 500 words and I will give your opponent 500 words and my only hope and goal as the editor, is at the end of people reading 1000 words, is that it starts conversations on campus. It’s not my job to pick a side, it’s not my job to endorse a position, it’s my job to facilitate the conversation.

There’s an old saying that says if you’re not a socialist when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative Republican when you’re old, you have no brains. This is the time in a person’s life where the passions burn the brightest and the hottest. The trick is to translate those passions, which function like a bunsen burner in a lab. It’s pure because there are no conflicting or competing demands on your time or your resources. It gets harder to protest injustices when you’re changing diapers and worrying about your next mortgage payment. It doesn’t mean that injustices are any less injust. This is the time for the passions of young people to burn the brightest.

The challenge - a flame in a lab is meaningless, it’s just something you turn off and switch. It has no power to burn down a building or destroy, it has no power to keep a family warm in a blizzard. It’s almost theoretical in its nature - yes it’s a flame but there are no practical world applications. The trick to getting out of this place more or less sane and if not debt-free, or not overwhelmingly drowning in debt, is to figure out how to take the flame of passion you have here, and start something burning in the real world. Because the real world is damp and dark and it likes it that way. It doesn’t want your candle out there and it has no reason to believe that your candle has any value. A candle coming from a religious institution is a candle to be feared. So in that wet, damp, scary, dark reality that students are about to enter, the challenge is to take the flame that burned brightly here and make it count where somebody cares.

KM: What does that look like?

BB: For every person, it looks a bit different. For me, it was about getting involved in my community, getting involved with service clubs like rotary. It was about trying to translate. I don’t know if this is still the case, but 30 years ago, the marketing slogan was “building and equipping young people for an impact in the marketplaces of life.” Do they still have that?

KM: It’s still around somewhat.

BB: Well, a note to the president, time to update that.

KM: It has been, it’s now “Inspiring Hearts and Minds.”

BB: Well, impacting the marketplaces of life. I think that for all the derision that rightly gets over the years for being cliche and meaningless and void, that really is the challenge. Back to the tension of, did I come from a university that happened to be Christian or did I come from a Christian institution that happened to be a university? Either way, I happen to come from this place, and I have to leave my mark now.

There are perceptions out there about what it means to be a Trinity Western alum, some well deserved, some not. The obligation that every student has here, is to enhance the reputation of the institution, not because of the administrators, not because of the staff, but because of the alumni. When I graduated and take my piece of parchment to a job interview, people make assumptions on what that piece of paper means because they’ve never been a part of what this community, but they know other people that have been.

If it’s easier for you to get a job with a Trinity Western degree, in some small part, it’s because of what I’ve done over the past 30 years. Because I and the people who have graduated and have gone out, and are now in our 50s and some of us have grandkids, and a number of us are financially successful in our fields. We have established a beachhead for you and your classmates to come ashore on. Some of us are lying, metaphorically, on the barbed wire and jumping on the grenades that life throws Trinity Western grads and waving you over our bleeding carcasses. You have to jump on the next strand of barbed wire so the next kids and grandkids that choose to come here have the benefit of your experiences, your flame-burning. There’s a mixed metaphor for you.

The obligation - if you come out of this place, the nursing program is automatically an exception to what I am about to say, but if you come out of here with nothing more than academic knowledge, you’ve wasted an awful amount of time and a great amount of money. If you come out of here but nothing of really good friends that you’re going to be constantly chatting with on Facebook and Instagram and socially hanging out with and totally being with, you’ve wasted even more time and money. And if you come out of here thinking that you have all the answers, you should probably be locked up, because there’s no way anyone here knows all the questions, much less all the answers.

But if you come out of here with a burning desire to know truth, to be part of truth and to make the world around you just a little bit better, then I will stand proudly behind you as will thousands of other alumni and say “She’s one of us” and “He’s one of us”. See what they did over there? See how he put somebody else’s needs and hurts ahead of his own wants and desires. He’s one of us.

KM: My last question is about the voice of a press on a university campus.

BB: I’ll say it again, I think the role of the press is to facilitate conversations and not to take positions. I think that the only way they do that is to be committed to being over-zealous in providing fair and respectful opportunities for both sides, or every side of the conversation to be heard. And to rise above the human tendency of “all the students feel this way” and “all the admin feel this way” and “we should go with the students' position and go with that.” That’s lovely but that’s not your job as a student newspaper.

Here’s my advice to you and people like you. Life teaches us by banging our heads up against the wall. We learn from mistakes, success is a horrible teacher, and failure is the greatest teacher of all and if you’re smart you’ll learn from other people’s failures so you don’t have the divots in your head.

In every person’s lifetime, there are only about a half-dozen days that you can see coming that you know are going to change your life forever. The first day you leave home, the day you graduate from university, your wedding day, the first day you bring home your first child from the hospital, the first day you move into your house. There are only about four or five days that you can see coming from a mile away that you knew four years ago this day was coming. You didn’t know what the journey was going to look like but you knew it was coming. If you get married, short of a shotgun or a Vegas wedding, you’ll know weeks and months and years in advance. Same with a kid, even nature gives you nine months notice with that one.

Those four or five days are not going to be what define your life. Your life, in retrospect, will be defined by a hundred minute, micro-decisions that you never see coming. You woke up one morning and went left instead of right, you bumped into a friend or an acquaintance, you decided to go to this movie instead of that movie, or read this book instead of that book and it inspired you. Every day that you wake up as an alumnus, post-graduate, you should wake up with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning wondering “Is today one of those days?”

You won’t be able to define it in the moment. It’ll take months and years for you to look back and say “If I had gone right instead of left, that never would have happened.” It will seem inconsequential in the moment, but the joy of being an enlightened mind is that if you are aware of the fact that every day offers the potential to be life-altering. The vast majority of them will be tedious bull s*** but every day offers the potential for that moment.

That’s the mindset you should leave here with. Not that you know it all, not that you’ve been taught it all, or not that all the questions have been properly articulated, much less answered for you, but that every day offers you the possibility of a life-altering moment. That’s the reason to get out of bed. When you’re in the throes of depression or fear or uncertainty about what job to take, or where to live, or who to marry, or how to raise your kids. If you have the self-awareness leaving Trinity Western that you’re set for life, you’re in the top one percent. At least that’s what I think.

So screw my GPA, I’m in the top one percent of all people who ever graduated from here in the past 50 years because I wake up every morning like it’s Christmas morning wondering, is today the day?

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