Over the course of recent visits to several American colleges, I have been surprised to encounter an abundance of flags and banners brandishing foreign nations and various advocacy groups, while there is a conspicuous lack of flags belonging to the United States. Upon reading the mission statements of a number of these and other universities, I have taken note of a common sentiment: it is desired that students contribute positively to their communities and to the world, along with to this nation. Take for example the mission statement of Clemson University in South Carolina: “[The school’s] programs contribute to the state of knowledge and to the economic future of the state, nation and world.” Furthermore, public universities and private universities alike are frequent beneficiaries of grants from the United States government — often for research and medical facilities.
In considering this issue, there is first a distinction to be drawn between the flags flown by the university, for example in front of an academic building or along a pathway, and those flags that students display, most frequently draped from the windows of their residences. To address first those belonging to the students: it is proper that the exhibition of these various pennants is neither sponsored nor discouraged by the university. The university and its administrators do not dictate that students ought to exhibit, for example, the flag of Brazil, a flag that I have seen more frequently displayed than the American flag at one particular school in North Carolina. And the university, in most instances, does not dissuade students from flying flags, even ones that readily lend themselves to controversy. I would hazard that I am hardly alone in my support for the relative ideological autonomy endowed to students, the tendency for the institution not to interfere with how they express themselves through their choice of banners tacked to windowsills.
The suggestion, thus, is concerned more with the common areas of campus maintained by the administration. It is uncommon, admittedly, for the institution to hang a flag belonging to another country or representing some ideological or religious group. Most often, it is simply that the university flies no flag whatsoever. Sometimes there is even a flag pole with no flag, as if displaying a flag is not worth the bother of its maintenance.
It is not that the university ought to mandate its students display American flags, at say an interval of one per floor of a dormitory. Rather, the university should itself place American flags throughout the campus to remind its students of their unique privileging of living in the nation that leads in the world in aid offered to foreign governments, that took the lead in creating the United Nations, that rebuilt war-torn Europe, that, as a founding ideal, guaranteed its citizens freedom of speech, and whose Founding Fathers understood the proper balance between having too much democracy and too little.
Although some college-aged people may be temporarily absorbed in rhetoric that seeks to trivialize the achievements of the United States and its foundational values or, at greater extremes, to assert that the United States is a sinister colonial power, the display of the flag by the university instills in students a respect for the American tradition and model of government, the very freedom that enables these students to display whatever flag they like or speak their mind, no matter how incendiary their comments may be, with little fear of reprisal.
American universities ought to display American flags where they can be readily seen and appreciated. Even as some students prefer to display flags of every group and nation other than the United States while, in some cases, seeking also to further transient notions that malign the United States and its history, there must be a commitment, on the part of the university, to honor and respect The United States, a nation from which these universities and their students have been long influenced and a nation to whom their security and well-being are, in great part, owed.