Brian L. Moore
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies
Director, Africana and Latin American Studies Program
On Monday, September 22, 2014 about 350 students who comprise the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC) engaged in a sit-in at the James B. Colgate building. They were a very diverse group, female and male, black and white, Latino, Native American, and Asian, who believe that enough is enough and they must take a stand for what is just, fair and right.
The underlying rationale of the student action is simple. They are seeking an inclusive, equitable, and respectful intellectual and social environment on this campus. That’s all. Many faculty supported their campaign; and the statements authored by the President, Dean of the Faculty/Provost, Dean of the College, and the Chair of the Board of Trustees were heartening. They all condemned the despicable acts of racial bigotry that several students of color publicly testified to very powerfully and movingly during the sit-in. But were those statements by our administrators enough? Should they not have been accompanied by fulsome apologies to students of color for being given the wrong impression about what life at Colgate would be like? This was evident in the students’ complaints about the entire admissions process which topped the list of their concerns. Colgate needs to atone for many, too many, years of hurt suffered by students of color. A formal institutional apology is the very least we could do to indicate clearly that we are really serious about turning a new page.
And, what about the bigots who continue to make the lives of students of color at Colgate miserable? Have they never been identified? Why has none been apprehended and held to account? They live and/or attend classes on campus! So what are Campus Safety and our administrators doing about them? And, if these bigots are so sure they are on the side of right (no pun intended), why don’t they step forward and own-up to their deeds? Or are they just weak cowards and bullies whose behavior is conditioned by fear that their traditional entitlements are threatened by the presence of students of color on campus?
Those questions make the condemnations of the miscreants seem like déjà vu. This is not the first time students have raised their voices against racism and institutional inequalities at Colgate, but the responses have always been generally similar. This, then, raises the question, what’s new this time? Well, on September 26 the students were successful in pressing the administration to agree to issue a “Joint Message from Colgate University and the Association of Critical Collegians” which not only seeks to address twenty-one specific issues related to chronic institutional inequalities, but very importantly sets clear timelines for resolving many. But why did it have to take a student protest before our administrators committed themselves to addressing these issues? Did they not know that these problems have existed for very many years? So why were they not dealt with before?
It is regrettable that there were some notable voices on campus in opposition to the student concerns. What could be wrong with the principles of inclusivity, equality and respect, one might ask? These opposing voices inadvertently serve to empower bigots on campus who cowardly hide in the shadows and commit their despicable acts of hate. These opposing voices render it very difficult for governance committees to make meaningful institutional changes to overturn historical inequalities and injustices. Why? Some of these folks prefer Colgate to remain as it was and, for the most part, still is: a place where they feel comfortable, but which unfortunately is neither inclusive nor equitable for students, faculty and staff of color; a sort of academic country club with all the familiar restrictions on membership; a place that continues to regenerate the race-class hierarchy of old America. Colgate is not unique in this respect, of course. The liberal-arts-college model is, in part, implicitly designed to do precisely this. But times have changed and we must adapt to those changes.
For many years Colgate has been sending mixed and often misleading messages to our students. “The Thirteen Goals of a Colgate Education” appear fair as policy and promise noble things. Our institutional practices, especially those related to the issue of diversity, however, deliver something quite different. Interestingly, we took (albeit reluctantly) a step towards resolving some of the problems associated with the lack of diversity and inclusivity when, in 2008, the office of Dean of Diversity (DoD) was established, even though it lacked real power to introduce significant change. But instead of empowering it to do just that, the office was abolished in 2011! That decision seemed to suggest that Colgate was merely paying lip-service to the idea of diversity. The September student protest has clearly demonstrated that the institutional structures which have replaced the DoD are palpably inadequate and are not working effectively. A strengthened office of DoD would probably have addressed many of the issues the students have raised and may have made their sit-in unnecessary. It would certainly better aid in the recruitment and retention of faculty of color, an issue that the students also expressed concern about. So perhaps the time is ripe for President Herbst to revisit his 2011 decision to get rid of the office of Dean of Diversity. Let’s start a fresh conversation about that.
Inclusivity is not just a social issue. It relates as well to what happens in the classroom: not only the way classes are conducted and how students are treated, but also what department courses and curricula are designed to do. Curricular issues are, of course, the exclusive purview of faculty. However, item 10 of the students’ demands identified the curriculum as one of their major concerns, though it specifically targeted the Core, especially Global Engagements. But is the Core the only aspect of our broad curriculum that should be reexamined? Shouldn’t faculty be asked to take a serious look, not just at individual courses, but at the content, structure, and orientation of entire department curricula to determine if they privilege any particular intellectual or cultural tradition? If so, does this have the effect of marginalizing students of color in their learning environment? And further, if so, shouldn’t faculty be encouraged to explore ways to correct this so that courses and curricula become more inclusive without undermining their intellectual/academic integrity?
Some departments might respond by saying that they now have courses on a variety of global issues as well as specifically on “other” parts of the world like Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia; and on specific ethnic groups like African Americans and Native Americans. (They might even claim that their faculty is more diverse, even if that means just one or two faculty of color.) This may be all well and good, at least superficially. But a closer, more critical perusal might reveal a very different reality: that students may not be required or encouraged to take more than one or two courses from these “non-traditional” subject areas to fulfil their Major/Minor requirements; or that the teaching resources devoted to these areas are woefully thin. Possibly, then, a mirage may have been generated, while no substantive curricular change has occurred. Is it all smoke and mirrors? So, to clear the air and in the spirit of the September 26 “Joint Message”, even though this is not specifically listed therein, perhaps the time has come for the Dean of the Faculty and the Division Directors to urge departments to examine their curricula critically in order to identify and try to eliminate any exclusionary or marginalizing biases.
Finally, to a matter that may have slipped quietly beneath the radar. As we approach the bicentennial anniversary of Colgate in 2019, we should recall that one of the big items earmarked for the celebration will be a new history of the institution. Wonderful and timely! But it is my hope that this history will not just reflect the glories and achievements of “traditional” Colgate over the last two centuries, but will also offer readers an honest account and appraisal of the challenging experiences and struggles of students, faculty and staff of color, and how these have been dealt with. While a separate chapter (with appropriate pictures of student protests) is certainly required to treat these struggles adequately, it is also very important that Colgate’s minorities should not be written out of, or marginalized from, the main body of its new history. Their accomplishments and achievements must be fully interwoven in the broad historical account if this new history is to be a truly inclusive record that we can all be satisfied with.
The new history should also talk about interdisciplinary programs like the Africana and Latin American Studies Program (ALST) and their impact on the curriculum. In doing so, it should seek to explain why, for instance, it took Colgate fifteen years after the first Black Studies department was established in the country to set up ALST in 1983. That would furnish readers with a good understanding of Colgate’s historical and persistent attitudes to issues of diversity whether in the curriculum or otherwise, precisely what our students have highlighted in their latest protest.
Colgate University is at a critical juncture of its two-hundred-year existence. Certainly at least for the last decade, perhaps longer, it has been in a perennial state of crisis as it has been obliged to adjust to a more diverse world which it has not yet embraced. So every two or so years, an outrage of one sort or another occurs that galvanizes the student body, in particular the “new kids on the block” (students of color), into protest action. Perfunctory condemnatory statements are routinely issued by administrators, but no one is ever apprehended or penalized. Then it’s back to business as usual.
As a community, we have been in denial about our defects for too long. Yet, on the positive side, we can take comfort and assurance from those features of our own history which clearly demonstrate that good results come from greater inclusiveness. Who would argue that the presence of women since the 1970s, for instance, has not significantly improved the intellectual quality and tone of campus life? So now it’s time to take the next step and embrace our expanding ethnic diversity fully. But like an alcoholic, we must first recognize and admit our unwholesome condition before we can seek and identify a lasting cure.
We must, therefore, start by acknowledging the hard fact (perhaps indigestible for some folks) that Colgate is neither inclusive nor equitable. While this admission is implicit in the September 26 “Joint Message”, we must be overt in acknowledging this reality. Only then will we unleash the dynamic forces within our midst that can fulfil the dreams of what most of us believe Colgate can and should be: a place that truly welcomes all regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, class, religion, gender or sexual orientation; regardless of whether one can trace one’s ancestry back to the “Mayflower” or to the inappropriately named “Desire” (an American slave ship); regardless of whether one’s folks came via Ellis Island or across the Rio Grande.
So, to the ACC, please keep up your campaign and vigilance, and pass the torch to future generations of students. La lucha continua! To our administrators and fellow faculty, we have a lot left to do. So let’s do it honorably, comprehensively and expeditiously. Let’s all do it for a better Colgate.
The above post does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the AAUP membership or that of its officers, nor does inclusion of the post on this website constitute an endorsement by the Colgate chapter of the AAUP.