Wednesday, November 13, 2019
One year ago, on a lovely October morning, my daughter came into the room and said, “Dad, don’t go for a walk this morning. There’s an active shooter outside.”
I must have been among the first people to know because my daughter, who is a physician employed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), had been alerted by the Emergency Alert System that a gunman had opened fire in a synagogue in the city, very near to where we live.
On the morning of October 27, 2018, a quiet Shabbat morning, the Allegheny County 911 emergency operations received a phone call from a frightened man in the Tree of Life or L’Shimcha Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill district. A crisis team went into action immediately, with police and SWAT teams moving towards the location of the shooting and medical personnel preparing to deal with the victims. The 911 call-taker had been trained to get the necessary information about the nature and location of the threat. She calmly passed on the information and did her job to help the police coordinate their response and the specially trained medical team to prepare. Another call-taker kept a line open for 56 minutes to Rabbi Jeﬀrey Myers who was in a choir loft above the sanctuary, describing the shots he was hearing in his synagogue.
The gunman shouted, “All these Jews need to die.” There were reports of twenty to thirty gunshots. Eleven people were killed and six wounded, including four police oﬃcers, before the shooter was apprehended and disarmed. This, the worst anti-Semitic killing in US history, took place near where I live, in a building I frequently walk past on my way to stores or the library in Squirrel Hill.
Like many other people, I found myself asking why this had happened, and I found it hard to understand. It is a little clearer now, a year after it happened. It was even harder to explain to and to reassure the three young grandchildren with whom we live when they asked, “Are we safe?” What could I say?
The response of the communities in Pittsburgh was helpful - and admirable. Many kinds of people showed support and solidarity with the Jewish community. There were public vigils and statements of support. The first vigil, which was organized the same day by students from the neighborhood high school, was a rather surreal candlelight gathering of hundreds who met in the rain at the principal crossroads of Squirrel Hill. The day after the shooting an interfaith vigil was held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, drawing an overflow crowd estimated by be 2,500 people, including the Mayor of Pittsburgh, and the Senators and Governor of the state of Pennsylvania. More meetings and marches took place in subsequent days, in which everyone joined in reciting the prayer of the mourners, the kaddish. Indeed, demonstrations were held all over the country and across the world.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette included a front-page headline, in Hebrew, the opening of the kaddish. (When the paper won the Pulitzer’s prize for ‘breaking news reporting’ it donated the $15,000 to help repair the synagogue). The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra organized a special concert and sports organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Penguins joined in showing their support. Considerable funds were quickly raised by donations to help the victims and their families. Perhaps the person who best expressed the city’s response was Wasi Mohamed, the Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who was at every meeting and demonstration, when he pointed out, “Negative rhetoric against the Jewish community is poison. You know, it’s poison for our democracy, it’s poison for our country, and it’s negative to everybody, not just that community.”
This fine show of solidarity is what I have come to expect in Pittsburgh, a city with great pride in its history and a strong sense of unity, often expressed by the words, “Steeler Nation.” Since the massacre, signs appeared around the city, in store windows, on people’s lawns and on T- shirts, with the slogans “Stronger Together” and “Stronger Than Hate.” An annual meeting of the Allegheny Conference that was held soon after the massacre was attended by the city’s mayor, leaders of many religious communities, corporations and organized labor, educational and arts organizations, under a giant sign: STRONGER TOGETHER. The Chair of the Allegheny Conference Board of Directors, Bill Demchak, reminded people that “Squirrel Hill represents the best of our region in so many ways - a diverse, welcoming community…. It will always be Mr. Roger’s neighborhood,” referring to the classic children’s TV show that was created in Pittsburgh. He went on,
“Today, more than ever before, we need each other. We must move beyond the anger it is so natural to feel after an assault on our neighbors. We must take action to foster an even greater sense of community for everyone who calls our region home. And, we must come together, unified as one Pittsburgh, to stand against hate of all kinds and to ensure that our region - a region that was built on a variety of beliefs and cultures, welcoming peoples from around the world - celebrates diversity, embraces our diﬀerences, and is indeed for all.”
When the last funeral was held for one of the victims in one of Pittsburgh’s historic synagogues, Rodef Shalom, the mourners were joined by the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina, where another racist gunman inspired by hatred had killed nine of his congregation in 2015. Manning said, “We are part of a circle that no one wants to be a part of. What we have to do, today, and every day, is to make sure that that circle doesn’t get any bigger.” The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said, “Places of worship should be sanctuaries and safe spaces. Tomorrow I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Jewish Londoners for their Shabbat service to show solidarity to the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting last weekend.” Pope Francis denounced the “inhuman act of violence” and asked God “to help us to extinguish the flames of hatred that develop in our societies.”
The emphasis on finding strength in unity, and that unity is achieved not by rejecting diversity but by embracing it, is a central message that is at the heart of Pittsburgh’s response to the massacre. It is also an appropriate response, given the motivation of the sole suspect, a man who had posted anti-Semitic comments online against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which is supported by members of the Tree of Life. His posting before the attack referred to Central American migrants and refugees as “invaders” who “kill our people.” This coincided with a spike in anti-Semitic activity on social networking platforms, as reported by studies from Columbia University and the Anti-Defamation League. Far-right extremists used social media to organize racist networks in the months preceding the mid-term elections of November 2018, just as they did during the 2016 election campaign. The gunman’s use of the term “invaders” to describe the people struggling to cross the southern border simply echoed the words of President Trump who persisted in publicizing the need for building a wall to exclude them. Rabbi Myers blamed politicians for a rise in hateful rhetoric and, when Trump visited Pittsburgh he told him, “Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary… I witnessed it with my eyes.” When Trump visited Pittsburgh on October 30, Mayor Peduto said he should not have come, and over 70,000 people signed an open letter stating that he was not welcome until he “fully denounces white nationalism.” During his visit an estimated 2,000 protestors were cordoned oﬀ a few blocks away, but we did our best to make our voices heard as we loudly chanted, “Words matter.”
A rising tide of hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and immigrants was reported by the FBI between 2016 and 2018. Led by right-wing extremists, it appears to have been condoned and in some cases encouraged by some leading politicians. In August 2017 a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, featured Nazi signs, salutes and symbols, and racist rhetoric, along with the open participation of Klansmen and various white nationalists, under the slogan “Unite the Right.” Confederate flags were prominent because the rally was protesting the removal of Confederate monuments, including a statue honoring Robert E. Lee in a Charlottesville park. The demonstrators clashed with counter protestors, leaving more than thirty people injured. Heather Heyer was killed when a self-identified white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a group of counter protestors. Numerous armed right wing militia groups also appeared at the rally; while claiming to be protecting the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators, they were also trying to intimidate the counter protestors.
President Trump’s remarks about the incident were widely reported and commented on. While not condemning the supremacist marchers specifically, he spoke of the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” and later supported this view when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” He was implying a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who initiated the rally, and were responsible for the death of Heather Heyer, with those who protested against them. Although he later condemned neo-Nazis, his loose talk was taken by many as a sign of his sympathy with the goals of white supremacists.
One year later an anniversary rally was held in Washington, DC, but only about twenty or thirty of the far right showed up, compared with thousands of counter protestors from civil rights groups, various religious organizations, and people who identified themselves explicitly as anti- fascist demonstrators. Between 2016 and 2018 it was clear that, along with and amplified by a spreading wave of bigotry coming from some of the nation’s leaders, the country was rapidly polarizing on social issues, such as racism, cultural diversity, and immigration.
One sign of this is the rise in hate crimes in the US. Although many of these go unreported, the FBI releases annual statistics acquired from law enforcement agencies. In 2017 the data shows that 7,175 hate crime incidents were reported, involving 8,493 victims. The crimes included murder, rape, assault, robbery, and vandalism. Most of these crimes were against persons and most were committed by white oﬀenders. The vast majority of these were ‘single-bias’ incidents, motivated by hatred of race and ethnicity (58.1 percent), religion (22 percent), and sexual orientation and gender identity (17.6 percent). In each category of bias motivation the number of reported crimes increased from 2016 to 2017, part of a five-year upward trend. Hate crimes in the nation’s ten largest cities increased by 12 percent in 2017, reaching the highest level in more than a decade. Some of the increase may be attributed to the greater ‘incivility’ expressed in national politics, such as referring to immigrants and even refugees as ‘invaders.’ Those counties that hosted a Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes in this period. The USA is not the only country where this was happening, of course, but because it is so influential whatever happens here is noticed immediately around the world.
What the hell is happening? What could I say to my grandchildren that would help them to understand this when I was not sure how much of it I understood? I could not simply lie and tell them they were safe because no place in the country is safe, not nightclubs or shopping centers, schools or places of worship. There is no single definition of a ‘mass shooting’ that everyone agrees on, and the number of fatalities from such incidents are only a small fraction of all gun murders. What happened in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, was one of the worst such incidents, but some resulted in even more casualties. And there seems to be no end of them. It is even harder to explain why so little is done to stop these atrocities.
On February 14, 2018, seventeen people were killed and seventeen others wounded at a high school in Parkland, Florida; ten were killed and fourteen wounded at a similar school in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18; and on November 7 a man entered a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and shot at least 25 people, killing twelve of them, before he killed himself. In the previous year, 27 people, including the perpetrator, were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and 59, including the gunman, were killed and over a hundred wounded at a concert in Las Vegas, Nevada. That was the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in US history, so far, and no clear motive was discovered.
Many of these massacres have been hate crimes, however, like the one in an African American church in Charlestown, Virginia, in 2015, when a young white man who was inspired by white nationalism killed nine people. In Orlando, Florida, in 2016, an American of Afghan descent who had pledged allegiance to ISIS shot 99 people, killing 49 of them, at a night club. This was also a hate crime, inspired by racial and ethnic or religious hatred. It has frequently been pointed out that there are many parallels between Islamic terrorism and white supremacist terrorism. Most massacres in the US have been carried out with semi-automatic weapons (generally acquired legally) that are designed to kill as many people as possible in a short period of time - designed, in other words, for mass shootings. Such massacres have tripled in frequency since 2011.
As I write this in October, 2019, one year after the massacre in Pittsburgh, it appears possible there will be more mass shootings in this year than there are days. Two of these occurred within 24 hours of each other, one in Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed and 27 injured on August 4. The other occurred on the previous day, at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people were killed and at least 24 wounded. The police say that the gunman in El Paso posted a white nationalist and anti-immigrant ‘manifesto’ online shortly before the attack. It cited the massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ, and the right-wing ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory called “Great Replacement” as his motivation.
This ‘theory,’ or fantasy, which spread in far-right movements since the late twentieth century, claims that white European populations are being replaced with non-European peoples through a combination of a decline in the birth rate of the former and an increase in mass migration of the latter. As ironic as this theory may sound to the indigenous people of many parts of the world, including the Americas and Australasia, it is adhered to by many prominent people and their followers in Europe and the US. It should be understood as part of a larger and older conspiracy theory of ‘white genocide’ that was popularized in the US by a neo-Nazi, David Lane, in his 1995 White Genocide Manifesto. He claimed that the white people in Western countries were being ‘replaced’ through the connivance of governments that allowed mass migration of non-Europeans and miscegenation. White people, he warned, would become an extinct species. Similar to older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, this is now often presented as a confrontation between civilizations, in this case Muslim and Christian ones.
A wide-ranging network, including the Identitarian movement in Europe, promotes and popularizes these ideas. In the month before the Pittsburgh massacre, Steve King, a Republican Congressman serving his ninth term, endorsed the Great Replacement theory. In an interview, he said, “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization.” King had helped to set the white nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda long before Trump, and Iowa keeps electing him. King has long been an admirer of white nationalist Europeans, such as the leaders of the Austrian Freedom Party who joined him to celebrate Trump’s inauguration. He said of Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” This extreme right-wing ideology that has already inspired massacres such as those in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and El Paso, is entering the mainstream political discourse. References to the Great Replacement theory, promoted by the far-right networks, are rising online, exponentially. Two encouraging events have shown that the far-right terrorist threat is at last being recognized oﬃcially for what it is: a congressional resolution was passed condemning white supremacy, and the Department of Homeland Security has added white terrorism to its list of threats. However, the Trump administration has reduced the resources of that department to combat white terrorism, which suggests that it is not one of his priorities, like building a wall and reducing the number of refugees coming here.
Many of King’s supporters, like Trump’s, deny that he is racist, perhaps in part because extremist ideologies are becoming more mainstream and ‘racist’ sounds extreme. Racism, however, is as mainstream American as apple pie. We should not point to the use of online resources by people like Trump as the cause of widespread bigotry when he is only one recent manifestation of it. Racism has a deep history in the US, as in Europe, and it is so central to the political culture and to the feelings of identity that it is not even visible to many people. It is part of the culture that aﬀects everyone, including those who most frequently and loudly deny its importance, or even its existence. Most Republicans, for example, do not think that the remarks of politicians like King and Trump are racist. When Trump refers to immigrants from “shithole countries,” which in his view include Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, not Norway, or when he tells four non-white Congresswomen to “go back” to where they originally came from, even though three of them were born in the US, Republicans generally close ranks to support him. They assume that white Americans are ‘the norm’ and that ‘others’ are therefore less ‘American,’ and so white supremacy is to be defended. When Trump calls himself “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world” his supporters do not doubt him, because it is how so many of them see themselves.
There is as long a history of denials of racism in the US as there is of the ideology itself - indeed, they seem to have grown together. Even during the Jim Crow period between the 1870s and the 1960s, most white people claimed that blacks were treated fairly. Between 1944 and 1956, when there was still widespread legal discrimination, including segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching, the national Opinion Resarch Center found that over 60 percent of whites said that most African Americans were “treated fairly.” In 2018 a Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey revealed that 53 percent of whites said that blacks did not face a lot of discrimination and this view was found to be especially prevalent among those with the most prejudiced attitudes. Most notably, the hostility towards African Americans and the denial of racism has increased among Republicans since Obama’s presidency and Trump’s inauguration. It seems to be only among white people that there is a myth of a ‘post-racial’ society.
US political culture remains divided not simply on how to deal with racial discrimination but also on whether it even exists. The recent increase in overt white nationalism, of anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant prejudices, is deeply rooted in the center of the political culture because white supremacists have always denied the eﬀects, and even the fact, of racial discrimination in order to try to legitimize pervasive and persistent social inequalities and their own dominant position. “White Power” seems ‘natural’ to so many people that they cannot see it for what it is. In that way it is similar to patriarchy, to which it is closely related. It is to be expected that people who believe they are inherently superior will think they should be privileged and ‘in charge.’ If their social position and authority is challenged they retaliate, and will define themselves as an exclusive group, and even as one that is threatened by ‘others,’ however unrealistic their fear may be.
This dialectic lies behind what we are seeing today; it provides much of the motivation for persistent widespread prejudice and discrimination, and even for numerous atrocities. The new social media simply amplify the message and enable it to spread more quickly and widely, but the content remains much the same. These bigoted and prejudiced beliefs persist in the US, along with patterns of discrimination and privilege, as they have since colonial times. But they exist in a continual struggle with aspirations for social equality and justice, and for unity through embracing diversity. This is what I have seen in Pittsburgh since that October morning in 2017, the good reacting against the bad, because they are part of the same universe.
Last Sunday, on the anniversary of the massacre, there was another overflowing gathering at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, with many of the same people who had been there last year. This time the hall was again filled by women, men, and children, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people with no religion, not only for a solemn tribute to remember those who died a year ago but also looking forward. It was part of a city-wide commemoration: “Remember, Repair, Together Day.” Perhaps this was epitomized by a man who had grown up in the Tree of Life Congregation and was on that day a volunteer with the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh helping to supply things like bags of crayons, and coloring books, and blankets to refugee families. He said that at first he had thought of what happened a year ago as attack on the Jewish community, “But then, everyone in Pittsburgh saw this as an attack on all of us.”
So, how can one explain this complex picture of history, politics, culture, and social psychology to one’s grandchildren? They are frequently bombarded with simple messages that deny this kind of explanation, and that even deny the diﬀerence between facts and opinions. Can we even comprehend why we ourselves think diﬀerently, ‘against the grain’ of this bigotry and cultural exclusivism? To do that we need to examine ourselves for the roots of what has shaped diﬀering ways to think about and to relate to our neighbors and to other human beings on our planet. Such self-examination cannot be achieved simply by looking in the mirror, but requires a close study of history and culture, aa well as biography, and the ways these intersect in society. We may begin, and perhaps need to begin, by acknowledging that the struggle between rejecting and embracing human diﬀerences lies within us all.
Oct. 31, 2018
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Christopher Vecsey, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities and Native American Studies in the Department of Religion; Chair, Department of Religion
Acceptance Speech, Jerome Balmuth Award for Teaching, May 3, 2018,
I read these articles in The New York Times and elsewhere, about higher education. The articles describe faculty who could care less about their students. Faculty who give their lectures and disappear, leaving undergraduates to on-line functions and teaching assistant functionaries. These stories make me shake my head in dismay and non-recognition.
Come to Colgate! See education in action: scholars who are masters of their disciplines and who are committed to teaching -- committed to their students as well as the subject matter -- and are effective in communicating their expertise in classroom, labs, studios, performing spaces, etc. Colgate has many, many superb teachers who deserve this award as much as Lourdes and I do.
Colgate holds its teachers to standards of excellence. The Faculty Handbook describes what excellence might look like, in terms of mastery, commitment, and effectiveness. In reviews we analyze peer appraisals, candidate statements, as well as student evaluations of teaching (what we call SET forms). We have a scrupulous system in the Promotion & Tenure Committee for judging teaching accomplishment.
Colgate faculty live by the code of Tony Aveni’s beautiful book. For Colgate faculty, “Class Is Not Dismissed.” We take our teaching to heart. We take our students to heart.
Sometimes the evidence for excellence in teaching reaches the level of the marvelous.
A few weeks ago we held a symposium, WOMEN AND RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY AND FEMINISM: THE COLGATE HERITAGE IN HONOR OF PROFESSORS MARILYN THIE AND WANDA WARREN BERRY, where we were fortunate to measure the effect of two extraordinary teachers.
As we enter our bicentennial celebration, we must acclaim the most important historical change at Colgate in the past half century: the arrival, in 1970, of women students, formerly excluded, followed by the “Year of the Women,” 1974, when Colgate hired female faculty such as Marilyn Thie, Margaret Maurer and Lynn Staley, who joined pioneers like Wanda Warren Berry and Jane Pinchin. These women saw the need for curricular correction and expansion, and thus Women’s Studies blossomed in 1983.
At our symposium we invited six scholars, all alumnae of Colgate, now professors of Women’s Studies, Religion or Philosophy -- including a member of Colgate’s Board of Trustees and our Provost – Dean of the Faculty -- to reflect upon their experiences as Colgate students, as women, and the influences of our two honored professors, whose pedagogies shaped these alumnae’s vocations.
What we heard in their testimonies -- before audiences of several hundred, over two days, as well as in visits to a half dozen classes -- and you can hear and watch it, too; it is still available on Colgate’s livestreaming archive -- What we heard in their testimonies was absolutely inspirational: testimony about transformational teaching in the feminist mold. So inspirational that we plan to publish the proceedings through Colgate University Press in 2019.
Marilyn Thie, of course, was the first winner of the Balmuth teaching prize; indeed, she won every faculty teaching award at Colgate. Wanda Warren Berry is the most recent recipient, just this past week, fifteen years after her retirement, of the AAUP Professor of the Year Award, for her service in behalf of Affirmative Action. Talk about staying power! Talk about heritage!
Almost everything I will say from here on is from the symposium.
We heard reflections by these two honored teachers who perceived the need to create a wholly new academic discourse, Women’s Studies, bringing the Feminist Movement from the streets to the campus. More than a safe place in East Hall (although it was that), Women’s Studies aimed to include the excluded; to question the doctrines of every discipline; to empower women -- and men, too -- to re-evaluate human values by and for themselves. This was an epistemological revolution, a partnership of teachers and students engaged in disruptive praxis -- re-arranging the seats in a circle, organizing study groups where students could learn from (not merely about) overlooked peoples, disenfranchised base communities inspired by Liberation Theologies.
Our faculty were faced with textbooks in Religion and Philosophy that rarely had considered women’s experiences or perspectives. They had to adapt their scholarly heroes -- the great men in their heads, like Alfred North Whitehead for Marilyn, Søren Kierkegaard for Wanda -- to feminist applications. They had to locate, excavate, and shape a canon of feminist authors, like precious ore, filling their and their students’ bookshelves, in order to educate -- in order to re-educate -- themselves. At the symposium we heard the names of many feminist and womanist authors; we were told how citation has become a form of feminist memory.
As our alumnae describe it, these teachers distinguished themselves not only by their unflagging generosity -- the countless hours of personal mentorship (feminist mentoring matters, we heard repeatedly); the keys to a mentor’s home in order to find a room of one’s own to write a senior thesis -- but also by their revolutionary insights: their consciousness-raising.
Students might have been nonplussed, even enraged at first, by feminist rhetoric. But these students stayed with it. Some said that they underwent something akin to conversion experiences. Employing hermeneutics of suspicion, they came to recognize patriarchal captivity, in which dominant symbolism kept women from articulating their own perceptions, their own identities. The very power of naming had been stifled by hierarchical structures, a matrix of domination. These students felt welling up in them a conviction that the subaltern must speak, and that there is a voice at their disposal; there is a language that formerly could not be articulated. Women did not have to be defined by man-made traditions. Marilyn and Wanda opened the way for women at Colgate to use their God-given intellect to think for themselves. They taught these students the Three R’s: how to read, how to write, and how to roar.
Knowledgeable teachers? Committed teachers? Effective teachers? These descriptors sound like faint praise when applied to Marilyn Thie and Wanda Warren Berry. Their collective political project reached beyond gender differentials in order to address even broader realms in search of justice, especially for the marginalized of the world, indeed, even for the earth itself. Their feminist pedagogy encouraged risk-taking activism toward the undoing of privilege, even the privilege of the academy.
This was (and is) a big job for feminist pedagogy at Colgate, with its male-centric baggage. I still have on the bulletin board of my study at home the famous manifesto by five student feminists in the school paper back in April of 1984. It proclaims, “The Writing is on the Wall.” I say this to students, staff, faculty, and trustees: Check it out. It still reads true.
If Colgate began 200 years ago as a seminary, where men were trained for the ordination track, Women’s Studies galvanized women for the insubordination track. This was teaching to transgress, teaching that instilled confidence in students -- now professors in their own right -- women energized by their own perception, their own coherence.
This form of feminist teaching need not be -- and it should not be -- the only mode of teaching excellence at Colgate. Certainly Jerry Balmuth’s philosophical goading had its own worthy style and content. The Balmuth Award has been won by scientists as well as humanists, conservers as well as reformers. Each winner has his or her own guiding star.
But Marilyn Thie and Wanda Warren Berry met the challenges of their time and their place with vigor and they have left a vivid, living legacy. The infamous wall still stands but there is writing, writing all over it. The curricular call still beckons, to come read that writing, and roar!
Marilyn and Wanda can’t be with us tonight in this room. Marilyn is engaged in the leadership of her religious order, the Sisters of Charity. Wanda is attending a Madison County Democratic Party meeting, organizing toward the future. But they are here in spirit. So, let us give these marvelous teachers our own uproar of applause.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Monday, March 6, 2017
Friday, September 9, 2016
Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies
The July/August issue of Academe includes a committee report, “The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX” that reiterates some of the concerns that have been expressed in this blog over the past couple of years. In particular, the AAUP report argues that “questions of free speech and academic freedom have been ignored in recent positions taken by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education…and by college and university administrators who are expected to oversee compliance measures.” The AAUP subcommittee that wrote the report also found evidence of “overzealousness on the part of administrators and instances of differential treatment of allegations of sexual misconduct.” The whole report is worth reading, but among the most worrisome findings is that “[o]verly broad interpretations of what constitutes a ‘hostile environment’ are increasingly undermining academic freedom, and the enforcement of Title IX does not adequately protect due-process rights and academic governance.” The report ends with a collection of recommendations to OCR, colleges and universities, and faculty members.
Perhaps Colgate is not participating in any of the actions that the AAUP finds problematic, but we need to be vigilant, and one of the key recommendations in the report is for faculty governance to be actively involved in Title IX implementation. Understanding that Colgate has to follow the law (which is not always the same thing as following the advice of our attorneys!), nonetheless I hope that we pay attention to the concerns expressed in the AAUP report when we create, revise, and implement Title IX policies on our campus.
Monday, May 2, 2016
Saturday, September 5, 2015
As part of the FSEM program this fall, all first year students, grouped by seminar, were given a booklet called “Colgate Conversations.” It comes from the University of Michigan, but the copy our students received bears Colgate’s name and must be considered an authorized guide to how we see ourselves. This booklet was used as a guideline for a protracted discussion about issues of race, gender, and sex. I don’t teach an FSEM, but a copy of the booklet was passed on to me. You can read the booklet here. (Access restricted to Colgate University accounts.)
I find “Colgate Conversations” to be very disturbing. Not to mince words, I think it is coercive and anti-intellectual. It is obsessed with sexual behavior, ethnicity, and (in an era when I would hope the agenda would be to bring people together), asks students to self-categorize as members of finely-tuned, if occasionally absurd, groups and sub-groups.
Here are some specific objections, in no particular order:
- Students are directed to categorize themselves sexually. Do the compilers of this booklet not realize that some students are reserved and might find outing themselves a mortifying exercise? What about a student who has not had any sexual experience? What about a student who doesn’t feel attractive? What about a student who feels that he or she is being called upon to self-present in a particular way, because the booklet and Colgate are encouraging it? Isn’t there such a thing as privacy?
- Racial categories. Race is a social construct, and certainly a slippery one. But the booklet’s definition—that is to say, Colgate’s—was news to me. So: Latin@ (I’m copying the spelling) is a race. So, apparently, is Arab-American, although Jewish is an ethnicity. Chinese is an ethnicity. European-American is an ethnicity with a large catch-zone, unlike Guatemalan and Lebanese, which are stand-alone. Guatemalan and Lebanese? Is this shorthand for nation-state? Can’t be: if you look at the booklet, you’ll see that nation of origin is a different category. This is not the work of a first-year student, though it sure sounds like it. This is the voice of an academic institution. The same problems come up with the booklet’s definition of socioeconomic classes—for example, “ruling class.”
- “Preferred Gender Pronouns.” Since that’s the header, I guess these are the gender pronouns that Colgate prefers. As a humanities professor, I teach writing in every course, and after some coaching, I take off points for grammar errors. So I note with some consternation that Colgate prefers the third-person-singular construction “They like themself,” as in, I suppose, “Achilles likes themself.” Colgate also prefers, apparently, the pronouns “ze” and “hir,” as in: “I could tell that Socrates likes themself by the way ze agreed to drink hir hemlock.”
- Finally the section on “intergroup dialog” sounds to me like the hijacking of a reading and response section of a religious service. I quote, preserving the italics of the original: “Dialog calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs/Debate calls for investing whole-heartedly in one’s beliefs.” This is one of thirteen starkly contrasting pairs. Bad, bad, debate, and bad, bad professors who set up debates in their classes as a learning tool. But is this booklet really promoting dialog, or is it promoting a particular way of thinking? There is no place within the booklet that considers starting a dialog with the booklet itself.
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.
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Ever since an international student accused of dating violence was allegedly held prisoner for several days by administrators and Campus Safety , there has been a great deal of debate at Colgate about whether the Equity Grievance Policy (EGP) adequately respects the due-process rights of those charged with violating it. There has, so far, been much less attention paid to another aspect of the EGP that is at least as troubling: it directly threatens the free-speech rights of both students and faculty.
There is significant national concern over the erosion of free speech on American college campuses , and there have been several recent, highly-publicized cases of students and professors' getting hauled before university administrators to answer for speech clearly protected by the First Amendment [3, 4]. Many of these cases involved overly broad anti-harassment policies that were too easily used to punish unpopular, controversial, or insensitive, but not harassing, speech. As it is presently written, the EGP could one day be misused in the same way. We needn't stop talking about the due-process issue, but we should start talking about this one too and demand that the EGP be revised to protect freedom of speech and expression to the maximum extent possible.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan organization which advocates for civil liberties in American academia . (I have low-level involvement with FIRE; disclosure statement below.) FIRE maintains a list of several hundred colleges and universities and rates each according to how well its official policies protect freedom of speech on campus . The highest rating, Green, means that the policies are generally consistent with freedom of speech. Yellow means the policies pose a mild to moderate risk to it (for example, because of inadequate definitions). And Red, the lowest rating, means that the policies “clearly and substantially” violate freedom of speech.
Green ratings are, sadly, rare. The ratings for the top-ranked liberal arts colleges are split about evenly between Yellow and Red . Colgate's is Red . The reason FIRE gives for our Red rating is Section III.B of the Equity Grievance Policy, which defines and prohibits “harassment.”
There is of course nothing inherently wrong with having a policy against harassment – indeed, as a college receiving federal funds, we are legally required to have one. Moreover, as a private college, we are not legally required to respect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty. But our fundamental purpose as an academic institution is to promote critical, well-informed thinking, for which – as famously argued by John Stuart Mill – maximum freedom of speech and expression are absolutely essential. The term “harassment” should therefore be officially defined so as to restrict these as minimally as possible.
Fortunately, such a definition was provided some years ago by the Supreme Court (discussed more in ). In its opinion for Davis v. Monroe County [Georgia] Board of Education (1999), a case involving the sexual harassment of an elementary school student by a classmate, the Court defined sexual harassment in an educational setting as:
“[B]ehavior. . .so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies its victims the equal access to education that Title IX is designed to protect.” 
The applicability of this formulation to racial, homophobic, and other forms of harassment is obvious, and many colleges and universities have adopted it for their own harassment policies. But it is important to note that under the Davis standard, these elements – deliberate, severely offensive behavior targeted at specific individuals; pervasiveness (i.e., the practical inability of victims to avoid or ignore the offending behavior while still receiving the education they are entitled to); and objective offensiveness (meaning any “reasonable person” in the position of the victim would also be offended by the behavior) – must all be present for harassment or (equivalently) the creation of a hostile environment to take place. Otherwise, it may be offensive, but it is not harassment by the legal definition.
The Equity Grievance Policy does not adequately distinguish harassment from merely offensive speech or behavior (referred to henceforth as just “offensive speech”). More ominously, it explicitly allows for unspecified administrative action even when legally-defined harassment is not taking place. While all of the Davis elements are mentioned in the policy , it also contains the following clause, the final sentence of which is specifically cited by FIRE:
“Colgate encourages individuals experiencing or witnessing offensive behavior to make a report as early as possible so as to have the situation corrected before it reaches the level of a hostile environment. Individuals with a concern need not worry about whether the behavior is sufficiently serious to constitute a hostile environment. Colgate may, and in the appropriate circumstances will, take action to respond to offensive behavior even if the behavior does not rise to the level of a hostile environment within the meaning of the law.” (my emphasis)
While the policy does go on to say “[t]he fact that a person was personally offended by a statement or incident does not alone constitute a violation of this policy,” it is completely unclear what would constitute “appropriate circumstances,” what “action” Colgate might take, and whether the “response” would include any formal proceedings or disciplinary action against the offender. The document outlining the Equity Grievance Process  does not provide obvious answers to these questions either.
The drafters of the Equity Grievance Policy may not have intended this clause as a loophole to allow the suppression of offensive but non-harassing speech, but in effect it is exactly that, as FIRE recognizes. The mere fact that someone took offense won't necessarily get you in trouble, and presumably the offensive speech must be along the lines of the examples listed in the policy, e.g., “displaying racially, ethnically, religiously offensive pictures, symbols, cartoons, or graffiti.” But otherwise, it is impossible to tell from the policy where the limits of acceptable speech lie.
What, for example, would happen to someone who was displaying a racially, ethnically, or religiously offensive picture or symbol in his dorm room or office, but wasn't actually harassing anyone per the legal definition? In the absence of Davis-like standards, what determines the threshold at which the “totality of circumstances” such as “effect or impact on the individual and the learning community” results in administrative “correction”? How would people displaying pictures or symbols that might be considered offensive be able to judge their risk of being charged under the EGP?
Without answers to such questions – and because policies outlast administrations, any answers must be clearly stated in or inferable from the policy itself – this clause erects a Kafkaesque disciplinary system in which anyone could report anyone else for, within very broad guidelines, being “offensive,” and the offender find him- or herself subject to official “correction” via processes, standards, and penalties that are largely left to the imagination. The resulting threat to freedom of speech (as well as due process) at Colgate should be self-evident. A policy so vague about what people are allowed to say deeply chills public discourse: students and faculty are forced to walk on eggshells and sanitize every utterance for fear of crossing some invisible line and getting suspended, expelled, denied tenure, or fired. Such an environment is toxic to the robust debate and free inquiry on which the intellectual growth of both students and professors depends. Just the possibility of being summoned for a chat with a dean will intimidate many people into self-censorship. And it is hardly difficult to imagine some future administration using this loophole to shut down “offensive” critics, or to enforce whatever political ideology is currently dominant.
After all the troubles of the past few years, why would we grant any administration this kind of seemingly arbitrary power to police our speech?
The only solution that is consistent with freedom of speech and Colgate's mission is to remove the problematic clause from the Equity Grievance Policy entirely, or at least have it state unambiguously that no one will face any kind of administrative intervention for anything they say as long as it doesn't fall into the very few categories of speech – harassment (as defined by the Supreme Court), making credible threats of violence or suicide, shouting down an invited speaker, etc. – that directly violate someone else's legal rights or trigger the legal duty of the university to respond to imminent danger, or that directly and seriously disrupt Colgate's normal operations. There should be a high bar for determining whether to proceed to initial hearings after a complaint.
Our campus climate is a major concern, and there are any number of non-coercive measures Colgate can, and should, take to improve it. There's nothing wrong with encouraging people to be sensitive to other people's feelings, because offensive speech does carry undeniable emotional and social costs. But forcing people to be sensitive to other people's feelings, especially at an academic institution that in principle places supreme value on the life of the mind, always costs a great deal more in the long run.
Disclosure and Disclaimer:
Before writing this post, I discussed the reasons for FIRE's Red free-speech rating for Colgate over email with Samantha Harris, FIRE's Director of Policy Research. The opinions expressed here should be taken as mine and not hers or FIRE's (nor Colgate's, nor the AAUP's). I am a faculty member of the FIRE student network, and in graduate school I was part of a group of student activists FIRE supported in a website censorship dispute with the administration. I have never held any kind of official position with FIRE, and I had no involvement with or input into its Red rating for Colgate.
References and Notes:
7. Of US News and World Report's top 26 national liberal arts colleges (including ties), 12 are rated Red and 11 Yellow by FIRE. Three (Vassar and two service academies) are rated “exempt” because their policies explicitly prioritize civility and military discipline, respectively, over free speech.
10. http://www.colgate.edu/offices-and-services/deanofthecollege/biassexualmisconductresources/eonondiscriminationpolicy#III (section B)
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.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
What follows is a letter written to Colgate’s outgoing and incoming leadership following the Faculty Meeting of April 27, 2015 at which outgoing Dean Doug Hicks defended the new policy of requiring that applicants for faculty positions must include a statement concerning “their approach to teaching and/or scholarship in a diverse and inclusive educational environment.” Weeks later, in response to widespread expressions of concern, the DAC and incoming Dean, agreed to make optional the reference to “scholarship.” Some thought the change made a substantial policy difference; others did not. My letter, however, concerns not the policy as such, but the procedure by which it was enacted. With the issue still unresolved and a new academic year commencing, I thought it appropriate at this time to make this document an “open letter.”
To: Doug Hicks, Dean of the Faculty and Provost; Jeff Herbst, President; Connie Harsh, Interim Dean of the Faculty and Provost-elect, Jill Harsin, Interim President-elect, Alan Cooper, Chair of the FAC
From: Stanley C. Brubaker, Professor of Political Science
Regarding: Boilerplate Diversity Language
Earlier this spring, it was announced that henceforth all ads for faculty should contain the following “boilerplate diversity” language:
Colgate strives to be a community supportive of diverse perspectives, identities, and ways of life. Candidates should describe in their cover letter [or other statement] their approach to teaching and/or scholarship in a diverse and inclusive educational environment.As you know, this “boilerplate” has been a cause of concern to many, both because of the language itself and the process by which it has been imposed. For reasons developed below, I think the language should be debated before the Faculty this Fall. Hence this letter focuses only on the irregular and unprecedented procedure by which it has been asserted to be the policy of Colgate University.
At the last faculty meeting (April 27, 2015), Bob Turner, Acting President of the Colgate chapter of the AAUP, posed this question for Dean Hicks:
“The Faculty Handbook description of the Faculty Affairs Committee says that it shall propose to the Faculty policies and recommendations on policies on faculty appointments. Yet the FAC minutes of March 9, when the committee discussed the new diversity language in job ads, indicate that you said there that “boilerplate language in ads” was the purview of the DAC. The minutes go on to say “It would be appropriate for FAC to endorse this [diversity] language, but it is within the purview of FAAOC.” I see nothing in the Handbook description of FAAOC that suggests it can authorize new hiring policies, but the Handbook clearly indicates that the FAC should consider new hiring policies and then propose them to the Faculty. But the FAC minutes suggest that you believe it was unnecessary to bring this diversity language to the Faculty before making it mandatory in all job ads for next year. I don’t mind revealing that everyone who attended the AAUP caucus disagreed. Could you please explain your reasoning?”Dean Hicks’s response focused on two points: a) a distinction between “faculty policies” (the province of FAC) and “recruitment of faculty” (the province of FAAOC; or perhaps FAAOC and DAC combined) and b) precedent (policy of this sort has always been adopted this way).
Neither of these responses is persuasive. First, the matter of precedent. Ever since the issue of affirmative action arose, the Colgate Faculty has been deeply involved with its recruitment strategy. Indeed, it was the Faculty who adopted Colgate’s initial affirmative action/recruitment plan in November 4, 1974. The Faculty continued to revisit the issue with resolutions revising the "specific goals and plans for action for recruiting, hiring, and retention of faculty, administration, and staff” in Meetings of November 6, 1978; November 2, 1981; April 9, 1984; April 3, 1989; and again in November 4, 1996. If there has been any change in Faculty responsibilities concerning recruitment of faculty, such has not been recorded in the Faculty Handbook. Nor does the Faculty Handbook note the adoption of any policy change regarding Affirmative Action recruitment that was not brought before the Faculty.*
What of the distinction between “faculty policies” and “recruitment of faculty”? As already indicated, this distinction has no basis in Colgate history. Nor is the distinction logical: "recruitment" will largely determine who the "faculty" is. Furthermore, even if, arguendo, we assume some historical and logical foundation for the distinction, we should recall just what are the responsibilities of the FAAOC and DAC regarding “recruitment of faculty.” As indicated in the Faculty Handbook and FAAOC’s title itself, that committee has responsibility for "overseeing faculty recruitment and hiring from the standpoint of Colgate's affirmative action program" (emphasis added). To "oversee" is not to create. The only semblance of a pretense that the adoption of this new “boilerplate” language could be "oversight" would be that it is a minor administrative tweaking of language already adopted by the faculty. Obviously such is not the case with this controversial policy. And what of the DAC? According to the Faculty Handbook, and as indicated by its title, the DAC "advises the Dean of the faculty on matters of academic administration such as academic programs and faculty staffing needs." And of course it is disingenuous to claim that although neither the FAAOC nor the DAC individually have responsibilities, through some magic of interpretive construction, together they can have responsibility. Finally, it can only be called a move of desperation to throw the FAC into the stew of pseudo-responsibility (FAAOC+DAC+FAC), since as Bob’s question reminds us, that committee’s responsibilities are to “propose to the Faculty policies and recommendations of policies on faculty appointments…." Because this boilerplate language was adopted contrary to Colgate procedures and Faculty prerogatives, I strongly urge that its operation be suspended—or at least made optional—until the matter can properly be presented before the Faculty this coming Fall.
* In search for precedent at the Faculty Meeting, the Dean traveled to the field of University Programs, urging that here too, committee consultation had served as an adequate substitute for Faculty approval. The inclusion of this language in nearly all faculty ads--that candidates will be expected to contribute to “all-university programs such as the Core curriculum”—actually cuts quite against the Dean’s argument. Our Core program and staffing needs, like our Affirmative Action policy, is something that has been repeatedly brought before the Faculty. In contrast, the “boilerplate diversity” language proceeds from the 21 Points, negotiated between the President/Deans and students who chose to hold a marathon sit-in and has never been presented as such to the Faculty, save for voluntary faculty workshops concerning diversity, under the rubric of “faculty development” (a part of Point 8).
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.