Hurricane Relief for the U.S. Virgin Islands

I received the following note from a faculty member and wanted to share it:

As many of you know, many Caribbean islands are still recovering from the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria last month. The United States Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John are the childhood homes of Professors Rashida Shaw McMahon and Tiphanie Yanique, and the current homes of their families. These islands were struck twelve days apart by Irma and Maria, both as category 5 hurricanes. The airports and post offices are now open and, with your help, we would like to send small packages of life-sustaining goods to the region.

To this effort, we have assembled a small relief drive that will run from this Wednesday (October 18th) through next week Friday (October 27th). Donations will be collected in bins located in the Downey House lounge (294 High Street) and The Shapiro Writing Center (116 Mount Vernon), from 8a.m. to 6p.m. Please see below for our list of suggested donations.

We thank you in advance for your consideration, as there are many charities and people in need, both nationally and globally.

FOOD ITEMS
Nonperishable candy
Nonperishable snacks
Peanut Butter (small jar)

RECREATION ITEMS
Coloring books
Crayons
Paperback books
Playing cards
Miniature board games

TOILETRIES
Baby wipes
Deodorant
Flushable wipes (i.e. Cottonelle)
Hand sanitizer
Tampons/Pads
Toothbrushes
Toothpaste

SUPPLIES
Batteries (all sizes)
Bug repellent for skin
Bug spray
Flashlights (small)
Ziploc bags (gallon size)
Ziploc bags (“Big Bags” size for storage)

Intellectual Diversity and Liberal Education

Late in the summer the Hechinger Report asked me to write an opinion piece on the importance of “intellectual diversity.” I cross-post that essay here.

Faculty and administrators know that, in principle, if you are never asked to examine, let alone defend, your beliefs, your education will be deficient.

That’s one of the key reasons we educators value diversity, including intellectual diversity: people with different points of view make you think about what you believe.

When there is a strong ideological bias among faculty and students — which there is at many schools (particularly selective ones in the Northeast) — and when as a result beliefs go unexamined, people will learn less.

I myself share the leftist leanings of the university world, and until a few years ago I supposed them to be just rational dimensions of scholarship or benign assumptions about social justice, fairness and equality.

As I talked about these issues with people outside the academy, however, I had to confront the fact that I was taking for granted many ideas or values that needed discussion and argument.

People who didn’t agree with me about the content of what I called social justice were not actually in favor of injustice. When I turned to my colleagues in the academy, many seemed uninterested in (or even incapable of) discriminating between their own political views and the issues with which they were concerned in their professional work.

One may never be asked to legitimate one’s assumptions (and thus understand them more profoundly) if all participants in the conversation share those same assumptions. That’s why diversity is an educational issue and not just a question of political fairness.

The cultivated parochialism of American college campuses should not be surprising. After all, across America, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information. This has always happened to some extent; it’s easier to be with people who share your views.

Today, however, we are able to curate the information we receive so that we are validated more than we are informed. As George Packer recently noted, “we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness.” Academia suffers from some of these same tendencies.

Academia may be vulnerable to protests from the right about hypocritical intellectual intolerance (“left-wing tyranny”), but this is surely a case of “protesting too much.” Intellectual narrow-mindedness is hardly limited to the left. Harvard’s Kennedy School, for example, just rescinded an invitation to Chelsea Manning, who went to jail for disclosing classified information that exposed murderous government misconduct. Harvard disinvited her because of complaints from current and former CIA officials who themselves condone the use of torture. When left wing professors, like Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, give speeches critical of the current regime, they don’t just get criticized; they receive death threats. Conservatives have gotten a lot of mileage out of complaining about so-called campus totalitarians, but intolerance is, in turns out, a widely shared value.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and in recent years it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information ― be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news ― that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. Instead of seeing disagreement as an occasion for learning, many today have become so unaccustomed to robust exchanges of ideas that they feel threatened when confronted with information and arguments with which they may disagree or with which they are simply unfamiliar.

This is anathema to pragmatic liberal education, a broad, contextual form of learning that has been the hallmark of American higher education at its best.

We can change this unhappy trajectory. Instead of training our students to call out as morally inferior people with whom they have intellectual differences, we must cultivate curiosity and openness. We must highlight and enhance the consideration of alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses.

By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

In the late 1960s, many schools steered away from enforced homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people could learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what has come to be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation. Today we must ensure that intellectual diversity is part of this mix.

A “dynamic community” is one in which members have to navigate difference — including intellectual and political difference. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.

We want our students to be stimulated by intellectual, aesthetic and political differences; we want them to treat those differences as assets for learning.

The alternative is to shield oneself from difference, to protect one’s prejudices by interacting only with others who share them. A liberal education should enable graduates to see differences among people not as threats but as tools for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.

Academic departments should be willing to discomfort themselves similarly in hiring new professors. Search committees should see political, cultural and intellectual differences as resources for a more powerful education just as admissions officers do. Intentionally cultivating such diversity in the student body and on the faculty is key to fulfilling the promise of pragmatic liberal education.

Tyshawn Sorey, MacArthur Fellow

His music is challenging and beautiful, makes you want to move, makes you think, makes you feel while you move and think. Tyshawn Sorey is both an alumnus and a new faculty member — and now he is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship!

Tyshawn Sorey, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Wesleyan University, Mittletown, CT. on Sept. 21, 2017.

We salute Professor Sorey and look forward to musical adventures over many years to come.

 

Podcast on Intellectual Diversity and Free Speech

Yesterday I was very pleased to hear the pointed, smart questions posed to lecturer Mark Bauerlein, who was meant to be making arguments about non-conformity and political correctness. Students pointed out that his so-called non-conformity or anti-political correctness has also been a cover for mobs energized by misogyny, racist hatred and resentment. Others emphasized that intellectual diversity shouldn’t only be about adding conservative voices to the campus mix, it should also be about adding perspectives outside of the technocratic, liberal mainstream (and this student didn’t mean more Trump supporters). Wesleyan students and faculty certainly were able to listen and respond to the speaker with critical perspectives from which everyone learned, myself included.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed at Wesleyan about related issues. Here is our conversation about free speech and intellectual diversity, this time in podcast form.

“Where the hell did he get automatic weapons?”

That was the question asked by the brother of Stephen Paddock, the latest American mass murderer whose access to weapons turned whatever madness he had inside into an immense public menace. Of course, our hearts go out to the many, many victims of the carnage, but our thoughts and energies have to turn to prevention. We must implement common sense gun control. I can do no better than to quote Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

It must be said that nowhere else but in America do these horrific, large-scale mass shootings happen with this degree of regularity. Tragically, this epidemic is uniquely American.

This madness has to stop. And the collective silence from Congress in the face of these mass shootings is complicity — it sends a quiet message that as a legislative body, these murders are something that we are willing to accept.

It’s time for us to stop pretending that there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic.

There are. And the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

I am not ashamed to admit that no legislation will suddenly stamp out every act of mass violence in this country. But the excuse that legislative action is not a guarantee that we will prevent future tragedies is just a mask for cowardice, or cold-hearted political calculation.

Should we pass comprehensive background checks? Should we take weapons off the streets that are designed solely to kill lots of people with speed and efficiency? Should we do more to ensure records are getting into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System? Should we act to make sure it’s easier to get mental health care than it is to buy a gun in this country?

Yes. Yes. Yes. To every one of those questions, yes.

At Wesleyan, we can inform ourselves about the role of guns in our history this semester at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns. Here’s the schedule.

Human concerns — that’s what will lead us to mourn the victims of this massacre and what must inspire us pass common sense gun control.

Reflecting Again on Free Speech on Campus

The Washington Post asked me to review this slim book on free speech by two senior administrators at the University of California. I repost it here.

Surveys show that more than 70 percent of college students believe that offensive speech should be subject to disciplinary action, and many commentators profess shock at this lack of commitment to the principle of free speech. What’s this country coming to? Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, academic leaders at the University of California, believe that the commitment to free speech is not only an essential value for any democracy, it is the value upon which all other democratic values depend. They take the “free market” approach to campus speech: Just as more competition in the economic marketplace makes it more likely that goods and services will improve, so more competition in the “marketplace of ideas” makes it more likely that better theories and practices will be developed. The cure for offensive, hurtful talk should be “more speech,” not the regulation of speech. It is through more speech that avenues for social change and scientific advances are created. It is through more speech that bigoted attitudes about minority groups are changed. Free speech, in this view, is the fuel for progress, bending the arc of history toward prosperity, understanding and justice.

As a teacher and president of a university, I find much to agree with in Chemerinsky and Gillman’s account of campus speech issues. And I share their concern that too many people fail to recognize that restrictions on expression have most often been used by those in power to censor those who are trying to create social change. I can admire that the authors, themselves in positions of academic authority, maintain what they call “an instinctive distrust of efforts by authorities to suppress speech.” But I cringe when these senior university officials glorify their favorite examples of liberal social change (such as the first years of the free speech movement at Berkeley) and self-righteously proclaim, “If you value social order and conformity more highly than you value liberty and democracy, then you will not support free speech no matter what else we say.” Readers may be forgiven for wondering whether they must be conformists if they fail to agree.

To find justifications for their dogmatic approach to freedom of expression, these fundamentalists, like so many others, look to the past. “History demonstrates,” they write with abandon, “that there is no way to define an unacceptable, punishment-worthy idea without putting genuinely important new thinking and societal critique at risk.” Their rhetoric suggests that a succession of horrible events will be the unintended consequence of even modest restraints on expression. If any idea is regulated, they seem to think, all ideas are at risk for censorship. As many have done before them, they quote John Milton’s argument that individual opinions must be allowed to flourish if we are to pursue truth. But as Stanley Fish has pointed out, Milton indeed defended diversity of opinion — among Protestants but not Catholics: “Them we extirpate,” Milton wrote.

Fish and others have underscored that defenses of free speech always exclude something. For Milton, it was Catholics; for some today, it might be child pornography or incitements to violence. Usually, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

Even Chemerinsky and Gillman recognize that the marketplace of ideas on campus needs some regulation. Harassing speech can be punished, they aver, but only if true harassment is taking place. Although they don’t acknowledge it, this is a political determination — a judgment about discrimination, history and power. They write that “speech should be subject to punishment if it causes a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety,” but they insist that only physical safety counts. This, too, is a political judgment about what really counts as harm. Making judgments about harassment is something professors and administrators have to do — but there is no evidence that this leads to conformism or authoritarian control of expression.

Issues concerning either the Citizens United ruling or the value of equality don’t get much attention in “Free Speech on Campus.” And the failure of the marketplace of ideas to create intellectual diversity on many campuses goes unremarked. To be fair, this is a very brief book, and it does a solid job of exploring some of the issues facing professors, administrators and students today. Chemerinsky and Gillman maintain that professional norms should determine how people speak in class, but they are adamant that outside the classroom any regulation of expression must ignore the content of what is being said. They are convinced that the regulation of content, even when the intention is to protect the vulnerable, puts us on a path to authoritarian censorship.

FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS

By Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Yale. 197 pp. $26

Thoughts for Mexico and the Caribbean

What a horrific season we have seen, with hurricanes and floods ravaging towns, cities and entire communities…and now this massively destructive earthquake killing and injuring so many in and around Mexico City. Our hearts go out to those afflicted, and we search for ways to support those who succor to the distressed.

As Dean Mike Whaley recently wrote to the student body, “Our goal in Student Affairs is to reach out to students whose family and friends may be impacted by these events (as the class deans have already done with those students who we know are from south Texas, Louisiana, the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Florida) and/or who may be studying abroad in these areas. Today we will add those who may be impacted by last night’s earthquake in Mexico to our outreach. …The entire Student Affairs team looks forward to working with our caring student body to find ways that all of us can together help the many communities who will need our support in the coming months.  Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are with the many who have lost so much and who are in harm’s way.”

What a horrific season we have seen! And still the season turns. Among those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah this week, there will be prayers for those whose lives have been overturned in recent weeks. As the new year begins, we will turn ourselves toward healing and toward peace.

 

 

 

We Must Not Turn Back the Clock on Sexual Assault

The following is cross-posted with the Washington Post.

When I was a student in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not uncommon for male professors to use their classroom authority to initiate sexual relations with their students. Of course, teachers didn’t see it quite that way, thinking their evident charms just encouraged their young charges to act on their desires. But once activists and authorities put these abusive relationships in the spotlight, it became clear that the sexual attention from those with power to grade them could be an important restriction on students’ educational opportunities. Sexual pressure from those in official positions on campus was often a type of harassment, and in its most blatant forms a civil rights issue.

Building on this activist work, one of the Obama administration’s most significant legacies in higher education was its use of Title IX and the Office for Civil Rights to deal with sexual harassment assault on campus, especially by other students. “Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” Vice President Joe Biden declared in the spring of 2011. “That’s why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities, and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus.” Three years later, President Barack Obama made this work even more personal in launching notalone.gov, a website to help survivors of sexual violence: “We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”

The Trump administration has made no secret of its disdain for strict prohibitions on sexual assault and harassment. As President Trump famously said, “when you’re a star … you can do anything.” Such an attitude coming from our national bully pulpit, combined with a blanket critique of campus disciplinary proceedings, threatens to undermine much of the progress of the last decade. There is, of course, room for improvement in campus proceedings, and strong criticism may be warranted in the handling of particular cases. Many have questioned the lower evidentiary requirements for finding someone responsible for assault (“preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing”). Although this standard of proof parallels requirements in many civil cases, it can be problematic when one considers the profound effects of a false conviction.

At my university, we regularly review procedures to ensure that adjudication is supportive of those who come forward with reports of being attacked, and that the process is fair in assigning any responsibility to a particular individual. We will pay close attention to the reports filed with the Department of Education in the coming weeks, and we hope to learn from them. It is clear that universities must continue to protect the presumption of innocence and due process for anyone facing serious allegations, even as they protect the rights and well-being of those who have been assaulted.

Of course, easier said than done. Given the ambiguity that often exists around consent, some critics claim that colleges and universities would be better off not dealing at all with the sexual behavior of their students. But what happens when that behavior becomes violent? For many critics there is a basic bottom line: sexual assault is a crime. Use the criminal-justice system and not the code of student conduct, they say, to determine if a crime occurred and what the consequences should be.

This criticism is simplistic and out of touch with the realities of student lives and the criminal-justice system. At Wesleyan, we work closely with local law enforcement so that if a survivor of sexual assault wants to pursue a criminal complaint, she or he has a clear, workable path to do so. But those who point to the criminal justice system as an arena of fairness for rape victims are at best being naive. Cooperating with the criminal-justice system should in no way ease the burden on colleges to create a more equitable campus culture. Federal officials in the Obama years were right to remind us of this burden in case the voices of often vulnerable student groups were not coming through clearly enough.

Adjudication guidelines and the spectrum of a college’s responsibility in regard to sexual harassment and assault will doubtless continue to evolve, but it would be a huge setback if new policies discouraged victims from reporting and schools retreated to smug satisfaction about the lack of sexual assault complaints on their campuses. Colleges should make it easier for students to report assaults and to have confidence in a process of adjudication.

Higher education must not be allowed to return to a time when schools could turn a blind eye to sexual assault without fear of consequences. As survivors came to realize that they “are not alone,” they forced colleges to take sexual assault seriously as a civil rights issue. Part of this was just shining a bright light on the problem — for example, requiring the publication of assault statistics. At my own university, there was a sharp increase in the number of reported sexual assaults. This is a painful, painful process — but a necessary one. Colleges that have few to no reported incidents of sexual assault are today viewed not with admiration, but with suspicion.

The Obama administration was not “authoritarian” in insisting that colleges and universities have a responsibility to try to correct abusive aspects of student culture that often prevent women (and members of LGBTQ communities) from having access to the same benefits of higher education that most men do. Accusations of overreach should remind us of complaints decades ago about the federal government’s so-called excessive role in promoting desegregation, and they dovetail alarmingly with pleas from today’s polluters (and their new friends at the Environmental Protection Agency) who grumble about the government’s “overreach” in trying to combat climate change.

Clearer expectations and better disciplinary procedures are being developed at many universities, and we must calibrate campus disciplinary proceedings so as to protect the innocent. But we must also resist the urge to turn back the clock to a time when those who were raped were greeted with mistrust and worse. Lately the public has been treated to a litany of cases of men whose parents complain about their innocence, of sexually detailed stories of murky encounters that are subsequently recoded as assaults, and of tribunals that use murky pseudo-science to understand trauma and memory. These stories should not obscure the fact that sexual assault destroys lives and undermines a university’s ethical obligation and educational mission. We in higher education must protect the rights of the accused without relaxing the civil rights imperative to eliminate sexual assault as a part of campus culture. It’s our job.

Free Speech and Inclusion

Now that the academic year is underway, I am often asked about how Wesleyan handles controversy – from government policies that affect higher ed to campus speakers who take unpopular positions. Sometimes those positions, in addition to being unpopular, incite action that can harm individuals or groups. What to do?

Wesleyan students, faculty and administrators alike have made clear their commitment to making our campus inclusive, and that commitment starts with wanting people to feel free and safe. That said, the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. For everyone to have equal access to our educational resources, the campus must be without violence and intimidation; at the same time a campus without challenge would be anti-educational. Although it is crucial to pay attention so as to eliminate subtle forms of harassment, we must also be vigilant in respecting broad rights to speak freely. Beware of those who offer protection! Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when authorities limit freedom of expression in the name of civility, safety or security. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be willing to risk giving offense for the sake of creating new opportunities for thinking.

At campuses like Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and UC Berkeley, we’ve seen incidents in which protestors shut down a speaker whose views they found anathema. At Wesleyan, we recognize the rights of protestors; at the same time, we ensure that those invited to speak on our campus get a hearing. This usually proceeds without problems because invitations go to scholars or other public figures accustomed to engaging in dialogue based in evidence and reasoning. At campuses where purveyors of hate, or celebrities famous only for their viciousness have been invited to speak because of their ability to provoke, it is hardly surprising that some people have, in fact, been provoked. But attempting to shut down speakers only plays into the hands of those who in the long run want to undermine the ability of colleges and universities to expand how we think and what we know.

I consider it my duty as university president to ensure that students, faculty and staff have opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. I have and will continue to defend freedom of expression – cognizant that not everyone has equal access to the tools for making use of that freedom and adamant that “freedom of expression” never be allowed to legitimize persecution. I will continue to support the right to speak out with views that may be at odds with the campus mainstream, but I will not countenance harassment. That’s a commitment to free speech, and I view it as core to the educational enterprise.

Events at Charlottesville underscored the problems that arise when exercises in intimidation are permitted under the guise of promoting dialogue and discussion. Our obligation to eradicate harassment entails a commitment to stop those who would bully the disenfranchised, to stop those who would terrorize others for their own purposes. That’s a commitment to equity and inclusion – also core to the educational enterprise.

Engaging with difference, including intellectual diversity, is essential for learning at the highest level. We learn from one another through our differences as well as our commonalities, and, in so doing, we can build meaningful solidarity – learning to care for one another.

I look forward to a year full of learning, engagement and care!