Committed to International Diversity

With all the attention being devoted in recent weeks to the assassination of Suleimani and potential war with Iran, to Ukraine and impeachment, and to China and the coronavirus, it’s easy to lose sight of an isolationist trend in Washington worrisome in its own right. Although not everyone who wants to “make America great” means to cut it off from the rest of the world, the current regime’s isolationist instincts are powerful, persistent and perverse.

This came home to me during my recent trip to India to visit with Wesleyan families and to talk with prospective liberal arts students. Many told me that the United States seems less welcoming than before, and concerned parents wondered whether their children would feel at home in a country that seemed determined to cast foreigners in a harsh light. In some cases, they were attuned to this hostility because they saw their own government in Delhi using similar tactics. I tried to assure them that most Americans were open to meeting foreigners and that our traditions of hospitality remain strong. But they contrasted the current US climate with what they see in Canada, and to some extent in Australia.

Here at Wesleyan, we have a long tradition of collaboration with scholars and teachers from outside the United States. Nobel Prize winning chemist Satoshi Omura still looks back on his time as a researcher at Wes as formative to his experiments in developing new medicines from organic materials. African drummers like Abraham Adzenyah, Javanese gamelan virtuosos like Sumarsam, and dancers like Eiko Otake, have made Wes their home for decades because of its open learning environment, one that cultivates respect for tradition as well as enthusiasm for innovation. I proudly told my interlocutors in India about our longstanding Navaratri Festival of music and dance, and about the recent book by Hari Krishnan on how Bollywood creatively appropriated those traditions.

Shortly after I returned to campus, the Trump administration announced a new set of travel restrictions on people coming to the US. On Jan. 31 the President signed a proclamation banning visa applications from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria. The reason given was that these countries presented risks because of their security procedures and information sharing. The administration’s announcement also included harsh immigration restrictions for people from Sudan and Tanzania.

The announcement is of a piece with the administration’s goal to restrict immigration of (almost) all kinds. For months in 2019, it refused to sign off on a new framework for refugees – the result being that in October ZERO refugees were legally admitted to the US. That’s the first time a month went by without the US providing legal refuge to someone. When President Trump eventually approved a legal ceiling for those seeking refuge here, it was for a mere 18,000 refugees, an all-time low. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page complained in regard to the latest executive order that “punishing innocent people trying to come to America legally undermines Mr. Trump’s claim that he opposes illegal immigration, not immigrants more broadly.”

At Wesleyan, we value the vibrant, cosmopolitan community that we build in Middletown. About 15% of our students come from outside the US, and we cherish the opportunities to learn from one another. Rather than blocking off parts of the world from interactions with Americans, we believe in building positive, effective interconnectivity. Rather than refusing to listen to others we perceive as different from ourselves, we should cultivate the sharing of stories as a path to a broader more powerful education.

Let’s take Ahmed Badr’s ’20 Narratio project as our inspiration. Ahmed came to the US as a refugee from Baghdad and will graduate from Wesleyan in May. Determined to empower others, he created Narratio which invites youth around the world to share their stories  through the publishing of poetry, photography, art and narrative. Already Narratio has published 300+ works across 18+ countries.

Let’s push back against the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee messages coming from Washington. And let’s remember to listen to one another’s stories – lending an ear with special care to those that may come from faraway places.

 

 

 

Rejecting Bigotry is Core to Our Mission

This morning I published this essay at Inside Higher Education

 

I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.

Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.

In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?

Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.

Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.

As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world — including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum — not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.

As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.

America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

We Are All Immigrants!

In the face of administrative orders from the White House that deny entry to the United States to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, we feel it is important to reaffirm Wesleyan University’s commitment to its students, faculty and staff, regardless of their country of origin or their religious beliefs.

Wesleyan has welcomed and will continue to welcome students to apply for admission and, if accepted, to enroll regardless of their immigration status. Despite threatening language from the White House, we will continue to treat undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school. We are appalled by the religious test that is included in this new immigration order, and we reaffirm that there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion on our campus.

Our international programs, our financial aid policies and employment programs comply with all applicable Federal and State laws. However, we will object to and oppose administrative dictates that violate the law and the Constitution and, if necessary, we will work with others to do so in court.

Our Public Safety Officers do not inquire about the immigration status of the members of the Wesleyan community, and they will not do so in the future. Except where we are required to do so by law, we intend to protect our ability to refuse to partner or assist ICE or law enforcement on questions concerning purely immigration status matters. In particular, we are committed to the privacy of all student information, including immigration status.

Since our very beginnings, our country has been immeasurably strengthened by immigrants. Turning our backs on those in need today is worse than heartless. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, discrimination on the basis of national origin has been illegal. The idea of a religious test for immigrants from some parts of the world is reprehensible, and we believe it to be unconstitutional. These are matters that will be resolved in the courts. Meanwhile, Wesleyan University will remain steadfast in our commitment to treat immigrants and refugees with the dignity and respect they deserve. This is what we mean when we say we are a Sanctuary Campus.

Wesleyan is an institution of open-minded inquiry and education, and as such we refuse bigotry and demagoguery. As I’ve written before, “being horrified is not enough.” We must take our revulsion against the politics of fear and scapegoating, and turn it into efforts to create inclusive communities that celebrate diversity while building compassionate solidarity.

SCOTUS Affirms Affirmative Action

I was delighted today to learn that the Supreme Court has upheld the ability of colleges and universities to practice a holistic admissions process that includes attention to race.  This will provide opportunities to historically marginalized groups while giving the whole campus culture the benefits of diversity. Grades, or test scores, or any one ranking would not produce an educationally worthy outcome.  A key passage in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, put it this way:

A system that selected every student through class rank alone would exclude the star athlete or musician whose grades suffered because of daily practices and training. It would exclude a talented young biologist who struggled to maintain above-average grades in humanities classes. And it would exclude a student whose freshman-year grades were poor because of a family crisis but who got herself back on track in her last three years of school, only to find herself just outside of the top decile of her class.

For education to play a role for social mobility and against entrenched inequality, we need affirmative action as part of a holistic admissions process. This allows schools to build classes that give students powerful learning experiences and individuals opportunities to convert their academic experience into empowerment beyond the university.

As pleased as I am with this court ruling, I am dismayed that the deadlocked  SCOTUS has stymied President Obama’s efforts to make use of more humane immigration policies for people who have already built lives in communities across the United States. In the coming years, Wesleyan will consider as domestic applicants the undocumented students who have had the great bulk of their schooling in the USA. But I am so sorry their families will continue to live with the threat of deportation because of this ruling.

It’s up to all of us to make what Carol Geary Schneider, outgoing president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has called “constructive engagement with difference.” I’ll end this post with her good words:

Even as we celebrate this important Supreme Court decision affirming campus diversity as a compelling educational interest, therefore, I urge educators across the country to recommit to the hard work of holding our institutions, our students, our faculty, and ourselves responsible for helping students achieve this essential capacity—constructive engagement with difference—that a quality college education includes. Creating a diverse campus community is the first step to achieving this goal; preparing students to work productively across difference—whatever their major—is the next critical frontier in higher education’s long-term efforts to make excellence inclusive.