University of Chicago officials are condemning recent events at which fraternities planned activities that were disparaging of Latinos and women, The Chicago Sun-Times reported. In one case, a fraternity had pledges wear sombreros and mow the house lawn while Latin music played. Another fraternity announced a party with the theme "Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes."
It was a fairly typical lunch at an academic conference in the East after the New Hampshire primary in 2008. There was a smattering of endowed professorships and international reputations at the table, perhaps eight academics in all.
Along with the sweet tea and penne pasta came the inevitable skewering of George W. Bush.
"Never has a president experienced such horrible poll approval numbers in the midst of a war," one professor quipped.
"That is, if you overlook Harry Truman," I interjected into an uncomfortable silence.
It was going to be that kind of meal.
Dessert made its appearance and talk turned to the relative merits of the developing college basketball season and presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were hotly debated – the state’s primary promised to be a pivotal one. Then it was onto the Republicans, and Mitt Romney’s name popped up.
"I couldn’t vote for a Mormon," one professor said. There was some polite (or perhaps impolite) head-bobbing. "It’s a cult. Very intolerant, and their opinions about women, and, well ... ” and his voice trailed off.
I mentioned I had just been hired at a college in the West with a sizeable student and local population of Mormons -- Idaho State University, in Pocatello. I wondered rhetorically whether anyone said the same thing in 1960 about voting for John F. Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic. Or for then-Senator Obama because he is African-American. There was that same uncomfortable silence again. I think they felt sorry for me.
I’ve attended numerous scholarly conferences since that lunch where Mormonism has been discussed, and it is amazing to confront snide and disdainful comments and even overt prejudice from intellectually and sophisticated academics. And it seems perfectly acceptable to express this bias. Mormons are abnormal, outside the mainstream; everybody knows that. They don’t drink alcohol and coffee. Their women are suppressed. They don’t like the cross, and their most holy book seems made up. And there’s that multiple-wives thing. At one session involving a discussion of Utah’s history, several dismissive comments were spoken, rather blithely and without any sense of embarrassment. Belittling comments were made about Mormons' abstemiousness, and there was a general negative undercurrent. The LDS Church was referred to as the Mormon Church, something many members object to. They don’t mind being called Mormons, but their church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS Church. At least some of the professors who were making these remarks knew that.
Yes, Mormons do not embrace the cross as a symbol of Christianity, but it is because they consider it representing state-sanctioned execution and intense suffering. I regard it as a sacrifice on my behalf. Who’s right? Various Christian denominations think that during communion the wine and wafers actually are transformed into the body and blood of Christ – and over the centuries Christians have been derided as cannibals. I was raised to believe that the Eucharist represents the sacrifice of Jesus. Nothing more than different perspectives and beliefs.
Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: "The Simpsons") for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.
Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans . . . well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable publicly express bias against Mormons?
In 2009, The Daily Beast compiled a listing of the top 25 safest and 25 most dangerous college campuses in America, based on two-year per capita data from 9,000 campuses with at least 6,000 students. The two states with the highest proportion of Mormons did pretty well in the safest category: #5 was Idaho State University, Pocatello, where I work; #13 was Utah State University, Logan, and #17 was Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. No Utah or Idaho schools were on the most dangerous list.
And yet, nestled in the midst of all the good publicity, was this comment about BYU: "Joseph Smith’s golden plates would have been safe at Brigham Young." Would the Daily Beast have said this: “The tablets of the Ten Commandments would have been safe at Brandeis University" or "at Notre Dame University?” Not very likely. But this sort of flippant and biased comment about Mormons is somehow socially acceptable. Responsible people don’t use "Indian giver" anymore (and we shouldn't). But we Welch on deals and get away Scot-free. I have a sprinkling of Welsh and Scottish blood in me, and I don't appreciate those comments.
So what, exactly, is so awful about being Mormon?
Utah is about 72 percent Mormon, so it's a pretty good representation of Mormonism. Among the 50 states, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate, the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the third-lowest abortion rate, the third-highest high school graduate rate at 94 percent, the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams, fewest births to unwed mothers (also the highest overall birthrate), lowest cancer rate, lowest smoking rate, lowest per capita rate of alcohol use, and, arguably, the most comprehensive and universal state health insurance system in the U.S.
Furthermore, Mormons as a group have the lowest rates of violence and depression among religious groups, are seven times less likely to commit suicide (if active church members), and have the lowest divorce rates of any social-religious group. Sixty-five percent of Utah residents have personal computers, the highest penetration rate in the country. Crime has decreased in the state of Utah by anywhere from 15-18 percent over the past 10 years.
Mormon women are more likely to be employed in professional occupations than Catholic or Protestant women (similar to Jewish women) and more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women (but less than Jewish women). One survey indicated Mormon women experience more orgasms and are more satisfied with their married lives than non-Mormons.
Plenty of religious groups – from Orthodox Jews to Orthodox Muslims to various mainstream Christian denominations – do not allow women full participation in the life of their church and communities. But disparaging Roman Catholics, for instance, because their church does not allow female clergy, isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to that faith. Yes, Mormon women wear less revealing clothing – no plunging necklines and short-shorts. But is modesty a bad thing?
Glenn Beck is a Mormon, but so is Harry Reid. Other famous Mormons are or were: Harmon Killebrew, Jack Dempsey, J. W. Marriott, Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, Butch Cassidy, and Eldridge Cleaver. What does that tell you about Mormonism? Absolutely nothing.
Sure, many people find it annoying to have Mormon missionaries knock on their doors. But what kind of moral and religious conviction must it take to devote up to two years of your life in service to a higher calling, whether it be community service or religious proselytizing? Isn’t this the sort of commitment we want to encourage in young people, who are too often accused of being selfish and jaded? Having students who have been to Mongolia, Paraguay, and Finland enrich my classes, not diminish them.
At about 13 million members, Mormons are a pretty large cult. So what is so bad about this “cult?” And a cult growing at almost exactly the same rate, decade by decade, as the original Christian church in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It makes no sense, but then bigotry doesn’t. Who wouldn’t want to be on those lists? Seems like good things to be, even if you can’t drink coffee and beer, wear more than one earring per ear, grow a beard (frowned upon only if you want to move up the church hierarchy), and show lots of cleavage. You can have as much hot chocolate and ice cream as you want, though, and I have embraced this provision enthusiastically.
When I first moved to Pocatello, I lived in a cul de sac and seven of my nine neighbors belonged to the LDS Church. Nobody tried to convert me. They invited me to church picnics – no pressure. My next-door neighbor spent nearly two hours one weekday morning (he was late to work) helping me restore my snow blower to life after five years in the humid South. Another helped flush and fix my sprinkler system. A third returned my dogs after they’d escaped. Several just showed up with family members to help me move in. A fourth one tossed me the keys to his Cadillac after the transmission in my Suburban disassembled on my driveway. "Bring it back when you don’t need it anymore," he said.
These are not the faces of intolerance and prejudice.
No. Those faces are in the academic mirror.
I was raised as a member of the United Church of Christ – the same denomination as President Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and my sister is an ordained minister in the denomination. I am now Episcopalian. An uncle and aunt and several of my first cousins are Mormons; the first was converted while stationed with the Marine Corps in Hawaii.
Just why is it socially acceptable to denigrate and trivialize and insult a class of people as a class of people? They had a name for that sort of behavior and system in the South a few decades back. You may remember it. It was called Jim Crow.
Thomas C. Terry is associate professor of mass communication at Idaho State University.
Latino students are likelier than students from other racial groups to be deterred from enrolling in graduate school because of debt, says a report from the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. The report argues that reducing undergraduate debt is essential to increasing the number of Latino students who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
To help colleges ensure that their approach to disability documentation and accommodations requests is appropriate and equitable, in the wake of multiple federal guidelines changes that have made the work more complicated, the Association on Higher Education and Disability released new guidance on Monday. “Although the amendments and regulatory revisions occurred through separate federal processes, together they reflect a more mature understanding of disability that is essential for fostering a positive campus perspective on disability,” AHEAD wrote. “The concepts described in this document are interrelated components of a comprehensive, professional approach to using disability documentation to make informed decisions.” The guidance notes that requiring “extensive” medical and scientific evidence of a disability is “inappropriate and burdensome,” and explains how accommodations should be made on a case-by-case basis using a “commonsense standard” and “relevant but not necessarily ‘recent’" information.
Two trustees of Deep Springs College have filed a suit in a California court to block the institution from admitting women, The Los Angeles Times reported. Deep Springs is a 28-student, two-year college near the Death Valley, known for educating men in a highly intense environment in which they also manage the college's farm. Many of its graduates transfer to some of the most competitive colleges in the United States. In September, after years of debate in which student recommendations to admit women were rejected by the trustees, the board voted to admit women, and a process is under way to do so in the fall of 2013.
The lawsuit says that the college was founded with a gift for educating men, and that the college is doing well in its current set-up. As a result, the suit says, the college's board should not be able to deviate from the founder's intent. "If the trustees wish to have a coeducational college similar to Deep Springs, they are free to donate or raise the funds to create one according to their own vision," the suit says.
David Neidorf, president at Deep Springs, said he hoped the college would admit women, and that he had not yet read the suit, and so could not comment on it.
University of North Carolina officials -- both at the system and campus levels -- are studying the impact of the state's new ban on gay marriage. The measure, passed Tuesday, says that the state can only recognize a marriage between a man and a woman as a "domestic legal union," and officials are uncertain what impact that could have on the generally limited benefits currently available to university employees with same-sex partners. In other states that have passed measures banning single-sex marriage or domestic partnerships, benefits offered by public colleges and universities for domestic partners have sometimes come under scrutiny and ruled illegal.
North Carolina, however, has not been a leader in providing such benefits to start with. Domestic partners are not eligible for the university system's state-provided health care plan. Some campuses, however, offer supplemental benefits such as life and dental insurance, and have allowed employees to cover domestic partners if the employees pay 100 percent of premiums. Some campuses have also allowed employees to include domestic partners in the use of campus recreational facilities.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students have been able to include domestic partners on health insurance plans as long as the students pay 100 percent of the costs. Likewise, students with domestic partners have been able to apply to live in on-campus family housing units.
For a week now, friends have been sending me links from a heated exchange over the status and value of black studies. It started among bloggers, then spilled over into Twitter, which always makes things better. I'm not going to rehash the debate, which, after all, is always the same. As with any other field, black studies (or African-American studies, or, in the most cosmopolitan variant, Africana studies) could only benefit from serious, tough-minded, and ruthlessly intelligent critique. I would be glad to live to see that happen.
But maybe the rancor will create some new readers for a book published five years ago, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (Johns Hopkins University Press) by Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Someone glancing at the cover in a bookstore might take the subtitle to mean it's another one of those denunciations of academia as a vast liberal-fascist indoctrination camp for recruits to the New World Order Gestapo. I don't know whether that was the sales department's idea; if so, it was worth a shot. Anyway, there the resemblance ends. Rojas wrote an intelligent, informed treatment of black studies, looking at it through the lens of sociological analysis of organizational development, and with luck the anti-black-studies diatribalists will read it by mistake and accidentally learn something about the field they are so keen to destroy. (Spell-check insists that “diatribalists” is not a word, but it ought to be.)
Black studies was undeniably a product of radical activism in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Administrators established courses only as a concession to student protesters who had a strongly politicized notion of the field’s purpose. “From 1969 to 1974,” Rojas writes, “approximately 120 degree programs were created,” along with “dozens of other black studies units, such as research centers and nondegree programs,” plus professional organizations and journals devoted to the field.
But to regard black studies as a matter of academe becoming politicized (as though the earlier state of comprehensive neglect wasn’t politicized) misses the other side of the process: “The growth of black studies,” Rojas suggests, “can be fruitfully viewed as a bureaucratic response to a social movement.” By the late 1970s, the African-American sociologist St. Clair Drake (co-author of Black Metropolis, a classic study of Chicago to which Richard Wright contributed an introduction) was writing that black studies had become institutionalized “in the sense that it had moved from the conflict phase into adjustment to the existing educational system, with some of its values accepted by that system…. A trade-off was involved. Black studies became depoliticized and deradicalized.”
That, too, is something of an overstatement -- but it is far closer to the truth than denunciations of black-studies programs, which treat them as politically volatile, yet also as well-entrenched bastions of power and privilege. As of 2007, only about 9 percent of four-year colleges and universities had a black studies unit, few of them with a graduate program. Rojas estimates that “the average black studies program employs only seven professors, many of whom are courtesy or joint appointments with limited involvement in the program” -- while in some cases a program is run by “a single professor who organizes cross-listed courses taught by professors with appointments in other departments.”
The field “has extremely porous boundaries,” with scholars who have been trained in fields “from history to religious studies to food science.” Rojas found from a survey that 88 percent of black studies instructors had doctoral degrees. Those who didn’t “are often writers, artists, and musicians who have secured a position teaching their art within a department of black studies.”
As for faculty working primarily or exclusively in black studies, Rojas writes that “the entire population of tenured and tenure-track black studies professors -- 855 individuals -- is smaller than the full-time faculty of my own institution.” In short, black studies is both a small part of higher education in the United States and a field connected by countless threads to other forms of scholarship. The impetus for its creation came from African-American social and political movements. But its continued existence and development has meant adaptation to, and hybridization with, modes of enquiry from long-established disciplines.
Such interdisciplinary research and teaching is necessary and justified because (what I am about to say will be very bold and very controversial, and you may wish to sit down before reading further) it is impossible to understand American life, or modernity itself, without a deep engagement with African-American history, music, literature, institutions, folklore, political movements, etc.
In a nice bit of paradox, that is why C.L.R. James was so dubious about black studies when it began in the 1960s. As author of The Black Jacobins and The History of Negro Revolt, among other classic works, he was one of the figures students wanted to be made visiting professor when they demanded black studies courses. But when he accepted, it was only with ambivalence. "I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies," he told an audience in 1969. "...I only know, the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social setting, and, particularly, the last two hundred years. It's impossible for me to separate black studies and white studies in any theoretical point of view."
Clearly James's perspective has nothing in common with the usual denunciations of the field. The notion that black studies is just some kind of reverse-racist victimology, rigged up to provide employment for "kill whitey" demagogues, is the product of malice. But it also expresses a certain banality of mind -- not an inability to learn, but a refusal to do so. For some people, pride in knowing nothing about a subject will always suffice as proof that it must be worthless.