Over the past few years, Wesleyan University, like many across the country, has provided incoming students (and sometimes staff and faculty members) with classes in bystander intervention. The idea is simple, really. We want to give members of the campus community the tools to act in situations where somebody is at risk: when you see something amiss, do something so as to protect others from harm and make the campus a safer place.
I’ve been thinking about bystander intervention lately in the context of the presidential race. As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate.
This year is different. Donald Trump has been using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.
Does he really believe that the “Mexican heritage” of a judge disqualifies him from a case? Does he genuinely condone “Second Amendment people” using violence to stop a newly elected president from making court appointments? Does he actually feel nostalgia for the days when you could beat up protesters?
He does affirm his intention to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he repeats a contention that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS. You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.
Now, I can imagine that some readers will be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What a surprise … another liberal academic trying to use the university to push his own ideological agenda!” And I know that some people would prefer I not opine on politics at all lest I give the impression of speaking for the university and compromise institutional neutrality. Finally, in political matters, university presidents may have a megaphone but not necessarily, so the criticism goes, the relevant expertise.
I agree that my academic position gives me no special skills when it comes to electoral politics. Even though I am a historian, I don’t have much confidence in my profession’s capacity to offer sage counsel in contemporary political matters. But when we ask bystanders to intervene in an unfolding medical emergency, we are not calling on their knowledge of biology. We are asking them to call for help, to sound an alarm. When we ask a student to dissuade friends from binge drinking or other risky behavior that makes them vulnerable, we don’t expect them to be experts in a field. When we encourage people to stop a sexual predator from acting, we don’t need them to have law enforcement experience. We want them to be aware and feel responsible.
I also agree that many colleges and universities suffer from political biases that distort the educational experience of our students. At my left-leaning Wesleyan University, I have found it important to support Republican groups and faith-based clubs. Although I identify as a person on the left, I am developing programs to bring more conservative intellectuals to the campus to teach classes in a variety of fields and to present points of view not heard often enough in the liberal campus bubble. Intellectual and political diversity is a pressing problem in undergraduate education, and teachers have to be much more aware of the dangers of using their classrooms as a platform for ideology.
I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture. I’ve done this in speeches and in the press, but I don’t think I am intervening enough, given the gravity of the situation. That’s why I am publishing this piece, and why I will continue to call out the dangers that the Trump campaign poses to our political ecosystem. I urge other higher education leaders to do the same. Some of the damage has already been done, as the bar for racist, hate-filled public discourse has been lowered in ways that would have shocked us just a few years ago. Even many who support candidate Trump are revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous remarks.
When we teach students the skills for bystander intervention, we want them to feel empowered to make our campuses safer, more humane places. If faculty, staff or students see a dangerous situation unfolding, we expect them to act. After all, if someone on campus sees sewage spilling into a classroom, detects a noxious odor in a residence hall or simply sees a hallway filling with smoke, we don’t want them just to hope that someone with expertise and responsibility will arrive. We want them to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.
Donald Trump is a developing calamity for our polity. Whether from conservative, libertarian, religious or leftist positions, we should protect our culture from further Trumpian pollution. Even university presidents, as citizens, must use the tools available to us to sound the alarm as long as the danger threatens. And threaten it does.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.
An inspiring story from the University of Mississippi: colleagues Charlotte Pegues and Leslie Banahan share a special bond because Banahan donated a kidney to Pegues, whose kidneys were failing. The successful operation was performed June 9 at the university's medical center. Pegues (on the right in the photograph of the two women) is assistant provost for academic affairs and registrar. Banahan is assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. “I feel like Leslie is my sister,” said Pegues. “I want to repay her in some way, but she said this was a gift. It’s a God thing!”
Banahan said, “I wouldn’t have done this for just anyone, but Charlotte is an amazing woman, someone I wanted to help so she could live a full, long, happy life with her husband, family and friends. We have a special connection now -- sisters, really -- as we have shared this journey together.”
Ken Starr (at right) has resigned from his faculty position at the law school of Baylor University. Starr left the presidency in May amid widespread criticism (including from a report commissioned by the university) of Baylor's handling of sexual assault allegations, particularly those involving athletes. He was originally to stay on as chancellor and law professor. In June, he resigned as chancellor. On Friday, Baylor and Starr issued a joint statement that said in part, “Effective today, Judge Ken Starr will be leaving his faculty status and tenure at Baylor University’s Law School. The mutually agreed separation comes with the greatest respect and love Judge Starr has for Baylor and with Baylor’s recognition and appreciation for Judge Starr’s many contributions to Baylor.”
In an interview with The Waco Tribune, Starr said that the university wanted him to leave. “Frankly, the university determined that it wanted a break in the employment relationship, so I’ve accepted that decision and will, of course, honor the decision,” he said.
Much of the conversation about career exploration focuses on the importance of identifying our skills, but we often don’t take the time to think about our core values and how they connect to our skills, argues Laura N. Schram.
A rift opened last week between the University of the Incarnate Word and its leader of 30 years after the Roman Catholic university in San Antonio placed President Louis Agnese Jr. (at right) on 90-day medical leave, citing uncharacteristic behavior.
Agnese, 65, was placed on leave just before the start of fall classes this week due to “sporadic uncharacteristic behavior and comments,” a statement emailed Thursday from the board chairman, Charles Lutz, said. The statement also said that Agnese’s interactions with some students, faculty and staff in the last two weeks had caused “considerable concern for his well-being,” and it went on to apologize to “persons who may have been or were offended.” An unnamed university official told the San Antonio Express-News that Agnese could have a serious medical condition altering his behavior.
But Agnese denied acting inappropriately or having any condition, telling the Express-News he was upset and that the board was “messing with the wrong man.”
“I will have the board send out a retraction to that [expletive] they sent out today,” Agnese said, according to the newspaper. “They ruined my reputation of 31 years. They will send out a retraction by Monday or I will sue the chair of the board. You can put that in the paper in quotes.”
Incarnate Word said Agnese requested the medical leave. The Express-News interviewed him as he planned to board a plane for Hawaii.
The president was inaugurated at the University of the Incarnate Word in 1986. It had 1,300 students at the start of his tenure and has since grown to almost 11,000 students with multiple sites in San Antonio and internationally.
Roommate tensions are hardly new in higher education. But federal court fights? The Philadelphia Inquirer details an epic dispute that includes allegations of defamation, bullying, study abroad, politically connected parents and even a colander that may or may not have contained pasta.
The State University of New York at Albany dropped a November basketball game at Duke University because New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has barred nonessential travel by state agencies to North Carolina. The ban is a protest of North Carolina's law that blocks antibias rules from protecting gay people and also bars state agencies from letting transgender people use bathrooms that reflect their identities. Marist College, also in New York state but as a private institution not covered by Cuomo's ban, announced that it will take Albany's place.
Many on social media have questioned Marist's decision. In an open letter to the college's president, Joseph Amodeo, an alumnus wrote that "Marist appears to have gleefully accepted the offer to play even with full knowledge of the fact they would be going against Albany’s principled decision for declining the match …. Marist’s decision to demonstrate a complete disregard for the governor’s order, Albany’s reasoning for withdrawing and the well-being of Marist’s LGBTQ students, athletes and alumni is deeply concerning. Further, the college’s participation in this match threatens to convey a message that Marist is willing to simply accept North Carolina’s legalized discrimination solely for the purpose of playing a basketball game."
Marist issued a statement saying that it too opposes the North Carolina law, HB2, and that replacing Albany does not represent support for the law. "Reasonable people can disagree about whether a college should ever participate in a boycott of a state (or country) that passes laws or engages in behavior that we find abhorrent," the statement says. "It is worth noting that hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges still plan to send sports teams, musical groups, admissions recruiters, etc. to North Carolina (and other states that have laws which discriminate against the LGBT community). In addition, while the National Basketball Association moved its all-star game from North Carolina, it did not cancel the Charlotte Hornets' season."
“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”
This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.
Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.
Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.
The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.
If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.
However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.
That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.
This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.
In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.
But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?
William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.
Submitted by Paul Fain on August 19, 2016 - 3:00am
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools this week said it will decide whether or not to sanction ITT Technical Institutes after a hearing scheduled for December, according to a federal filing from ITT. The controversial for-profit chain earlier this year was told by the national accreditor, which itself is facing existential scrutiny, to prove why it should not lose its accreditation and, subsequently, access to federal financial aid.
The possible punishment, ACICS has said, is due to a wide range of legal and financial challenges ITT faces, including several federal and state lawsuits. The accreditor held a hearing on the matter earlier this month but opted to continue the review at its December meeting.
For the College of Wooster and the College of Charleston, bigger isn't always better. Both have designed student housing that embraces the concept of tiny living, offering relatively few square feet per student.