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Insurrectionists clash with law enforcement as they try to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Brent Stirton/Staff/Getty Images News

Two years ago today, a coalition of white supremacists swarmed the Capitol Building seeking to overturn the 2020 election of Joe Biden and potentially harm any leaders seeking to fulfill their political obligation of certifying the election results. Inevitably, today, we will all be bombarded by overwrought commentary about the failed insurrection, with some clichéd closings about democracy’s resiliency or the necessity of ensuring such a violent act never happens again.

But the threat has not subsided, and educational institutions, from universities to community colleges, from libraries to advocates of reading, find themselves as targets of bomb threats, antisemitism, racist and revisionist history in the curriculum, and more. In short, the hatred that led to the insurrection is alive and well, and higher education is one of the major institutions currently under attack.

As with the manifold tragedies or moments characterized by chaos or hate, college and university presidents are currently facing a moment when higher education is facing an existential crisis, and they must individually and collectively speak not only for their institutions but also for the sort of country we want to be part of establishing as a result of the role we play. In an era when terrorism, hateful rhetoric and state and national policies have continuously marginalized and retraumatized our students, employees and communities, we are responsible for responding loudly and widely and following up with action.

But as Erik Kelderman notes, college presidents frequently “self-censor on topics that colleges have often identified as central to their mission and values, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; gender and sexual identity; and racial justice.” College presidents often default to silence or neutrality, Kelderman implicitly states, in order to appease constituents, boards, faculty, staff and/or students from a variety of political and social demographics. Writing on a similar theme, Blake Smith observes that statements by college presidents are often vacuous “and avoid political claims.”

Kelderman’s and Smith’s analyses articulate the fiscal and social threats presidents and their institutions face in taking firm stances about what are often positioned as political moments, even when those issues are core to academic mission. In their messages, presidents have sought to respond to tragedy or political moment without disrupting what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “negative peace”: the illusion of order that actually contributes to systematic oppression.

But there are moments when higher education leaders have a responsibility not only to defend but also to articulate the role of academe in the nation’s journey toward a truly free and democratic society. One of those moments is now, when higher education is facing an existential threat wielded from what I’ve called the new white nationalism in a book on the topic.

This new white nationalism is a movement with a single goal in relation to higher education: to reduce the number and narrow the demographic of people included in the construction of “Americanness.” There are two major tactics of this movement in relation to higher education. The first is to threaten physical violence on college campuses that seek to expand access to those racialized as nonwhite or LGBTQ+.

The second is to enact an erasure of such citizens’ history through antieducational and antidemocratic curriculum while presenting America as innocent from systemic racism, sexual violence and hatred, and sexism. Disturbingly, in the most recent past, the new white nationalism has become increasingly mainstreamed and violent; it has included terrorism and fearmongering and has focused on censoring curriculum. Examples include, among others:

Such tactics require college leadership to respond collectively. And our responses ought not be limited to carefully crafted messages; rather, we must recast the fundamental ways we define and communicate higher education’s value. The value of higher education is not just economic mobility for the individual, although college effectiveness ought to include such measurement. It is also to establish a well-informed citizenry, characterized by an open pursuit of knowledge and social uplift for all.

The new white nationalism’s attack on higher education began well before 2014, but it was then that its goals were crystallized and catalyzed to scale. That year, a young white terrorist prowled the College of Charleston campus in an attempt to spark what he hoped would be a “race war.” After loping around campus, he decided that the security on premises was too prevalent to carry out his mission, so he drove his Hyundai to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. There, he sat in a Bible study with 12 African American parishioners, nine of whom he coldly killed.

Less than two years later, torchlights punctured the humid University of Virginia air. Chants of “Jews will not replace us” rang out on the UVa. quad, a harbinger of the replacement theory’s mainstreaming. Beginning in February 2022, Black History Month, and continuing today, historically Black colleges and universities have been targeted 49 distinct times by bomb threats. Simultaneously, a broad swath of community colleges, themselves with some of the most diverse learners in America, have been terrorized similarly.

The psychological and physical terror that college students, not to mention faculty and administrators, face as a result of those events is real. As well, in each of those instances, classes have been canceled and more people feel as if they do not belong in college. These tactics are in a very real way working to ensure that the American citizenry is less educated, and they actively marginalize people of color, Jewish people, women and/or those who are LGBTQ+.

Redefining the Battle

Presidents have often explained away their silence or mundane messages and stances by citing a lack of board support, the dissent of faculty and other constituents, or a concern that politicians might reduce the institution’s funding. But silence or vacuous messaging, in fact, equates to a firm stance—a stance that accepts the manifold forms of attack and violence that higher education writ large is experiencing at the hands of the new white nationalism. In this context, it’s imperative that college presidents take values-based positions that can serve as a compass for the employees and the communities they serve. College presidents must not just manage but also lead through this crucial moment in which higher education’s value and the legitimacy of our very student body are being threatened.

The first step is to ensure that we define what higher education is actually confronting. Underneath the bomb threats and white supremacist rallies are antieducation views that seek to delegitimize racial, ethnic and LGBTQ+ identities as being unequal to those of white, male heterosexuals.

As part of this, we should also recognize that the handcuffs Kelderman and Smith identify as shackling college presidents from speaking out are not usually forged by fear. Rather, they stem from the belief that issues underpinned by hatred and marked by exclusion are correctly categorized (to use Foucault) as “political” or part of a “culture war.” But hatred and exclusion are not political. Some groups may use hatred and fear as tactics, but they are not themselves political.

Nor should we tolerate those issues being considered as part of a culture war. The active marginalization of specific identities from education or the curriculum is hateful and should be couched in only those terms. Any other terms implicitly legitimate stances that threaten the safety of our students and employees, as well as the very future of what America will look like in the next generation.

The threatened creep of hatred into higher education’s curriculum should be of concern to any educational leader committed to the free exchange of ideas and how those ideas shape understanding of our past and thus our present and future.

For example, PEN America’s good work has tracked the overwhelming number of books banned since July 2021 by state and theme. By June 2022, 2,532 individual books had been banned across the United States, the majority because they include LGBTQ+ or antiracist themes. Throughout the country, such book bans have been characterized as part of a culture war. But the attempt to marginalize the truth of race and sexuality in our history and present is not indicative of a culture war.

Rather, that approach is an antieducational, anti-intellectual, racist, homophobic and heteronormative tactic seeking to marginalize and oppress. It is antiequality. Situating book banning and the themes within those books as part of a culture war implicitly suggests there is something legitimately political and debatable as to whether or not these themes, authors, people and characters deserve to be part of higher education and the national imaginary.

College leadership should not only overtly speak out against the banning of books. They should also question the entire discourse in which efforts like book banning are often couched. Book banning is antieducation. It is contrary to the very nature of higher education. And banning books because of the identity of characters or because they are antiracist, feminist, sexually liberative or the like is a form of oppression. The leaders of academe, the voices of our institutions, have a responsibility to the very epistemology of knowledge to stand firmly in these truths.

As leaders in higher education, we have no reason to debate whether or not book banning is acceptable, or whether studying the past and present of any group is legitimate. Arguing about the existence of diverse people in America and their history is like arguing about the existence of air. There is no debate to be had: there is only a group of people who would prefer, for their own problematic reasons, that diversity and subsequent fields of study not exist. Leaders of institutions that proclaim to be about the pursuit of knowledge and the development of citizens cannot stand on the sidelines. We cannot pretend that attempts to marginalize people and their ideas through book banning are not centrally within our domain for comment, direction and action.

The danger is imminent. As many as 42 states have at least introduced, if not signed into law, divisive concepts restrictions aimed both at K-12 and higher education. Their focus is to protect a mythological past typical of the new white nationalism’s desire for the future—one where whiteness is uncomplicated and the imagined and physical borders of whites are protected from racialized/ethnic/LGBTQ+ humans. While the hatred undergirding these bills is obvious to any humanities or sociological scholar, their antieducational bent should also be obvious to any academic or thinker who believes learning often comes from discomfort.

These bills mandate a startling twisting of reality; some insist, for instance that “slavery” be redefined to “involuntary relocation.” Such rhetorical acrobatics are focused on avoiding adult politicians’ discomfort. They seek to minimize the historical responsibility for present oppression American structures wield.

Why does all of this matter for college presidents? First, educational institutions should celebrate discomfort as a means to create learning opportunities. Second, these bills seek to limit what can be studied and reject legitimate advances in the humanities and social sciences. The result is to eschew nonwhite, non-heterosexual topics and perspectives as legitimate for study.

Third, the controversy here is not that certain topics are being increasingly brought into the fold in higher education; it is that higher education is being attacked by an antieducation, racist and hateful agenda. Fourth, and this is an important point: many administrators and faculty claim that neutrality from administration is imperative to allow for debate on campuses, and they refer to the Chicago Principles that allow for free expression and debate. However, when our curriculum is under attack, and our students are as well, we protect freedom of expression and academic freedom by speaking out, not staying on the sidelines.

As college presidents, we must work to defend our faculty and staff in all disciplines so that knowledge and higher education can be situated as part of the future American narrative of social justice. We can be strong together and insist that the fabric of democracy be woven with an inclusive tapestry of love, or we can remain silent and allow legitimate lines of inquiry and the citizens we serve be attacked and marginalized now and in the future. To paraphrase Radio Raheem, there are no politics, there are only love and hate. And while love may be on the ropes, it can ultimately win out if we commit to ensuring it guides our work.

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