• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Neutrality and Nearsightedness

Choosing not to see something doesn’t make it go away.

December 6, 2022

The “should colleges be politically neutral” debate has surfaced again. Each time it does, I wait for a convincing definition of “neutral.” I haven’t found one yet.

In practice, “neutrality” means either choosing not to see, or simply not seeing, how things came to be. Sometimes that’s a reasonable move; getting things done can require simplifying reality for the sake of focus. (The first few years we lived in Massachusetts, people would give us directions by saying things like “turn left where St. Michael’s used to be.” That bit of history wasn’t helpful to newbies.) But failing to notice the history doesn’t make it, or its effects, go away.

I addressed that as thoughtfully as I could a few years ago. That piece is below.

I went to high school in a very white suburb during the Reagan years.

With that context established, I remember my 11th-grade social studies teacher mentioning something that I couldn’t un-hear once I’d heard it. The focus that year was American history, and we were focusing on the Supreme Court and various civil rights cases. Back then, it was routine to insist on a distinction between “de jure” segregation—mandated by law—and “de facto” segregation, which, we were told, just sort of happened. It was the result of the slow pileup of individual choices, we were told, so there was nothing to be done about it. Free people go where they want to go.

Even then, that didn’t seem quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

As we discussed how people choose where to live—not that any of us had ever chosen where to live, but we were 16 and confident—she mentioned a zoning ordinance that had recently passed in her nearby town. It banned residential lots of less than one acre. She suggested that the ordinance was racist. We all looked at her quizzically. She explained that mandating large lots was a way of effectively mandating high prices, thereby keeping certain people out.

I had never thought of that. But I’ve never forgotten it. She was right; what was being presented as just a fact of life was, in fact, carefully and deliberately created. A law that seemed utterly neutral, even banal, served to entrench segregation. And it did so deniably, in a way that a roomful of reasonably bright students couldn’t see until it was spelled out for them.

Causes like those—seemingly neutral practices or rules that set the parameters of the possible in daily life—help build a daily reality that just seems like it sprang up out of the ground spontaneously and on its own, like mushrooms. Without a sense of the history or intent of those practices or rules, critiques can seem strained.

I’ve been reflecting on that for the last few days. When we separate personal attitudes from the daily reality of life on the ground, it’s easy to veer from difficult, heartfelt conversations right back to “normal” practice without affecting that “normal” at all. Then, a few months or years later, we do it again, because daily reality hasn’t changed. The 16-year-olds in my high school class, myself included, didn’t think of ourselves as racist. We probably would have been offended at the accusation and probably would have thought of the accuser as either cynical or unhinged. Yet, confronted with a law that built a segregated reality, we just shrugged. We didn’t see it. Someone had to spell it out for us.

Connecting heartfelt attitudes to the remaking of daily reality is the hard part. But it’s also the necessary part. Without that, we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Daily reality can change; I’ve seen it change in my lifetime. Folks my age will probably remember sitting in the front (bench) seat of the car without a seat belt as kids. Now, seat belt use is normal. I remember teachers—especially gym teachers, for whatever reason—using homophobic slurs the way that most people use commas. In the ’80s, that wasn’t unusual. (If you don’t believe it, check out Dire Straits’ song “Money for Nothing,” a monster hit in 1985. Or “Fairytale of New York,” an otherwise lovely Christmas song by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl from 1987. Slurs were everywhere, even in Christmas ballads.) Now, that would occasion a trip to HR at the very least. I think of that as progress.

As tradition-bound as they are, colleges often embody wild contradictions between sincerely progressive rhetoric and traditional practices that prevent those aspirations from coming true. Is the 16-week semester the best format for low-income students? Do expensive commercial textbooks put low-income students at a disadvantage? We know the answers to those. And yet, most colleges stick with long semesters and expensive books, even while drafting and redrafting statements and policies around diversity and inclusion. As an industry, we’re the equivalent of my high school class: we mean well, mostly, but we don’t recognize the damage that policies not clearly labeled “racist” can do. So graduation gaps persist, people get frustrated and we can’t figure out why.

The conversations are important, obviously. But in a way, as tough as those conversations can be, they’re the easy part. The hard part is going back to the academic calendar, or the zoning board, or the curriculum committee, or the police department, and making new facts on the ground. It’s hard; it occasions resistance from people who don’t see the connection. But the connection is there. Even mushrooms come from somewhere, in big yards and small ones.

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Matt Reed

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