A professor of English at Providence College has come under fire for his essays about his campus's diversity debate, which he says doesn’t focus enough on societal unity or religious doctrine. The Roman Catholic college is backing the professor’s rights to free speech and academic freedom but has distanced itself from the professor’s comments -- including that inclusion efforts promote an “alphabet soup of cheered-on sexual proclivities.”
“At the same time that we value freedom in the pursuit of truth, let us value even more our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another. We may deeply disagree on any number of topics, but we should do so in such a way that respects those with whom we disagree,” Reverend Brian J. Shanley, Providence’s president, wrote in a recent letter to students and faculty and staff members. “He certainly does not speak for me, my administration and for many others at [the college] who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him.”
Shanley didn't mention any one professor by name, but the statement clearly referred to Anthony Esolen, a longtime professor of English literature. He sparked student protests with an article he wrote earlier this fall, “My College Succumbed to a Totalitarian Diversity Cult,” for Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication.
Esolen has since said he didn’t write the headline, but the essay’s message is clear: Providence’s take on diversity is at once too narrow and too broad, and insufficiently Catholic.
“When Catholics come to Mass to pray, they do so as members of one church, not 10, not 50, praying the same prayers all over the world, because they give thanks to the one Lord and savior who died for them on one cross, on the one hill of the skull, on that one Friday long ago,” Esolen wrote. “But the watchword at Providence College right now is not unity, but ‘diversity,’ as is made evident by the four-page Diversity Program featured prominently on our website.”
When Esolen sees the word “diversity” “in its current use as a political slogan,” he continued, “I ask myself the following questions: What is diversity, as opposed to divergence? What is diversity, as opposed to mere variety? What goods, precisely, is diversity supposed to deliver? Why is intellectual diversity not served by the study of a dozen cultures of the past, with their vast array of customs, poetry, art and worship of the gods?
Isn’t diversity “as it is now preached a solvent for any culture?” Esolen asked. “Is not diversity, as currently promoted, at odds with the foundational diversity built into the nature of the human race, the diversity of male and female, to be resolved most dynamically and creatively in the union of man and woman in marriage? Is not that same call for diversity, when Catholics are doing the calling, a surrender of the church to a political movement which is, for all its talk, a push for homogeneity, so that all the world will look not like the many-cultured church, but rather like the monotone nonculture of Western cities that have lost their faith in the transcendent and unifying God?”
Esolen also criticized Providence’s Bias Response Team, charged with assessing reports of bias, calling it “a Star Chamber whose constitution and laws and executive power no one will know.”
Most controversially, he also challenged Providence’s commitment to “welcoming the alphabet soup of cheered-on sexual proclivities,” which for some reason “does not include F, for fornicators, or S, for swingers, or P, for pornographers, or W, for sex workers, formerly called harlots, or A, for adulterers. No political lobby for those?” He said the campus must either affirm that the Catholic church “has a real and powerful and urgent message she must bring to the world, a message of harsh truth and genuine healing,” or not.
“If we do believe it,” he added, “then we cannot believe that a disordered inclination towards any sin, sexual or otherwise, can be constitutive of any human being.”
Esolen ultimately argued that just as “secular liberals” on secular campuses are allowed to affirm in the classroom secular views on sex and family, Catholic professors on Catholic campuses -- whether they teach religion or not -- should be able to do so. He says that Catholic professors at religious institutions are “notably tolerant” of their secular colleagues, while some secular professors -- “not all, but then it only takes a few -- would silence us for good, if they had the power.
“They have made life hell for more than one of my friends. All, now, in the name of an undefined and perhaps undefinable diversity, to which you had damned well better give honor and glory. If you don’t -- and you may not even be aware of the lèse majesté as you commit it -- you’d better have eyes in the back of your head.”
The recent essay wasn’t the first time Esolen has disparaged the diversity movement in Crisis. In a February article called “The Narcissism of Campus Diversity Activists,” for example, published after a group of students occupied Shanley’s office and presented a list of demands aimed at making Providence more inclusive of racial and ethnic groups, he wrote that protesting students, “encouraged by some of our professors, want more than that welcome. They want to change the curriculum, to make it more ‘diverse.’”
But “cultural diversity is not what the students and the pawn-pushing professors want,” he said. “If I say, ‘We are going to spend four weeks on Renaissance Italy!’ they shrug. If I say, ‘We are going to take our time reading four dramas from ancient Greece!’ they roll their eyes. Same old, same old -- that same old array of wildly diverse cultures. What they want instead is a variety of views regarding current events, or rather an institutional sanction for their own views regarding current events, insofar as those views have to do with race, sex, ethnicity, creed and so forth.”
It seems that the “Totalitarian Diversity Cult” article sparked the most outrage among students, however. Late last month, several dozen marched to Shanley’s office to express concerns about Esolen’s writing. Steven Maurano, college spokesman, said the article upset a number of students, some of whom questioned Providence for not denouncing it.
Shanley responded promptly via email, saying that because universities are places where ideas are supposed to be brought into conflict and questioned, “let us robustly debate the meaning of ‘diversity.’”
But, he added, “we must also remember that words have an impact on those who hear or read them. When a professor questions the value of diversity, the impact on many students, faculty and staff of color is to feel that their presence is not valued and that they are not welcome at Providence College. I have heard from many students about the pain that this causes. When student activists are described as ‘narcissists,’ they understandably feel demeaned and dismissed. We need to be able to disagree with each other’s ideas without attaching labels to them or imputing motives that we cannot know.”
Quoting Pope Francis, Shanley said that what Catholics seek is not “unanimity, but true unity in the richness of diversity,” and that “plurality of thought and individuality reflect the manifold wisdom of God when we draw nearer to truth with intellectual honesty and rigor, when we draw near to goodness, when we draw near to beauty, in such a way that everyone can be a gift for the benefit of others.”
Several days later, a group of Providence faculty members started an online petition pledging “to break the silence around systemic racism and discrimination on Providence College’s campus.” While vigorously supporting free expression, the professors said that “recent publications on the part of [college] faculty have involved racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic and religiously chauvinist statements. The use of this type of language by people with power over students runs counter to the Catholic mission of Providence College, which aims ‘to reflect the rich diversity’ of our world, and ‘extend a loving embrace to all.’”
As a “diverse coalition of students have consistently highlighted,” the petition reads, “such statements are part of a broader pattern of racism, sexism and other forms of hate that are all too common not only on campus, but in the broader public culture. As professors who care deeply about the well-being, safety and growth of our students, we are committed to combating racism and overcoming the hostile learning environment for too many of our students, while creating spaces where all of our students can engage in meaningful ways.”
Providence isn’t the first religious institution where faculty members have felt tension between diversity efforts and doctrine. Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution in Illinois, moved to fire Larycia Hawkins, a black professor of political science, earlier this year after she wore a head scarf and posted on social media that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.”
Around the same time, Baylor University’s new provost, Edwin Trevathan, resigned after disagreement among the faculty about a diversity initiative on the Baptist campus. “Christian schools should think long and hard about exactly what kind of diversity they wish to promote before they sign their souls over to the secular rule of diversity officers. If they don’t, they might live to regret it,” one Baylor faculty member wrote in an online essay published prior to Trevathan’s resignation. In both cases, there was significant faculty division over the issues.
Tensions around diversity efforts and adherence to religious doctrine are arguably even more complicated on Catholic campuses, which -- unlike many of their Christian counterparts -- don’t require faculty members to sign statements of faith and have a long tradition of welcoming students and professors of all or no creeds. In other words, it may be potentially more problematic on a Catholic campus for a professor, such as Esolen, to voice conservative religious views in a classroom or faculty lounge populated with non-Catholics welcomed there in a spirit of inclusion.
At the same time, Providence asks faculty candidates to respond to its mission. "One might consider how one’s work addresses critical elements of the mission -- its Catholic and Dominican character, academic excellence and the liberal arts," reads an information page on faculty searches. "One might also consider how these several elements can be integrated and how one might contribute a unique perspective to their ongoing engagement."
Esolen said in an email interview that debates about diversity should be approached differently on Catholic campuses than on secular ones in that one “should always keep in mind the body of Christ. We do not belong to Paul or to Apollos or to Cephas, but all are members of one body, and when one member suffers, all suffer.” Esolen emphasized that it’s the body of Christ, “not the body of niceness or the body of political correctness or the body of current fads.”
Catholics, he added, “should always take a long view of things -- an eternal view. Secular colleges now are making their students perfectly miserable, setting groups against one another, and placing under surveillance the ordinary matters of human life -- [gender] pronouns, of all things! Why should we follow along with the world? The ways of the world lead to destruction, always have, always will.”
As to Shanley’s response to his writing and student concerns, Esolen said, “Of course I am not happy,” as Providence is an institution of higher learning, dealing in ideas.
“I wish to lead no one astray, but the last time I checked, no one in our sociology or political science departments is a bishop or cardinal,” he said. “One example such as mine is sufficient to deter anyone in the future from questioning, in print, any regnant secular orthodoxy.”
Maurano said Shanley initiated a meeting with Esolen on Friday and assured him that his job was not in jeopardy, as has been rumored in some quarters.
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