Taking Stands

Lawrence Summers disavows term "political correctness"; Columbia president says Trump victory challenges "central idea of a university"; Jewish historians call for support for immigrants; and more.

November 21, 2016
 

Prominent figures in academe and higher education groups continue to issue statements about the election of Donald J. Trump, the numerous incidents of intolerance since the election and the challenges facing academe.

Lawrence Summers Disavows the Term 'Political Correctness'

Lawrence Summers, the Harvard University professor and former president, has repeatedly challenged ideas associated with the campus diversity movements, arguing against the idea of microaggressions, guidelines on Halloween costumes and so forth. In a column in The Washington Post, he writes that he viewed these and other campus trends as "'political correctness' run amok."

But Summers says that it is time to "retire" the term political correctness. "Whatever rhetorical value the term may have once had is far more than offset by what has been unleashed in the name of resistance to it since the presidential election," he writes.

While some have disputed reports of attacks on various groups of students as exaggerations and examples of political correctness, Summers says that they are real -- and should be treated as such.

"Black students, gay students, Hispanic students, Muslim students, disabled students, female students -- all of them now fear that the basic security and acceptance on which they relied is at risk," Summers writes. "Help lines are flooded with calls. Those who seek to count hateful incidents report an upsurge. I cannot convince myself that that fear is irrational. Personal experience has brought home to me the pervasive change since the election. Painted swastikas have defaced the middle school that my twin daughters attended and the college another daughter now attends. At a different university where my daughter studies, all the black freshmen were sent emails with pictures depicting lynchings."

Adds Summers: "In the face of all this, the president-elect and his staff condemn those who march in protest over his election but as of yet have not forcefully condemned those overt acts of racism, sexism and bigotry the election has stimulated. They have allowed, without adequate response and rejection, the celebration of victory to metastasize into something dark and evil. It is surely wrong to hold the president-elect personally responsible for all the words and deeds of all who support him. Equally, the president-elect has a moral obligation to stand up for tolerance and against intolerance, whatever its source."

Unusually Pointed Speech by President of Columbia

Many college leaders have spoken out since Election Day on the pain felt by many of their students, and on incidents of intolerance on many campuses. But most presidents have avoided saying that the new administration's ideas are antithetical to higher education.

On Thursday night, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, did just that.

“The university is not a political institution -- we do not take positions on political issues. But when you [a president-elect] have a position that produces a president and vice president that challenge the central idea of a university, one has to do something,” he said, according to a report in the student newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator. (A university spokeswoman said that Bollinger spoke extemporaneously, at a university award dinner, so there is no text. She confirmed, however, the accuracy of the remarks.)

Bollinger added, “The denial of climate change, the rejection of the fact of evolution, the attack on free speech, the dissemination of falsehoods deliberately and intentionally that would make George Orwell seem naïve and unimaginative, the attack on groups that we celebrate at Columbia and embrace as part of our greatness -- these are not political issues. This is where we stand. This is a challenge to what we stand for.”

He said he would have more ideas in the future about how to respond. For now, he encouraged Columbia faculty members to focus more than ever on teaching the university's core curriculum.

More Presidents Sign Open Letter to Trump

On Friday, Inside Higher Ed published an open letter to President-elect Trump from 110 college presidents, urging him “condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation, sometimes in your name, which is now synonymous with our nation’s highest office.”

Since that article was published, 19 additional presidents have signed, and their names may be found at the bottom of the original article.

Middle East Studies Association Condemns Bigotry

At the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, the organization's board voted that "in light of a documented rise in hate crimes and rising concerns about bigotry in various forms -- racism, anti-Semitism and attacks on Muslims, Middle Easterners and others -- the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Board of Directors emphatically reaffirms" a statement it adopted in November 2015 condemning such intolerance.

That statement said that the board of the association "condemns the increasing frequency and intensity of violent acts against civilians taking place in countries around the world. We are also alarmed at the related rise in the stereotyping and vilification of people of Middle East or Muslim background. We urge, therefore, those with responsibility for United States policy in the Middle East and the Islamic world to avail themselves of the insights of scholarship as they seek to understand the background of these violent acts and to frame responses to them."

Last week, leaders of both the Modern Language Association and the American Educational Research Association released statements expressing concerns about the postelection environment.

Scholars of Jewish History on the 'Fragility of Democracies'

More than 200 scholars of Jewish history issued an open letter in which they say that their scholarship has left them "acutely attuned to the fragility of democracies and the consequences for minorities when democracies fail to live up to their highest principles."

"In the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, it is time to re-evaluate where the country stands," the letter says. "The election campaign was marked by unprecedented expressions of racial, ethnic, gender-based and religious hatred, some coming from the candidate and some from his supporters, against Muslims, Latinos, women and others. In the days since the election, there have been numerous attacks on immigrant groups, some of which likely drew inspiration from the elevation of Mr. Trump to the presidency of the United States."

The letter outlines concerns -- based on Jewish history -- for the safety of non-Jews and Jews alike.

"Hostility to immigrants and refugees strikes particularly close to home for us as historians of the Jews," says the letter. "As an immigrant people, Jews have experienced the pain of discrimination and exclusion, including by this country in the dire years of the 1930s. Our reading of the past impels us to resist any attempts to place a vulnerable group in the crosshairs of nativist racism. It is our duty to come to their aid and to resist the degradation of rights that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has provoked."

Then the letter goes on to say, "However, it is not only in defense of others that we feel called to speak out. We witnessed repeated anti-Semitic expressions and insinuations during the Trump campaign. Much of this anti-Semitism was directed against journalists, either Jewish or with Jewish-sounding names. The candidate himself refused to denounce -- and even retweeted -- language and images that struck us as manifestly anti-Semitic. By not doing so, his campaign gave license to haters of Jews, who truck in conspiracy theories about world Jewish domination."

David Biale, the University of California, Davis, professor who organized the letter, said that the response has been "overwhelming," and that more than 100 professors have asked to sign since the letter was published.

Admissions Group Pledges to Continue Agenda

Many admissions leaders have been deeply concerned about the election results, fearing the impact on efforts to attract more students to higher education, and in particular to attract more low-income and minority students.

Joyce Smith, the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, sent an email to association members on Friday vowing to continue the organization's priorities.

"In the weeks and months ahead, the association will redouble its efforts," Smith wrote, "to commit public funding to education, including support for K-12 schools and particularly school counselors, support for college access programs, and support for need-based financial aid for postsecondary education; advocate for the urgency of public policy measures to ensure inclusion, access and success to higher education for underrepresented students; defend students and taxpayers from unscrupulous recruitment practices and ensure that the public investment in higher education assistance is not wasted on fraudulent institutions; protect undocumented students who received deferred action status and advocate forcefully for a path to higher education; and maintain an environment in which students wishing to study in the United States can do so without fear of hate, violence or violation of fundamental human rights."

Trustees Express Concern

The board of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges released a statement Friday expressing concern about "recent unrest on the campuses of the nation’s universities and colleges. Protests have mingled with reported incidents of racial and ethnic harassment, threatening fundamental rights of free expression, and eroding the principles intrinsic to open and engaged institutions of learning."

The statement added, "Colleges and universities bear a unique responsibility to society. They foster dialogue and the examination of divergent perspectives, even those that could be considered objectionable. AGB supports openness, freedom of speech and inclusion among campus stakeholders who seek to address the range of issues related to campus climate and public policy. Our college and university leaders must be vigilant in protecting the safety and security of their campuses while supporting an environment in which different points of view can be freely aired, and the educational missions fully realized."

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