Following the fourth round of the Republican presidential debates, a flurry of media attention focused on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that “we need more welders, less philosophers.” In addition to noting the grammatical error in his statement, defenders of the liberal arts leaped to prove Rubio wrong by producing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that the median salary of philosophers in fact exceeds that of welders.
Many commentators also highlighted the value of a discipline that fosters the critical-thinking, writing and arguing skills necessary in a rapidly changing, globally interdependent world where the jobs of the future have not yet been invented. Moreover, they contended that philosophical training, which encourages the kind of adaptability and flexibility required in an uncertain job market, is a plus.
A case in point is the highly publicized, and ironic, story of Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and used online tutorials to become a welder and motorcycle mechanic. Rather than reaffirm that a liberal arts education leads to a life of underemployment, Crawford’s story illustrates the capacity of someone who is liberally educated to be an innovator in his own life.
As a college president, I pay careful attention to contemporary discourse surrounding the value added of higher education. Yet I admit to being personally interested in the response, both within and outside of the academy, to Rubio’s assertion. I was trained as a philosopher, earning my Ph.D. from Brown University in metaphysics and ethics. My father, by contrast, dropped out of school at the age of 16 to join the war effort following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and later traveled 70 miles round-trip daily on a bus to work third shift as -- you guessed it -- a welder at Pratt and Whitney. Known by his buddies in the Marines as Satch, my father had street smarts and could fix anything. I spent hours by his side as he dismantled engines, repaired faulty starters and dabbled in electronics using discarded tubes and cylinders that we salvaged on weekends from the town dump.
Both of my parents valued effort and disciplined work, and they encouraged me to go to college to escape the factory jobs that circumscribed their lives. Nevertheless, when I invited my father to my graduation from Brown, he declined, admonishing, “I hope you don’t think this makes you better than us.” I assured him that my academic success did not constitute a rejection of my working-class roots, or of him.
I was reminded of this long-ago conversation with my father when Senator Rubio condemned those of us in higher education for stigmatizing vocational education in the context of whether to raise the minimum wage. My fear is that in the quest to prove Marco Rubio wrong regarding the value of the humanities, we fail to take seriously the message at the core of his controversial statement. Those of us seeking to respond to Rubio’s assertion regarding the value of welders over philosophers must ask why his message resonates with such a broad segment of our society.
For many people in America, a liberal arts education seems reserved for those within the ivory tower, reflecting a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life. And according to Senator Rubio, higher education is too expensive, too difficult to access and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills. Those accusations fuel the image of a liberal education as a self-indulgent luxury, underlying calls for the elimination of humanities programs in favor of vocational and preprofessional programs that are regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity.
Of course, it is little wonder that the liberal arts are considered a luxury and irrelevant to success in a world that equates long-term happiness with wealth. But while those of us in the humanities may condemn the skeptics for being misguided, it is time to recognize the extent to which we ourselves have perpetuated this misconception.
Senator Rubio’s statements should remind us of the risk of slipping into Casaubonism and of the failure to connect liberal learning to the lives of people outside of the academy. Consider this: there is growing economic segregation in American higher education, with more than 50 percent of students attending community colleges and one in every two students dropping out. Yet a liberal arts education will remain secure in wealthy communities and at elite, private institutions, which were built upon the foundation of liberal learning and its inextricable link to democratic engagement and civic responsibility. In contrast, liberal education will be under increasing scrutiny at public institutions -- community colleges, where I began my education, and other state colleges and universities.
In challenging Rubio’s rhetoric, we can learn lessons from the past. Remember Sarah Palin’s talk of death panels? She opposed President Obama’s proposed inclusion in a health care reform plan of a provision that would reimburse physicians for talking to their patients about advance directives for end-of-life decisions or hospice care. The phrase's invocations of Nazi programs targeting the elderly, ill and disabled subsequently led politicians to excise the proposal early on from the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tri-Committee bill. The furor started with a post on Palin’s Facebook page asserting that if the government passed health care legislation, boards would be set up to determine whether the elderly and disabled were worthy of care. In the weeks that followed, politicians issued statements warning against a policy that would push us toward government-encouraged euthanasia; they trumpeted instead the need to protect seniors from being put to death by their government.
In fact, the positing of death panels was Politifact’s 2009 “Lie of the Year.” However, by disavowing the truth of the claims of death panels by calling them laughable, President Obama failed to address the real fear underlying the concerns of those who readily believed the rhetoric, namely, the denial of necessary medical care at a time of urgent need. Thus, an opportunity was lost for meaningful debate over critical end-of-life issues that were pushed aside during the process of political jockeying.
My goal here is not to dredge up partisan debates, but instead to draw attention to the nature of the fear that people across the country have expressed, then and now. Just as people during Palin’s run were genuinely concerned that the government would be allowed to determine what constitutes necessary care and who should be allowed to receive it, those pushing vocational education over liberal education today do so grounded in fear that their children will not be able to have a better life than they had. That fear creates a false dichotomy between vocational and liberal education, between welding and philosophy. Everyone, including welders, can benefit from liberal learning precisely because the illumination of human consciousness through literature, philosophy, music and the arts enriches the experience of individuals alone and as members of a community, allowing us to flourish fully as human beings.
Inasmuch as scholarly traditions in the liberal arts serve as benchmarks and frameworks for grappling with abiding human questions and concerns, reserving these opportunities only for those who can afford an elite education or live in well-heeled communities has profound consequences in terms of egalitarian principles of justice and fairness. Most important, it thwarts our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy. We must restore America’s trust in higher education, viewing it not as a private commodity but as a public good -- one that all our citizens, whatever their socioeconomic background can access. While there has been a good deal of rhetoric regarding the principle of universal access to higher education as an essential symbol of our nation’s commitment to equality of opportunity, the reality is that many of our citizens still have “closed futures” and consequently are, in a very real sense, unfree. Denying access to higher education not only drastically undermines the promise of equal opportunity for individuals, it limits prospects for economic growth at the national level.
In an effort to redress social inequality, colleges and universities must establish partnerships with businesses and industry, primary and secondary schools, public officials and community members. This approach to creating access to higher education necessitates bringing leadership beyond the academy by making our scholarly expertise available as a public resource. The result would be a transformation of colleges and universities into a visible force in the lives of even the most disenfranchised members of society. Until we do so, we will have failed to address the real concerns of those whose cheers filled the auditorium when Senator Rubio urged us toward a return to vocationalism on the back of philosophy jokes.
Lynn Pasquerella is president of Mount Holyoke College and president-elect of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
It is high time these colleges and universities did so. If ever an easy case for degree revocation existed, this is it. Indeed, within the last few days, George Washington University rescinded the degree it awarded Cosby, reversing an earlier stand on this issue. That said, the fundamental issues go beyond Cosby and beg for us to answer a much broader question: Under what specific circumstances should an honorary degree be revoked?
I appreciate the difficulty some individuals -- as distinguished from institutions -- may be having with dropping the proverbial hammer on Cosby. He was, for many, an icon -- a mentor and role model to celebrities and noncelebs alike. He broke new ground in terms of race relations, and he had remarkable talent as a comedian. Indeed, I suspect that many people believed he was the character he played on television in the '80s and '90s: the high-minded father Dr. Cliff Huxtable.
Yet however hard it is for us as individuals, institutions of higher learning have deeper and wider obligations to their students, faculty members, administrators and alumni. Institutional leaders need to speak up and out -- as the victims of Cosby have -- about his serial sexual assaults. And revocation of an honorary degree does just that: it signals that the awarding institution will not sanction this egregious behavior. As we enter 2016, now would be a good time to clean up old messes and send forth a message on and off campuses that serial sexual predators are not deserving of our highest institutional accolade.
Most institutions do not have established clear rules or guidelines about honorary degree rescission. The Cosby case creates an opportunity to provide institutional guidance for possible future and less clear-cut -- and thus thornier -- situations.
This subject is especially complex in today’s campus climate. Hot topics continue to proliferate on campuses, including concerns over campus sexual assaults and campus culture, the increase in student protests over racial and ethnic discrimination, claims of First Amendment violations when speakers who disagree with prevailing student norms are disinvited from or silenced on campus, and critiques of political correctness as a way of masking students who are privileged and coddled.
Given the problems with the Cosby situation, it seems wise indeed to craft a written solution for when an honorary degree can and should be revoked and the process that is required to make that happen wisely. That would fill an existing void and facilitate action in the rare case in which it is needed. Developing such a document or documents, however, is easier said than done. We must be cautious about setting criteria that are so broad that almost any honorary degree can be withdrawn in a changed or changing political environment. Yet, if we are too specific and target the criteria to fit Bill Cosby or a Cosby-like situation, we are not providing solutions for situations down the road. In some ways, the dilemmas here resemble the question of whether named buildings, murals and statutes of individuals who were honored in their time but were slave owners or robber barons or misogynists (among other things) should be eradicated.
The criteria also raise the issue of governance. Who should decide whether an honorary degree should be withdrawn and by what voting margin (simple majority or supermajority)? What role, if any, should the president or chancellor play in recommending or championing a degree rescission? What role can and should faculty members and current or graduated students play? Trustees or members of a governing board?
Then there are issues surrounding the timing of the deeds leading to a rescission decision. Are the causes related to events before or after the actual honorary degree was awarded? Does an honorary degree confer ongoing obligations for the recipient, or it is an award for past deeds and actions?
And what about the larger looming question: how to ensure that the criteria do not limit the selection of honorary degree recipients to only those with whose ideology or actions we agree -- philosophically, politically or morally.
Here are my recommendations, appreciating that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work and that campuses need to craft language that is consistent with their own institutional culture and governance protocols.
Within the honorary degree, as it is written and as it is ultimately read when conferred, the recipient should be awarded the degree with “all the appertaining rights, privileges of and obligations to” the awarding institution. By adding the word “obligations” to the award itself, colleges and universities are each signaling that with the degree come not only benefits but also ongoing duties. And those duties would include the recipient having acted and continuing to act in ways that are legally and morally consistent with the societal and campus norms. In many cases now, the word “obligations” is absent.
Consider this language: “The Board of Trustees, upon motion of a trustee, the faculty and/or staff senate or student body president [wording would be adjusted to reflect actual governance structure in place at a given institution and how the awarding process functions], shall revoke an honorary degree by a two-thirds vote of trustees if it is determined that the action(s) or inaction(s) of the honorary degree recipient are or were so egregious that they violate existing state and federal law and/or the rules and guidelines governing the behavior of students, faculty and staff at [the institution] as reflected in the campus handbook [or other applicable document] as now exists or may hereinafter exist.
It is my hope that these suggestions will spur campuses to add this or similar language to whatever documents govern their procedures for awarding and rescinding degrees. Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new section in any applicable institutional documents related to honorary degrees that reference both the language to be used within the degree itself and the criteria upon which a degree can be rescinded.
It is the expectation that recession of an honorary degree will be a rare and will occur only in circumstances that truly reflect that the recipient’s actions or inactions are so contrary to established legal and social norms that the degree is no longer merited and does a disservice to the integrity of this institution and its stakeholders. Honorary degree recipients will be notified in writing of the institution’s decision to revoke their previously awarded degree.
The best way to test out the language that I’ve suggested is to plug in the names of people to whom this might apply -- now or down the road. What about degrees awarded or to be awarded to former President Bill Clinton or former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton? Eliot Spitzer or Richard Nixon? Tom Brady or Pete Rose? David Irving or Arthur Butz? Cardinal Law, Bishop Eddie Long or Rabbi Barry Freundel?
We in higher education can and should ask which of these people merited or might merit in the future an honorary degree. To be sure, that is another topic, but it is a worthy line of inquiry. And we can rightfully ask whether such individuals violated the law and/or have been prosecuted civilly or criminally or reached an out-of-court settlement. We can consider whether we object to their beliefs or to their conduct in the past or on a go-forward basis (for those still living).
I get that we are on a slippery slope. I get that we may differ as to whether a particular individual’s conduct warrants the granting or revocation of an honorary degree. But each institution needs to set boundaries and know where it stands because the issue of degree rescission will not disappear over time. While the Bill Cosby case may be clear to many of us, the next one may be far less so. We should prepare now to deal as effectively as we can with what the future has in store.
Karen Gross is a former president of Southern Vermont College and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.
Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.
Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.
How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?
The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)
The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.
Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.
College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.
Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.
When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.
Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.
In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.
And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.
Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.
The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.
In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.
Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.
Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.
It’s been widely researched, documented and debated. But even with all the attention, the nation’s colleges and universities have made little progress in closing the gender gap in academic leadership.
Despite the fact that more than half of America’s population is female, and the gender ratio among college and university students has been increasingly favoring women for nearly 50 years, higher education institutions don’t get very good grades in terms of hiring and promoting female leaders. Research by the American Council on Education has found that only 27 percent of deans of academic colleges and 26 percent of college or university presidents are women.
While those numbers are an improvement from past studies, progress in this critical area has just been too slow. At Rochester Institute of Technology, where I serve as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, we’re striving to be leaders of change in this arena. In fact, at our nine-college university, where our 18,500-student enrollment is 66 percent male and the majority of students are majoring in male-dominated STEM fields, 44 percent of the deans, 50 percent of associate or assistant provosts and 40 percent of vice presidents are women. In addition, three of our four female deans are in colleges where leadership is typically male: our business school, college of science, and college of computing and information sciences. (The fourth is dean of a college unique to RIT, the nationally ranked College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.)
How did we achieve this? It did not happen overnight, but rather through deliberate focus and corresponding actions, using a systematic approach that we call SERS: Strategize, Encourage, Recruit and Support.
Strategize. You must build on a foundation grounded in your institution’s values in order to diversify its leadership. An underlying thread in RIT’s 2025 strategic plan, entitled “Greatness Through Difference,” recognizes the power of diversity to shape the future of higher education as well as the students we serve. This strategic plan includes goals of increasing the number of female and minority employees in supervisory and management positions; designing, distributing and publicizing career ladders for advancement within each division; and examining our mentoring program to determine if it meets the “personal, profession and career advancement needs of minority and female faculty and staff.” Having such a strategic mandate goes a long way toward building momentum and garnering on-the-ground support for this work.
Encourage. To make important strategic institutional changes, you must instill your priorities in your institution’s culture. So, if you want to diversify your leadership, it is not enough to establish the expectations. You must then put support systems into place.
For example, when working with all of the deans to set the plan of work for the year, we agree on specific goals for diversifying the faculty and staff and provide ample examples of the role that deans can play in achieving these goals. One specific way is to encourage up-and-coming women and faculty members of color to seek out leadership roles and development opportunities. Diversifying committee leadership positions is one approach, but so are more formal professional experiences such as the ACE Fellows, Harvard Higher Education Leadership or emerging leadership programs. We have found that these “grow your own” approaches often produce superior results.
Or if you have an opening for a dean position and are going through a search process, you might consider asking a qualified woman to step in as interim -- something I’ve done on two occasions at RIT. It accomplishes two practical goals: it provides the person with a safe environment to try on the position and decide if it is a good fit, and it gives the community an opportunity, in turn, to try out him or her.
Recruit. Of course, one of the most important ways to help meet the goal of diversifying your institution’s leadership is in the recruitment process. For instance, when forming a search committee for a high-level position, make it clear in your charge to them that you expect they will present the decision makers with a diverse final pool. That means they will have to actively and intentionally recruit, not just sit back and hope diverse resumes fill their inboxes.
That’s not as difficult a task as it may sound. There are many professional organizations, including the American Council on Education’s Women’s Network Executive Council, that keep track of their rising stars. In fact, ACE hosted a round table in June entitled “Moving the Needle: Advancing Women Leaders” that drew 70 attendees. This initiative has set a vision that by 2030 half of the chief executives at higher education institutions will be women. You can begin building your own database of exceptional women in academe by working with one of those organizations. And do not forget that the professional societies, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, are also great sources for women and faculty of color leaders.
Once the search committee brings you that diverse group of finalists, be prepared to take action that reinforces your strategic imperative. In other words, if you have to choose between two equally qualified candidates, choose the one who brings diversity to your college or university. Without such deliberate actions, we cannot expect to achieve our diversity goals.
Support. And finally and equally important: support women in leadership positions. As provost, it’s my obligation -- and honestly, my privilege -- to recognize our in-house talent and to then work with them to identify and cultivate development opportunities. This support is crucial to their long-term success.
For example, I recently invited our female deans to join me on a development trip on the West Coast. The invitation demonstrated my respect and appreciation for their leadership and willingness to take on new challenges. The time we all spent together gave us a chance to learn more about each other as people and colleagues. I have seen the bond that has formed among these women, who now look to each other for counsel and support. And of course, encouraging our emerging leaders to find mentors and advisers who will carefully provide career guidance is a great way to create a continuum of support. The converse works, too -- all of us should offer to be mentors for our rising stars.
Systemic Change Required
But one person -- or even a group of people -- can only do so much. If we are to balance the scale on gender diversity in higher education leadership, we must recognize the need for systemic change and be the force behind it.
At RIT, we’ve used a $3.4 million transformational grant from the National Science Foundation to establish AdvanceRIT, a project aimed at refining and creating systems and targeted programs designed to increase the representation of women faculty in the STEM disciplines and among our campus leaders. It is a research-based project that includes enhancements to faculty development, refinements to policies and better-related data tracking and reporting -- all to further improve the working environment and support career advancement of women faculty through empowerment and inclusion. For example, AdvanceRIT created a system of “connectivity” grants that allow women faculty to build greater research networks, and AdvanceRIT played a leadership role in clarifying the RIT policy on tenure.
Our ultimate goal is to improve recruitment, retention and advancement among our women faculty. And in keeping with our commitment to diversity, the project is looking into the distinct challenges experienced by women faculty of color and those who are deaf and hard of hearing. To demonstrate our commitment to this project, both RIT President William W. Destler and I serve on its leadership team, along with the principal investigator, mechanical engineering professor Margaret Bailey, and four other talented female STEM faculty members, who are co-principals on this project.
I’m certainly not implying that we at RIT have done everything right, or that we have all the answers. We know that our work is far from done. We can, for example, better diversify our department chairs and our faculty senate and increase the number of faculty of color in leadership positions. But if change is to happen, if we are to do more than talk about diversity and actually achieve it, then we all must take action.
Jeremy Haefner is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology, a post he has held since July 2008.
As a graduate student involved in a campaign to persuade the University of California to divest from companies that are involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, I feel compelled to respond to former University of California President Mark Yudof’s recent broadside against our work. His characterization of the campus boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as irrational and intolerant is wrong and demands a rejoinder.
Before making the case for divestment, it is important to establish the circumstances that have stimulated widespread support for this campaign. Although there is a general consensus that Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories should end, people are in much less agreement about what to do to end the occupation and help Palestinians achieve freedom. For the past 20 years, the answer that Americans most commonly have accepted has been to allow what began in 1993 as the Oslo peace process to run its course, producing a negotiated solution that ended the occupation and produced two states living side by side.
Sadly, the peace process has produced very little. The Obama administration recently stated that it did not believe that a peace deal would be at all possible, or that negotiations would perhaps even be restarted, during the remainder of the president’s term. It is hard to see the next administration (Republican or Democratic) being willing to invest as much time and energy into the peace process as John Kerry did during his marathon negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Thus, “Waiting for Oslo” has gone from a plausible option in the 1990s to a polite way of saying you’ve given up in the 2010s.
But as any empathetic observer of the day-to-day reality in Israel-Palestine would agree, not having an option is not an option. As Secretary of State Kerry recently stated in an interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, “It is not an answer to simply continue to build in the West Bank and to destroy the homes of the other folks you’re trying to make peace with and pretend that that’s a solution.”
Despite this axiomatic truth, few besides the Palestinians themselves have offered any compelling alternatives to this costly and destructive status quo. Therefore, the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions should be considered an alternative solution that deserves our honest consideration -- particularly in the absence of any other compelling plan to get from the status quo to a resolution of the occupation.
Students across the country have responded to this call by advocating for divestment -- a campaign to pressure colleges and universities to drop their investments in companies directly involved in human rights and international law violations in what is supposed to be the future Palestinian state. Although this type of campaign is not a substitute for the political processes that are necessary to end the occupation, the logic of the campaign is that the economic pressure of divestment can slow the growth of settlements, checkpoints and the rest of the infrastructure of the occupation, while also adding general pressure on the Israeli government to end it altogether.
Consider the companies targeted by the divestment campaigns at the University of California: American and multinational corporations like Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar and Cemex. HP provides electronic services for the checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from traveling to work, school and neighboring towns. Caterpillar provides the armored bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes throughout the occupied territories, and particularly in the beleaguered Area C of the West Bank. Cemex provides building material for illegal settlements and the wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting off Palestinians from their lands. None of these facts are disputed -- even many campus groups that oppose divestment generally agree that the corporations in question are violating Palestinian human rights.
But given that such companies are involved in perpetuating the occupation, divesting from them shouldn’t be particularly controversial. It should be relatively easy for someone who supports a two-state solution also to support divesting from the companies that are stifling the possibility of that very solution. Saying that you want to end the occupation but demanding that we continue investing in it is an ineffective and contradictory position.
This, in sum, is the position of many students in the UC system: We want to see Palestinians achieve their freedom, and we think divestment is the best tool available to us to help support that outcome. Although students have a variety of opinions about what the future should look like in Israel-Palestine, virtually everyone would cheer any positive outcome that gained the support of Palestinians themselves. And many students see the UC’s prior divestment decisions, including its recent decision to divest from private prisons, as a sign that student activism can contribute to social justice domestically and internationally.
Ultimately, it is perfectly fine for former President Yudof and others to choose not to support divestment. Many well-meaning people don’t, and it doesn’t make them bad people. But what is really objectionable about Yudof’s comments is his attempt to demonize those who do support divestment. Fearmongering about students who are often roughly a third his age is offensive and undignified.
Yudof’s characterizations of divestment activists don’t apply to me and don’t reflect my experiences in this movement. Campus divestment activists aren’t secret haters, don’t support violence and didn’t hoodwink other progressive students into supporting these campaigns. Rather, we are students from all walks of life whose support for social justice and human rights leads us to work to divest from companies undermining those basic principles. This support is seen outside of campuses as well. Recent polling shows that a plurality of Americans prioritize human rights when considering Israel-Palestine, and furthermore that nearly 40 percent of Americans and 25 percent of Jewish Americans support boycotts or sanctions against Israeli settlements.
If Yudof has an alternative to divestment that he thinks will be more persuasive to the public, he should add it to the debate. But opposing divestment while offering no compelling alternative amounts to tacitly endorsing a status quo of continued occupation with horrible consequences -- primarily for Palestinians, but also for Israelis as well.
Rahim Kurwa is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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