ADMINISTRATIVE JOBS

Review of Christopher P. Dum, "Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel"

“We think about this as a studio apartment,” says one member of a couple living in a single-room occupancy. In better days the unit was a motel room. To see it as a studio apartment is a triumph of imagination and will, as the speaker is fully aware. “We have to,” she continues, “’cause if we continue to realize where we’re at in life, we would spiral into a massive depression. And the housekeeping we do would not get done …. I call it home and I cry on the thought of losing it ’cause this is all I have.”

Christopher P. Dum, an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, is careful to protect the identities of the ethnographic subjects he spoke to in researching Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel (Columbia University Press). In exchange he has been given access to some extraordinarily precarious and fragile domestic spaces -- dwellings that will seem to most readers just slightly more stable than a homeless shelter or living out of your car. But that is, by Dum’s reckoning, a blinkered view. The squalor is real and inescapable; what’s harder to see from a distance is the residents’ effort to find, or create, some kind of order in seriously damaged lives.

The author lived at the hotel he calls the Boardwalk for a year as fieldwork for his dissertation, gradually overcoming the residents’ (understandable) suspicion that he worked for law enforcement and intriguing some with the prospect of having their stories told. The hotel originally drew Dum’s attention while he was investigating the difficulties of registered sex offenders in finding housing. (In the public mind, “registered sex offender” has come to mean pedophile, although the label applies equally to those convicted of exhibitionism, soliciting prostitutes or even, believe it or not, public urination.)

Also staying at the Boardwalk during the author’s stay were recently released ex-prisoners and people with a range of mental-health issues, physical disabilities or substance-abuse problems, often in combination. It sounds like a population guaranteed to create even greater chaos than the sum of its dysfunctions. What Dum found instead is an emergent and fragile community of what he characterizes as “social refugees … impelled to relocate within their own country of citizenship because of the influence of social context and/or social policy.”

From studies of migration he adopts the notion of push and pull factors to discuss the two strong forces shaping life at the hotel. One is the overwhelming power of stigma: the area’s largely middle-class public “viewed motel residents as belonging to one or several devalued groups,” with the sex offenders among them being especially contaminating and marginalizing. Driving past the Boardwalk and yelling that its inhabitants were child molesters seems to have been a local pastime.

Membership in stigmatized groups pushed residents away from mainstream society and toward the Boardwalk, which in turn pulled them to its “sustaining habitat” -- a term from urban sociology akin to the real-estate mantra “location, location, location.” Boardwalk residents had ready access to bus stops, cheap food, a Laundromat and other “opportunit[ies] to engage in the same type of consumer relations that characterized the lives of their [better-off] detractors.” There also seems to have been some comfort in knowing that their landlord owned another nearby property called Park Place. (I’d guess that the real names of these motels were just as overblown as their Monopoly stand-ins.) Park Place was cheaper, in more serious disrepair and had a reputation for violence among the tenants. “They start drinking Milwaukee’s Best in the morning,” one Boardwalker explains, “and that makes them get wily.”

However uninviting Boardwalk might look from the author’s photographs, it’s hardly the worst place where life could leave you. Some tenants Dum interviewed managed to establish a degree of stability that included employment (one aspect of a sustaining habitat) as well as a certain amount of interior decoration. They felt a responsibility to care for other residents, particularly those with severe mental disorders. An informal but exacting code of etiquette governed the sharing of cigarettes, food and intoxicants. A certain amount of sexual jealousy and trash talking was inevitable, as was the occasional round of threats or punches, but Dum indicates that he heard of very little theft or predation. “It’s like any other community,” one resident told him, “it’s just people trying to get along.”

At the same time, even success in carving out livable circumstances could leave residents feeling trapped. Treating one’s room as a studio apartment entailed more than psychological strain. Rent “did not guarantee heat, air-conditioning, a fridge, kitchen or even drinkable water,” Dum writes. “Offsetting these conditions exacted so much material cost to buy fans, space heaters, refrigerators, microwaves and bottled water that once residents settled at the hotel they found it very hard to leave. They struggled to make monthly, even weekly, rent payments, and because of this, putting down a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment was nearly impossible.”

The author’s fieldwork turned out to coincide with the final phase of the motel’s existence. After years of code violations -- largely unnoticed by city inspectors for the simple reason that they often didn’t even show up -- the local government forced the closing of Boardwalk and Park Place. Exiled in America is on the whole an exemplary piece of social reportage and analysis, but while reading it I often wondered if calling his interview subjects “refugees” might not be pushing it. As it turns out, most of them found out they were being evicted a few hours before the deadline. So, yes, refugees.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Educating students in ambiguity and discomfort (essay)

The current public assumption that safe spaces and trigger warnings conflict with academic freedom and are the result of political correctness gone mad is a false dichotomy. If students today are indeed more fragile, then it is vital that we in higher education understand: (1) the specific nature of this sensitivity and (2) what colleges can do to help.

After this divisive election, we will need more capacity for talking about controversial issues. While the anonymity of social media may have escalated invective, it has not made for more ease with difficult conversations. Technology has allowed a generation to end relationships by text message, or even by “ghosting” an ex -- deleting a relationship from your life without any conflict or effort.

Avoiding conflict, of course, also sacrifices an opportunity to learn. Our campuses and world, meanwhile, are increasingly more religiously, culturally and ethnically diverse and now more politically divided. So at the very moment when we have more varied ideas, thoughts and opinions on our campuses, we also have students who are less equipped and perhaps less eager to have challenging discussions.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague letter to college presidents asking that we help students learn to disagree in a “respectful manner.” But what it means to be “disrespected” is highly contested, so we are indeed having difficult conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Ultimately, college is about helping students think critically. That requires learning how to interrogate complexity while withholding judgment and trying to feel safe in precisely those uncomfortable spaces where our ideas and attitudes are being challenged.

But this is a process. The first stage of college is finding a safe home. We learn much more when we explore from a place of safety, have the rights tools and feel accepted as equal partners in the discourse. The news media has greatly exaggerated the very few students who want “protection” from ideas they find uncomfortable. Safe spaces are mostly simply places of congregation, and assembly with other people who share your ideas, history and culture is a basic human impulse. With a safe home base established, we can then encourage students to venture into discussions in which they may have greater discomfort.

Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort. The measure of a college, then, has nothing to do with the sensitivity of its first-year students or if their professors use trigger warnings, but rather with the outcomes. Can we teach students to embrace ambiguity and discomfort? And, if so, how?

A Path Forward

First, colleges must assemble a diverse community of learners. Employers say they want graduates who can solve complex problems with people who are not like them. This year, for example, the first-year class at Goucher College is 35 percent students of color and 25 percent Pell-eligible students. We also have students from 60 countries on our campus, and we require 100 percent of our undergraduates to study abroad, as travel can be a great way to encounter differences and discover that not everyone speaks or thinks as you do.

But bringing diverse students together is just the beginning. To have open, meaningful and difficult conversations, young people also need to learn to live with a higher tolerance for ambiguity -- or “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.” It is essential for democracy, and it is being used in research on global leadership because it is related to cross-cultural communication and performance in diverse work environments. At Goucher College, we use a Tolerance for Ambiguity scale that asks students to respond to statements like:

  • An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.
  • A good teacher is one who makes you wonder about your way of looking at things.
  • The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideals the better.

We are using that tool and other existing psychological constructs to measure where our students are when they first arrive on our campus in terms of dealing with ambiguity, and then we follow up every year to see if and when they have progressed. All of this is confidential and analyzed by researchers only in the aggregate. We will, however, look for patterns and connect trends with pedagogy and activities. (Are juniors willing to take more cognitive risk? Did our required study abroad experience increase cultural sensitivity?)

This work is at an early stage, but our hope is that we will come to understand better how college and various interventions can have an impact. We have begun by actively doing everything we can as college administrators and faculty members to demonstrate that there are multiple good answers, that knowledge is complex and that we can change our minds.

We must also be intellectual and ethical role models, so on our campus, we are responsive and transparent about student concerns. We routinely engage students in open meetings and alter policy as a result of their input. It is certainly more work, but it has the dual benefit of building community while modeling that smart people have open minds.

We must also create a campus culture that invites and supports the most difficult conversations. On a night of unrest in Baltimore, I joined a spontaneous gathering of dozens of faculty members and students watching the news. Late into the night, students continued to share their responses, fears, anxieties, hurts and pains. It was profoundly uncomfortable -- and we all learned. In the weeks that followed, we decided we need to be even more uncomfortable, and a group of faculty members created a seven-week seminar, Back to School on Race. More than 150 faculty and staff members signed up and participated -- and we all learned more about the deep structures of racial inequity as seen through the lenses of multiple disciplines, as well as the ongoing pain and discomfort that such topics bring to many members of our own community. This became a springboard to further conversations about curriculum, pedagogy, support and campus culture.

Thus, to help our students embrace discomfort, we must first establish a home for them. Later we encourage them to encounter discomfort, allow them the time to reintegrate that new information and then send them back out to embrace more discomfort.

Next fall, we will also introduce a new curriculum that begins with a first-year seminar designed to welcome students to the world of inquiry through faculty members who model their own passionate exploration of a topic of their choosing, with the focus more on how faculty are thinking about their topic rather than what they are thinking. Students will then take three exploration courses that are based in our new interdisciplinary academic centers. Over four years, and not in a single course, students will also need to demonstrate that they are racially and culturally literate.

We encapsulate all these efforts in our new version of the three R’s of learning: relationships, resilience and reflection. We start by getting to know our students. We emphasize to them the importance of building relationships that will prepare them for more discomfort. We focus on resilience (and also measure this in our students) because we have found that, in general, those who see failure as an opportunity learn more, grow personally and succeed professionally. Conflict and failure allow us to test boundaries and open us up to new ideas and new perspectives.

Reflection is what ties it all together and feeds our compassion and social conscience, so we will soon require all graduating students to develop a reflection portfolio. Recognizing there are a multiplicity of accents, experiences, histories and values living all around us is a first step, but we must then also reconsider our own values, frameworks and prejudices, and then confront our differences honestly.

Technology and globalization have increased our exposure to difference, but that alone has not opened hearts and minds. The internet offers us increasing access to new ideas and knowledge, and most of what students will need to know for the jobs of the future, they will need to learn as they go along after they graduate. That means that colleges should focus less on making sure we cover the content and more on teaching students how to become self-regulated learners. New knowledge is only really useful if you know how to let it in and allow it to change your mind. We need to rethink the pedagogical processes by which we get students to truly embrace difference.

Without critical thinking, discernment and reflection, democracy retreats from the sound of the loudest voice. The value of the liberal arts will only increase as knowledge and ideas proliferate. We need graduates who are not only capable of difficult conversations but also eager to listen and reflect. Perhaps we should restrict degrees to those who realize the answer to most difficult questions is almost always “It depends.”

Author's email: 
istock/ridofranz

José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/ridofranz
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Why it's a problem that professors are to their campuses as commuters are to cities (essay)

As long as universities have been around, people have debated the purposes for which they are intended and what they actually might be. One way that has played out is in the myriad metaphors that have attached themselves to higher education.

We are all aware of the central metaphors of campus life: the ivory tower, the college community and the recent earnest demand that we see college as a business. Metaphors do their work by a sort of cognitive mapping, illuminating the complex and unknown by reference to things we think we understand. What we would like to offer as a provocation is a metaphor that maps the relationship between modern educators and the institutions that they serve as being similar to that between cities and suburbanites. This metaphor can illuminate some of the cultural problems on many campuses, including the general mistrust between faculty members and administrators as well as the concerns over the corporatization of the university.

The single most immediately recognizable -- indeed clichéd -- feature of American middle-class cultural life is the suburb. In the ideal, suburbanites divide their political and personal allegiances between where they work and where they live. In the stereotypical idealization, suburbanites are middle-class owners of detached single-family homes who live a physical and psychic distance from the cities where their jobs are located. Commuting to their places of work by automobile or, more rarely, by public transportation, suburbanites have a different relationship to the cities in which they work than do the residents of those cities.

Is there anything in this cliché that does not map the relationship of most academics to the institutions they serve? As much as we faculty members may be devoted to our jobs and, perhaps by extension to our institutions, we have much the same relationship with our colleges as suburban commuters do with the cities where they work. Our college, a midsize residential comprehensive college, is by no means unique. About 5,000 undergraduates inhabit the campus 24/7. We faculty arrive en masse, mostly in single-occupant automobiles, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., Monday through Friday, and leave like an ebb tide by around 5 p.m. After that time and on weekends, the only people on campus over the age of 22 are the campus police, a skeleton maintenance staff and the heroic librarians -- except for when we show up for the occasional performance, sporting event or lecture.

A walk through the halls of most colleges in the evening and at night can be quite unnerving. The campus does throb with life after we have left it, but it is a culture in which we do not participate, about which we are almost entirely ignorant and which we often publicly disdain. The people who inhabit our campuses live in a different polity than we do. Their behavior often appalls us. They stay up late. They carouse. We pontificate among ourselves about their lack of work ethic and impulse control.

Most of all, they are not like us, and we rarely have contact with them in what we think of as their cultural space. Ultimately, the campus is designed for the students who live there.

Our academic facilities have been imagined as suburban destinations. A typical faculty building has no common areas, no places for collaboration or socialization, nothing but a row of “houses” in which we keep our office hours. The layout of most of our offices is side by side and uncommunicating on a hallway, and while we may talk to our neighbors in the hall, the next floor up or down is often too far away to result in casual conversation. We all know that if you want to meet other faculty members, you should join a committee.

Classrooms are typically shaped entirely to serve a single purpose. Victims of the brutalist nostrum that form follows function, we can do little with our buildings other than teach classes, and they stand unused at virtually all other times. Only the most profligate enterprise would pay the enormous capital expense of erecting a staggering numbers of buildings to be used only for a few hours a day, five days a week, for less than eight months out of a year.

Unlike a city, however, we have little public space. Typically, there are few if any restaurants or coffeehouses that provide a place for accidental meetings, conversations or general sociability. Faculty members often eat lunch in their offices or not at all, because they don’t have any other place to go. The dining halls are for students, too crowded and seldom worth the cost. Although our hometown is often cited as one of the best coffee towns in America, the campus coffee bars are of poor quality and close at 4 p.m. At the end of the workday when one might like to carry on a conversation or just chat with whoever might be around and have a drink, we have to leave campus. Just as there is no coffeehouse to spend some time in during the day, there is no pub in which to unwind at the end of it.

The net result of all of this is that faculty members and administrators rarely interact without great effort or an unusual circumstance. Administrators commute just as we do. But like commuters to a separate company, they are mostly housed in their own building. We might converse with someone before a meeting or at the occasional event such as a retirement or celebration of newly tenured faculty. But that’s about it.

When put in this light, it is easy to see why faculty members don’t trust administrators or often even other faculty members. Fundamentally, we don’t know each other as people. We get electronic memos from administrators regularly, and they give us speeches a few times a year, but generally speaking, that is the extent of our communication. This is not a healthy campus culture, as it fosters distrust and misunderstandings. In fact, it makes it harder to move the campus forward, and the time saved by not fostering relationships is wasted in confrontation at every initiative.

Is there a solution to this situation? The campus functions well as a city for students, yet it also needs to function, at least to some extent, as a city for faculty members and administrators. We suggest that an architectural commitment to, if not full citizenship, then, at the least, simple sociability might be a starting place.

Of course, changes in architecture would require resources, which, in turn, would require commitment by administrators and collaboration with faculty members. So, where are the places where such conversations might begin? Perhaps those most humble and common toadstools in the academic garden: the Facilities Planning Committee, the Space Committee or whatever they call it at your institution, where faculty members, administrators, staff members and students meet the bright-eyed designers of our various campuses. We say flood the zone with communitarian activists who envision our campuses as something other than mere workplaces.

The stakes here are high and not merely aesthetic. If we continue to design campuses like cities in which the faculty have no stake in citizenship, then we will remain commuters into a city with no place for us and behaving like suburbanites. We will continue to lack shared values and generally mistrust each other. For colleges to evolve in a healthy manner -- and we do need to evolve -- it will take a collaborative effort and increased interaction among all campus constituents.

Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics and Robert Sullivan is an associate professor of communication studies at Ithaca College.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/ivcandy
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Colleges must move from simply asking people's opinions to making them count (essay)

Higher education was already reeling from a tumultuous 2015-16 academic year. Serious campus climate issues about race and class surfaced across the country in the form of student, and even employee, protests. Those protests came as a surprise to many in higher education who have worked hard to build inclusive communities on campuses. But they nonetheless clearly demonstrated that colleges and universities still have a long way to go.

Then last month’s presidential election sent another shock wave across higher education. It was a reminder that many experts, the news media, some elected officials and, to a certain extent, the highly educated elite are still “missing something.”

That something is a better understanding of what’s truly going on in our country, on our campuses and in citizens,’ students’ and employees’ lives.

If we in higher education want to have a deeper and clearer understanding of why there is considerable unrest on our campuses and across our nation, we must grasp a fundamental attribute of democracy that we seem to have lost track of: opinions being heard and counting.

Certainly, tens of millions of opinions were just heard in the form of votes cast for president of the United States. But being heard is about more than being counted once every four years. It’s about people being given a chance to exercise their opinions, on a regular basis, about many aspects of their lives. It’s about exercising their opinions at work, too -- where most of us spend many of our waking hours. It’s also -- most especially -- about people feeling that their opinions matter, that they counted and weren’t simply asked for. Those are very different things.

If, for example, you conduct a survey and ask someone’s opinion about something, that’s a decent first step. Certainly better than not asking them at all. But if you never do anything about that survey -- never provide any of the results or insights to those who responded to it and never take any action based on it -- you might actually be making things worse.

Higher education isn’t alone in this challenge; organizations of all kinds struggle with the process of collecting, disseminating and acting upon data. What’s clear, however, is we must both ask and respond. We also need to ask different and better questions.

Behavioral economics tells us that about 30 percent of the decisions we make as human beings are based on rational information, while 70 percent are based on emotion. Emotions are therefore the biggest driver of our decisions and behaviors, and they are as real as any concrete data might be -- in fact, they might be more so. Gallup research has demonstrated that, in the United States and across the globe, measures of people’s well-being (how they feel about and evaluate their lives) are often a stronger predictor of unrest than classic measures such as gross domestic product.

Behavioral economic measures of emotions will forever revolutionize how we come to understand how people are doing -- and how we can accomplish goals like building more inclusive communities. The only way to do so is to ask people directly and to ask questions about how they feel. This is not data we can gather about them; it has to be from them.

Gallup’s extensive research in higher education sheds light on the problems and opportunities for institutions of higher education when it comes to how they can build more inclusive communities. In the past year, Gallup has conducted several campus climate and employee/faculty engagement surveys for colleges and universities. What we’ve learned is that whether someone feels they are part of an inclusive campus community boils down to two absolutely crucial questions. These questions account for more than half of the variance in whether someone feels their campus is inclusive.

The first and most important question is whether they strongly agree that their opinions at work count. And the second is whether they strongly agree that someone cares about them as a person. Unfortunately, higher education institutions do not score well at all on these measures. Nor do K-12 schools. Teachers, for example -- of professions in America -- rank dead last in feeling that their opinions at work count.

Implicit and explicit in this is that institutions need to do more than just ask students, employees and alumni for their opinions; they must do something as a result -- whether that is communicating the findings and insights back to the constituents surveyed or taking action steps toward changes as a result of what was learned.

Emotions must be measured as well. As an example, think of how we typically measure something like student engagement. It’s usually about measuring activity levels -- such as how many times a student volunteered or visited the library or met with an academic adviser. Rarely -- if ever -- do we measure how they felt regarding those activities and interactions. Did they feel their adviser cared about them as a person? Were they excited about what they learned in the library? Did they feel they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom to their volunteer experience?

Higher education has worked hard toward creating more diverse campus communities. Indeed, as we look at the demographics of colleges and universities today, it’s clear we have accomplished a lot in this regard. While we certainly still have a lot of work to do, we’ve made much more progress on diversity than we have on inclusivity.

That’s a crucial distinction. Diversity is what we see. Inclusivity is how we act and what we feel. The two are interrelated, of course. Diversity serves as a foundation upon which inclusivity is built. But achieving inclusivity requires something quite different from what most of us have probably thought.

Before I started leading Gallup’s higher education work, I would have never guessed that inclusivity was fundamentally about opinions counting. But if someone doesn’t feel their opinions count, they are essentially and fundamentally disconnected from their community. What we have learned from the recent examples of student protests about campus climate and race -- and from many Americans in the aftermath of this election -- is that they are examples of people who felt their opinions have not counted for some time.

In higher education, we must embrace a new era in which we seek to carefully understand how students, employees, faculty members and alumni feel about their studies, work and lives. We have to move from simply asking about their opinions to ensuring those opinions matter and count. And we need to understand that people’s feelings are facts. We can’t dismiss feelings; we need to treat them with great care. If we do, we will make a lot of progress toward creating the inclusive communities we have long sought to build.

Brandon Busteed is executive director of education and work force development at Gallup.

Image Source: 
iStock/logorilla
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

The need to move beyond a multicultural perspective on campuses (essay)

Some college students who are Donald Trump supporters have offered a disclaimer and defense: “I’m not a racist, but Trump tells it like it is” or “I agree with some of Trump’s ideologies but not all.”

It seems many college students who support the controversial president-elect reject racism at the individual level -- the explicit and recognizable form -- but may lack a deep understanding of the construction and formation of race in America. And this lack of understanding certainly is not confined only to Trump supporters.

For higher education, this flash point serves as an important reminder that we must further examine how race operates in America and reimagine our framework for education on race.

On Nov. 9, college campuses across the country grappled with the state of the American polity and the future of race relations in our country following the election of Donald Trump.

Trump’s campaign and election have signaled to many that racism and other “-isms” are part of the DNA of American society, demonstrated clearly, viciously and deplorably by the euphemistic “alt-right” movement that has entered the academy.

Individual and Systemic Racism

A better understanding of both individual racism and systemic racism may help us undertake the looming challenge of uniting/reuniting our campuses and our nation through open and respectful dialogue across difference. A framework for education on race must include a vocabulary that enables us to critically discuss what transpired regarding race in the 2016 election season nationwide and especially on our college campuses.

Individual-level racism includes interpersonal bigotry, racial slurs, hate crimes and violence. Systemic-level racism, in contrast, involves discriminatory policies and practices that afford privilege to white people and simultaneously disadvantage people of color. Systemic racism manifests in our society’s pervasive and well-documented inequities and injustices across health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, employment and so many other areas.

Most Americans, including many supporters of President-elect Trump and millions of others, are complicit in systemic-level racism, which is subtle and often far less obvious to those who do not personally experience it. In addition to Trump’s individual-level racist rhetoric, the policies and ideas he has espoused promote systemic racism, which insidiously and brutally impacts generation after generation of Americans in communities of color. This fact is clear to the overtly racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan or the “alt-right” movement that support Trump, whether or not he wants their support.

White Fragility, Cultural Humility and Polyculturalism

During the election, Trump cleverly played to “white fragility” -- a defensive response by white people to racial stress -- by striking fear that their power and privilege would be lost unless we committed to “make America great again.” White fragility is manifested, for example, when white Americans perceive instances of “reverse racism” directed at them. They often perceive these situations as discrimination because these are among the few occasions when whites experience the salience of their racial identity.

Ironically, the reaction of white Americans to such perceived racism is not unlike the anger that historically marginalized Americans feel when confronted throughout their lives with systemic as well as individual-level racism.

White communities and others ordained by them as "model minorities” too often fail to engage in soul-centric reflection and critique -- exercises in developing a sense of cultural humility on issues of race that can unearth their responsibilities related to racism.

One reason for this lack of understanding on our campuses is that many students have little or no exposure to the lived realities of marginalized communities. Even on the most diverse campuses, our students are not practicing community together because our institutions have not enacted the shared values that would elevate the general level of awareness and compassion required to ask crucial questions and drive the necessary conversations associated with them.

A paradigm shift is required for us to move forward from our current nationwide and campus divide. Our present multicultural model fails to draw attention to the systemic racism that permeates our community, and it ignores that we are all a composite of multiple identities based on gender, ethnicity, education, abilities and disabilities, socioeconomic background, religious faith or the absence of it, and so much more that makes us unique individuals.

In higher education, racial categories are emphasized through this multicultural paradigm. It is important to note that race is socially constructed, not biologically determined. Very little biological variation exists among different racial categories. Nonetheless, dominant racial groups reify these categories to maintain power and privilege, while marginalized racial groups do so in the attempt to withstand the wrath of racism. The “oppression Olympics” that follows pits people of color against each other, while whiteness remains at the top of the ladder that other groups must attempt to climb.

Shifting to a polycultural framework that recognizes each of us embodies an array of identities -- of which race is merely one -- can help prevent white fragility in discussions on race. Cultivating cultural humility will facilitate the process. If we can broaden our education about whiteness as a salient racial identity, white Americans will also have the opportunity to unpack the intersections, differences, hierarchies, privileges and responsibilities to help us work together to advance race relations in America. It will also eliminate the disproportionate burden that often falls to students of color to educate their white peers. As a compelled network of identities interacting and exchanging, each of us brings value to this polycultural world.

Nurturing Dialogue on Our Campuses

President Obama recently said, “I don’t believe in apocalyptic -- until the apocalypse comes.” As we prepare for potentially far-reaching changes in policy and law that the next administration seems committed to bring, it is vitally important for higher education to do what it is designed to do: discover new ways of knowing and understanding in an effort to seek positive transformation in our community and the world.

Our dialogue and action on our respective campuses and as a higher education collective will be critical as we examine challenges involving undocumented students’ futures, affirmative action, international student enrollment, hate speech and crimes, gun control, the Affordable Care Act, access to higher education, and many other issues that are in the balance following the election. Higher education institutions now have a distinct opportunity to facilitate dialogue and deliberation. Many students, faculty members and staff members -- who may have been previously disconnected from social movements like Black Lives Matter and Freedom University and who are now disaffected by the recent election -- are hungry for dialogue.

Emory University, where I work, encourages dialogue and open expression in many ways. Two of our recent approaches emerged from the 13 demands that the black students of Emory presented last fall to advance racial justice on our campus. We immediately engaged in dialogue with our students, which led to a partnership between the administration and the student body. The partnership produced the racial justice retreat, working groups, a dedicated website and eventually the Emory Commission on Racial and Social Justice.

The commission -- which includes a diverse group of students, faculty members and administrators -- has generated action plans and concrete outcomes to address the student demands. The process reflects Emory’s efforts to truly listen to students from a range of backgrounds, respect their lived experiences and move together from demands to dialogue to action.

Of course, institutions need not wait for student demands. We should engage with our students in dialogue in advance to explore questions of racial and social justice. We should also engage with them for the long term -- recognizing that issues of racial and social justice are historical, entrenched and pervasive -- and manage expectations accordingly. However, we must move both deliberately and expeditiously from demands to dialogue to action that furthers the journey from diversity to inclusion.

In today’s polarized political and social environment, institutions of higher education have an opportunity to affirm identity, build community and develop leadership skills -- fostering their capacity to facilitate dialogue across difference, call out individual and systemic racism, and build coalitions to dismantle historical injustices on our campuses and in the larger society.

It is time for higher education to lead on issues of race in America -- now more than ever before.

Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.

Image Caption: 
Students at Emory University
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

How higher education can help workers displaced by globalism (essay)

The national discussion over the need for colleges and universities to produce better outcomes and be more inclusive is largely focused on the young people who enter the system. Yet we often ignore older workers whose skills are outmoded or no longer in high demand due to the changing economy -- and who are being displaced by technological shifts and the free flow of goods and services among countries.

While hardly anyone argues that improvements in technology should be slowed down, the same cannot be said for a greater integration of the global economy through freer trade. In particular, globalization and its impact on high-wage manufacturing jobs has become a key political issue in Western economies. It is evident that our country as a whole, as well as the higher education system, is doing a poor job of helping displaced workers reintegrate themselves into the economy. Given adequate funding, the system of higher education is capable of playing a greater role in helping them retain their dignity and contribute to the future.

Economists are in near-unanimous agreement that both free trade and technological change have raised the average income in the United States by shifting resources, including labor, from low-productivity industries into higher-productivity -- and therefore higher-wage -- industries and jobs. History shows that, over the long run, this movement of resources from agriculture to manufacturing and then to services has resulted in the gains in productivity that have led to higher living standards.

Writing for The New York Times, Javier Solana and Strobe Talbott also argue that international trade has been a major force in stabilizing world political systems since the end of World War II. To preserve this stability, they call for a restoration of “public support for free and fair trade … through better safety nets as well as ambitious and effective retraining opportunities.”

But the transition toward a more efficient use of world resources has seldom been a smooth one. It is certainly easier to divert steel from the production of tanks to the production of bridges than it is to convert coal miners into computer programmers. From the riots of the Luddites in 19th-century England to Brexit and the American election, it is clear that the increases in income and efficiency have produced both winners and losers. Those left behind are moving the political climate in Europe, and especially in the United States, into an antiglobalism environment.

In a special report on the declining support for internationalism, The Economist provides a spirited defense for the benefits of free trade but it also admits that globalism is on the run “because too little effort and money has been expended on taking care of those who have been hurt by the opening up of markets,” especially in America.

The Compensation Principle

If mainstream economics provides an argument for free trade, it also provides an argument for shifting some of the gains from trade from the winners to the losers. This argument is imbedded in the compensation principle.

That principle is drawn from the theoretical literature in economics that is concerned with advancing the overall well-being of society. It recognizes that the gains from any transaction can have both winners and losers. Improving societal well-being requires the winners to compensate the losers in some mutually agreeable way. The winners can have their gains, or at least most of them, as long as they are willing to support the losers in a way that leaves them the feeling that they are no worse off than when they started. These are people with dreams for their children and mortgages to pay, who have given up their jobs to market forces beyond their control.

That does not necessarily mean that all displaced workers would be restored to their former level of income. Some will not reach that level. Others might be willing to substitute leisure for income or take a less stressful job. And, yes, a few might even welcome the chance to study philosophy or art as they near retirement. For most, however, returning to the labor market will be of prime importance.

The principles laid down by the compensation theory only work if the winners and the losers have equal bargaining power. Since the winners would come out on top if bargaining were left to private markets or the courts, only the government has the ability to insist on a package of compensation that will adequately satisfy the losers. Using its power to tax and regulate, it can, and does, develop policies that transfer income from the winners to the losers.

That said, however, the volume of this transfer is inadequate in the United States, and a more equitable policy would involve a greater use of the higher education system. Not doing more to compensate those left on the sidelines by international trade risks a backlash that threatens our open economic and political systems.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently produced a comparative analysis of the “active labor market policies” of 31 mostly rich countries in its group. Analysis of the impact of these policies showed some success, particularly with younger and more recently unemployed workers. Examples of active policies included job-search assistance, education and training, public sector job creation, relocation allowances, and subsidized employment in the private sector. Each country was ranked according to the percentage of its GDP spent on policies that were designed to get people off benefits and back to work.

At the top of the list was Denmark, which spent 1.8 percent of its GDP in 2013 on active labor market policies, followed by Sweden and Finland. America was third from the bottom with 0.1 percent, ahead of only Chile and Mexico. Getting the United States to the middle of the pack would require us to make six times our current effort. That would place us equal to the effort found in Spain, a much poorer country.

Reaching the middle of the OECD pack, let alone the leaders, would come up against impossible political resistance in the United States. But if benefits were concentrated among those displaced by trade, there might be wider support. America took a stab at this with the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program enacted in 2002 and amended in 2009. But compared with the European effort, it was a small program with a limited reach. It should be expanded and more generously funded with a greater emphasis on education and training -- and involve a greater use of the higher education system.

Needed: Increased Education and Training

We have learned a lot from TAA and have found that workers benefited more when they sought out the education and training paid for by the program. Community colleges were the biggest providers of this education, and dislocated workers who participated in their programs achieved better employment outcomes than did those participating in other programs.

If America were to invest more in education and training, community colleges might be expected to carry a good deal of this load. But other possibilities exist. The range of possible training sites could be enlarged to include private and public employers. Wage insurance and other income subsidies to both private and public employers could help compensate displaced workers. Displaced workers could be given vouchers, much like Pell Grants, to use at approved training sites. Private employers might pick these up and develop on-site training and apprenticeship programs.

Including the private sector would contribute to the political support for such a program. For workers, the grants would allow a larger range of possibilities and could be used for an extended period to compensate for the gap between the higher-wage jobs lost in manufacturing and the lower wages common in many service jobs. In any program, particular attention needs to be paid to the participation of men in retraining, lest the social and monetary costs of incarceration, drug addiction, poor health and the deterioration of skills drag them and the society down.

None of this need increase the national deficit if we have the political will to transfer more of the gains of free trade from the winners to the losers. Doing anything less will threaten the gains already made and tear at our economic and political fabric.

Richard M. Romano is an economist and director of the Institute for Community College Research at SUNY Broome. He is also an affiliated faculty member at the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University.

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/nihatdurson
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Higher education needs a transformation of its value proposition (essay)

The late Notre Dame University president Father Ted Hesburgh advocated for the values that animate liberal education: critical thinking, persuasive communication, insightful judgment, cultural competence. He saw these values as essential to liberate people from inchoate fear, prejudice and the sense of powerlessness that often accompanies social change.

Buoyed by the votes of millions of Americans who never went to college, the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States seems to be a failure for American higher education. President-elect Trump’s rhetoric articulates values that are the antithesis of the liberal education values that Father Hesburgh proclaimed.

How did higher education in one of the most educated nations in human history lose its narrative and become marginalized in the wave of fear and resentment that Trump rode to victory?

Hesburgh was at his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in some ways that social and cultural era has parallels today: widespread dissatisfaction with “the establishment,” a fear of America’s loss of international prestige because of being bogged down in an unwinnable war, alienated young people, racial strife and the emergence of a political demagogue with roots in the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy era -- a man who harbored a long sense of grievance against college-educated elites. President Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphrey and, later, George McGovern might now be seen as foreshadowing the pathway to President Trump.

Hesburgh locked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., staunchly advocating for civil and human rights; he defied President Nixon. There is no Ted Hesburgh today. There are certainly wise and courageous presidents speaking out here and there, but there is no singular great voice strengthening the backbone of American higher education and daring to stand in the bully pulpit of reasoned opposition to expressions of hatred and threatened repression. We have no prominent moral and intellectual leader asserting the role of higher education as the central pillar of principled debate about the means and ends of government.

Instead, for quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

We have allowed the story of higher education today to become one about value, to be sure -- monetary value, dollars and cents as surrogates for quality and more important moral values. It’s not just about the incredible wealth of some universities, although that is part of the perceived value today, at least in rankings. Even more, it’s all about the economics for the consumers: whether the student finds the experience of higher education to be valuable not in terms of the person we help him or her to become, but rather, whether the graduate gets a well-paying job. PayScale has shoved aside the philosopher king as the arbiter of the worth of college.

Higher education needs a deep and pervasive transformation of its value proposition for the American public and the global society we serve. And this value proposition should be, unabashedly, about real civic, social and moral values -- a concept that Hesburgh warned was on the wane in his time, whose weakness has led to our marginalization in the national conversation about the kind of society America wants to be. In a broadly collaborative effort among all types of institutions, we must find solutions to these issues:

Expanding access to college. The election exposed the fault line that runs deep between college-educated Americans and those who have not gone to college, a sort of Starbucks v. speedway divide. There’s a tremendous irony right now in that many, if not most, colleges and universities are struggling to fill seats, and yet millions of Americans remain outside higher education.

Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions, claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students. Meanwhile, other significantly less wealthy institutions -- community colleges, open-access public institutions, smaller nonelite private colleges -- dare to enroll large numbers of low-income students and those of color. But we wind up being roundly criticized by media and policy makers because these students do not progress through college according to traditional measures of persistence and completion.

While we spend a lot of time worrying about the shrinking demographic of immediate high school graduates, in fact, the problem is not too few students, but rather, not enough seats configured in the right way to get more Americans into and successfully through the college maze. To achieve transformation, we must consider deep changes in degree requirements, curricula and programs, delivery systems, and cocurricular services. We need more focus on students and less on institutions. We must have deeper understanding of the 75 percent of students with “nontraditional” characteristics such as work, parenting and other family responsibilities while attending college.

We must end the obsessive inter-institutional competitiveness that drives up costs while keeping too many students out, replacing competition with a more open collaboration that recognizes and makes good use of the different characteristics of the spectrum of institutions to support student needs at each stage of the academic life cycle.

We should, collectively, reconsider the fundamental principles of general education, majors and electives, as well as the amount of credit required to earn degrees. What is the magic of the 120-credit baccalaureate degree? Is there a different way to achieve the same learning outcomes in a shorter, more efficient way?

Barriers to access also exist in the inhospitable corners of campus cultures that foster cruel exclusions (e.g., Greek houses), spawn attitudes where sexual abuse and assault thrive, or give life to racial, ethnic or religious bigotry. All those behaviors drive students who are “other” away, contribute to diminished academic performance and degrade the values of the academy. We can hardly exert moral leadership for the larger society if we continue to tolerate discriminatory, abusive behaviors on our own campuses.

Reforming the cost/price structure. No programmatic changes will amount to anything unless and until we reform the cost/price structure. College has become entirely too expensive for most people to bear, even with generous financial aid. Debt burdens are impossibly heavy, and tuition discounting has become overwhelming and harmful for many private colleges. We are sinking under the weight of an enterprise that has become too costly to sustain.

While many costs are fixed and hard to reduce, every budget has, in fact, opportunities for expense reformation that can control costs more effectively. We have to reconsider how much we spend on facilities, executive compensation and technology investments that quickly become obsolete. We need to do a better job reducing expenses for activities that are ancillary to the purpose of the university -- dare I mention athletics?

Universities with great wealth have a great opportunity right now. Rather than waiting for the new administration to act, perhaps the wealthiest universities could collaborate in a way that would help all students by pooling some percentage of their earnings to create a new foundation for college access that could benefit students broadly throughout higher education.

Reclaiming our public intellectual voice. A journalist recently asked me why college presidents are so darned reluctant to have anything to say about the important issues of our times. Some presidents say that they feel constrained by their boards or their political situations, particularly in state institutions. Others say they don’t feel a president should express opinions on public issues because that would be interpreted as intimidating those who disagree.

Father Hesburgh wrote in 1976 that the best gift a president can give to students is the gift of a good example. He wrote, “There are great moral issues facing young and old alike today … the young [should] perceive clearly where we elders stand on issues like human rights, world poverty and hunger, good government, preserving the fragile ecosphere …” Today, I would add where we stand on issues like Black Lives Matter, the deportation of undocumented children, religious bigotry and repression of religious expression, objectification and degradation of women, and freedom of speech and the press.

While respecting individual campus challenges, I disagree with those presidents who advocate silence as a form of some sort of politesse, a discretion that makes sure everyone remains comfortable. That, to me, is the height of political correctness. We need to risk being politically incorrect at times, in the best possible ways. We must roust our faculty members and students out of their comfort zones, to give voice to the values that our mission statements and vision documents claim as our entire reason for being.

In the next four years, if not eight or more, this country and higher education could well be challenged in ways we’ve not seen since the McCarthy era to demonstrate courage and conviction on behalf of the fundamental values of our society: free speech, equality of educational and economic opportunity for all people, racial justice, the right to profess every religion without fear of reprisal, the right to enjoy the blessings of liberty for all.

We must be courageous advocates for our students who are at risk right now, particularly for our undocumented students and students of color who continue to suffer racial hatred. We must stand up for equal rights for women, starting at home on our college campuses. We can hardly be advocates for justice in the world if we ignore the shameful stain of sexual assault on campus.

The promise of America has always been grander than our reality, but we had hoped in the last half century to have moved past the racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that now runs rampant with the approval, role modeling and rhetoric of the next president of the United States. The election was a shocking result, but perhaps it’s a necessary one to force higher education to reclaim its public voice.

We have to teach our students that self-governance among citizens of a free society is not a zero-sum game; that in order to help those in need we do not have to take opportunities away from others; that we should take greater care in developing solutions that do not pit people against each other, breeding the anger and resentment that fueled the presidential campaign.

Ultimately, our job is to educate the citizen leaders who will build the future of civilization, and we must find a way to teach them how to be far more effective in constructing a truly good society than we have been able to create thus far.

We college presidents are not curators of museums to some glorious past for human history. We are stewards of humanity’s future, and the current circumstances require us to exert far more moral courage and intellectual scope than we have ever dared before.

Hesburgh would expect no less of us.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University. This article was adapted from the Hesburgh Lecture given at the TIAA Institute last month.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Kagenmi
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Rethinking leadership approaches after the presidential election (essay)

And given that, Judith S. White asks, can our work as senior leaders in higher education be the same?

Ad keywords: 
Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/akinbostanci
Image Size: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

College leaders must speak out in the wake of the election (essay)

In the wake of the election, our nation’s colleges and universities are experiencing divisive incidents, which requires higher education leaders to quell tensions by making strong vocal calls for tolerance, inclusivity and free speech. While these waters may be difficult to navigate, I hope these leaders will also take up the difficult challenge of speaking out on our nation’s higher education policy agenda, an issue of central importance to all Americans.

Postsecondary education is crucial to addressing income inequality and sustaining our nation’s commitment to democracy and equal opportunity. A diploma yields a more prosperous future for most Americans, and is a public good for societal stability and prosperity. Despite this, the public has grown increasingly distrustful of higher education, especially given concerns that college costs have risen so rapidly. This is manifest in increased calls for evidence on the earnings impact of a college degree, for greater assessment of student learning outcomes and for information on the uses of large endowments.

Higher education leaders, political leaders and the public have been polarized, but we must work together to understand the issue of increasing income inequality and the role of higher education in addressing it. It is imperative that we forge a new path forward for higher education, but given the election results and today’s constraints on college and university presidents’ speaking out, it is unclear if that will happen.

It is ironic that many of those people affected the most by increasing income inequality, and the fear about the future that it engenders, have chosen Trump for president when his stated policies are unlikely to improve either income inequality or postsecondary educational attainment. In fact, tax cuts, rolling back the Affordable Care Act, reducing regulations, increasing protection and the likely increases in interest rates and inflation will all probably exacerbate income inequality rather than reduce it. Right now, there is no telling exactly what Trump’s policies directly addressing higher education will be, absent any substantive discussion during the campaign.

Higher education leaders have been largely silent about various policies throughout the election, consistent with the fact that the visibility and influence of university and college leaders on national issues has been muted in general in recent years. Leaders of public institutions must walk a fine line, as they are not able to support particular candidates, but the broader absence of these voices from public debate is also a function of the continual demands of fund-raising and the harsh light of social media.

Colleges depend increasingly on donors to meet operating expenses as well as to build endowments and fund capital projects. Many institutions are in perpetual comprehensive campaigns and annual fund drives run by large offices of development professionals. Donors, and alumni in general, are important constituencies with valid institutional interests. Alumni support their colleges in many nonfinancial ways, as well as with gifts that allow colleges and universities to do things they couldn’t otherwise. And with reductions in state appropriations and lower earnings on endowments, donors are more important than ever in supporting higher education expenditures. But relying on donors to do so can have important implications.

If a college president takes a strong position on a national issue, she can cost her institution financial support if alumni who disagree close their checkbooks. Over the last few years, alumni have threatened to withhold support when higher education leaders have made decisions or taken positions with which they disagree. Those include policies on divestment from fossil fuel companies, calls for boycotts of certain speakers and academics, efforts to support student demands for trigger warnings and more aggressive confrontation of racism, and even decisions to cull campus deer to reduce overpopulation. Having had these experiences directly, or having read about them, presidents weigh the value of adding their voices to an important national conversation against their continued ability, and responsibility, to raise funds to support campus programs. They often make the choice not to jeopardize those programs, particularly if the issue is one that is only tangentially related to higher education and to their own institution.

Social media has made that choice even more likely. While it has democratized the influence various constituencies have, it has also significantly complicated these relationships. The positions that college leaders take, or even just the daily decisions they make, on a wide variety of issues are more readily available than in the past and can be more easily and loudly criticized. Responding to questions and challenges about those positions, often publicly and rapidly, is both complex and time consuming. Comments and events that would have passed unnoticed in the past now live on and on -- and often go viral.

That was not always the case. For generations, college and university presidents were intellectual participants in the life of the nation, playing active roles in debates on major issues. Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar College’s president from 1915 to 1946, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and then for isolation in the 1930s. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role in the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Kingman Brewster, Yale University’s president from 1963 to 1977, took a strong public stance against the Vietnam War.

Can we get there again? Now is the time. We need higher education leaders to take positions on the issues. And we need them to address the concerns of those who elected Trump by making higher education more affordable for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, not just for the very poor or the very rich. Our college and university presidents will need the support of their boards of trustees to do so, as well as understanding and trust from their donors, alumni and the public. To influence our nation’s path going forward, both words and actions are needed from the higher education community and its leaders. I hope they will rise to the challenge and that Americans and our president-elect will be listening and watching.

Catharine Hill is managing director at Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/cfotart
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Review of Yale University Press edition of the Voynich manuscript (essay)

Some weeks back, a publishing house in Spain announced that it would be issuing a deluxe facsimile edition of the enigmatic and sui generis volume best known as the Voynich manuscript, in a print run limited to 898 copies, selling at 7,000-8,000 euros each. That’s the equivalent of $7,400 to $8,400 -- a price tag guaranteed to separate the true bibliomaniac from the common run of book collectors.

But then Beinecke 408 (as the volume is also known, from its catalog reference in Yale University’s rare books collection) tends to throw a spell over those who contemplate it for very long. Running to about 200 parchment pages -- or closer to 240, if you count a number of long, folded-up sheets as multiple pages -- it is abundantly illustrated with drawings of plants that have somehow eluded the attention of botanists, surrounded by copious text in an unknown alphabet. It looks like what you’d get from throwing Roman, Greek and Arabic script into a blender along with a few alchemical symbols. At a certain point the artwork takes a noticeable turn: the plants are accompanied by miniature drawings of naked women sitting on the leaves, emerging from broken stems or bathing in pools. Those slightly Rubenesque figures also show up in what appear to be a number of astronomical or astrological charts. A final section of the book consists of page after page of closely written text, with starlike symbols in the margin that seem to indicate section or paragraph divisions.

It sounds like something H. P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges might have concocted to pull a prank on Umberto Eco. But mere description of the Voynich manuscript little prepares you for the experience of turning its pages, even in the considerably less expensive hardback just published by Yale University Press. The editor, Raymond Clemens, is curator of early books and manuscripts at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The color reproductions of each page are made at the size of the original; the ink or paint used by the illustrator at times bleeding through slightly behind the text and artwork on the other side of the parchment. The thing that strikes the eye most about the writing is how concentrated it looks: printed in a crisp, precise hand by someone who, especially in the final pages, seems determined to make good use of the space without sacrificing readability.

Which is, of course, the maddening thing about the book -- almost literally so, at times. The effort to figure out what it says has tested, and defeated, the mental powers of numerous researchers over the past century, beginning not long after the bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. (The Yale edition includes a detailed biographical article on Voynich, who seems to have escaped from the pages of a novel by Dostoyevsky before settling in London and moving, eventually, to New York. The label “bookseller” is too narrow by far. One telling detail: his father-in-law was George Boole.)

The first scholar to throw himself into solving the riddle was William Romaine Newbold, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose The Cipher of Roger Bacon was posthumously assembled from his notes and manuscripts and published in 1928. Its title reflects the earliest known attribution of the work: a letter from 1665 or ’66 reports that the book had been owned by Rudolph II -- the Holy Roman Emperor, patron of Johannes Kepler and alchemy enthusiast -- who believed the author to be the 13th-century English scientist and monk Roger Bacon. (Not to be confused with Francis Bacon, also an English scientist, born 300 years after the monk’s prime.)

Knowing that Roger Bacon was a pioneer in the study of optics and had experimented with lenses, Newbold boldly combined fact and speculation to argue that the Voynich manuscript reported Bacon’s discoveries using the microscope (spermatozoa, for example) and the telescope (the Andromeda galaxy). Furthermore, the hieroglyphs in the mysterious text actually consisted of much smaller letters -- combined in a code of great sophistication -- which were only visible with a microscope.

Quod est demonstrandum, sort of. Admirers of Roger Bacon found the interpretations plausible, anyway. But in 1931, the medievalist journal Speculum published a long and devastating assessment of Newbold’s methodology, which concluded that the code system he’d deduced was so vague and arbitrary that the messages he unearthed were “not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconsciousness.”

That judgment surely inspired caution among subsequent Voynich analysts. I found one paper, published in Science in 1945, claiming to have determined that the manuscript was written by a 16th-century astrologer and herbalist known to have had a particular interest in women’s illnesses. The researcher ends his report by insisting that it was not the product of “a learned and ingenious subconscious.” Be that as it may, the author also felt that “present war conditions” made it “undesirable to publish, at this time, the details of the key.”

That note of hesitation foreshadows one of the many interesting points made in the generally excellent short essays accompanying the Voynich manuscript in the Yale edition: “The extent to which the problems it poses have been a matter of professional as well as amateur interest is reflected in the fact that the best book-length introduction to this ‘elegant enigma’ was written by a government cryptologist … and published in-house by the U.S. National Security Agency.” The monograph (now in the public domain and available to download) indicates that the NSA had already played host to quite a bit of hard-core Voynich inquiry by the late 1970s, and who knows how much computational power has been directed at cracking it since then.

The Yale University Press edition ventures no theory of who created the Voynich manuscript or what it says. A chapter reporting on examination and tests of the material indicates that the parchment can be dated to roughly 1420, give or take a couple of decades, while multispectral imaging reveals the erased invisible signature of a pharmacist who died in 1622, using the noble title he received in 1608. That may not remove all possibility of a hoax, but it would seem to backdate it by a few centuries. The enigma, like the book itself, has proven nothing if not durable; this handsome and (relatively) affordable edition will serve to spread its fascination around.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - ADMINISTRATIVE JOBS
Back to Top