Holy Cross Must Balance Values of Academic Freedom and Anti-Racism

Ethan Bachand ’22 and Kelly Gallagher ’22

Chief News Editor and Editor-in-Chief, respectively

Picture by Hui Li ’21

Prior to Thanksgiving break, a Political Science professor at the College of the Holy Cross wrote a letter to his students that was later published in The Fenwick Review. Professor David Schaefer, who has been a member of the faculty since the 1970s, penned an extensive essay entitled “A Thanksgiving Wish to my Students” which promoted a pure view of America while disregarding the plight of multiple minority groups. In the wake of the College’s commitment to being an actively anti-racist institution, we believe it is the duty of the administration to respond to this situation. 

Holy Cross maintains the policies of academic freedom formulated by the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP’s document “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes” condemns the censorship of any speech, even hate speech. Though such censorship may originate from intentions to create a respectful environment, the AAUP maintains that “by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.” The AAUP argues for adopting “means more compatible with the mission of an academic institution,” which include penalizing conduct rather than speech and using their position as educators to “increase student understanding and to deter offensive or intolerant speech or conduct.” 

The letter contains a variety of statements that contradict established facts about systemic racism. Professor Schaefer writes in his article that “the reasons for these inequalities [among different racial and ethnic groups] are complex, but they are not typically the result of legal obstacles placed in the way of people’s advancement.”  If “legal obstacles” aren’t to blame, how do we find African Americans being incarcerated at five times the rate of white people in this country? 

It certainly isn’t “susceptibility to criminal violence,” as proposed by Professor Schaefer. According to research conducted by the NAACP, who provided the previous statistic as well, African Americans constitute 33% of illicit-drug related incarceration despite accounting for only 5% of illicit-drug users and 29% of the arrests. The gap between percentage of users and arrests presents evidence of the discrimination against African Americans, but it is inexcusable in our democracy to see that rate increase in terms of convictions. 

“Legal obstacles” do not simply consist of the current legislation. They involve every aspect of our government, especially the judicial system. A study conducted in the state of Wisconsin, and later reported on by The New York Times, even found that white people who were arrested had a 25% better chance of their charges being dropped. On the opposite end of the legal system, the NAACP reports that African Americans account for 35% of people executed under the death penalty despite being 13% of the United States population.

There are also ideological issues with the ideas he presents. Professor Schaefer’s letter acknowledges the “attendant horrors” of slavery, but it devalues the need to address slavery’s role in American history on the grounds that it is not an American invention. The letter is similarly dismissive of the violence which European colonists inflicted upon Native Americans, arguing that those who criticize the conquest simply don’t understand that Native American tribes violently fought against each other. It is true that slavery was not an American invention, and that Native American tribes engaged each other in warfare, but that does not lessen the consequences of violence in our country’s history. The College cannot neglect to respond to a letter which in any way downplays violence. 

The picture Professor Schaefer paints of both our history and contemporary politics disregards the underlying issues many Americans face. There are many things to be grateful for in our nation, whether that be the sacrifices made by members of our armed forces or the influential people in history who have helped make this country better. Yet, we cannot only focus on the positives. The transgressions our government has committed in the past, and issues that remain, are not expunged from the record by all the good things our nation has experienced. Systemic racism needs to be corrected, and retreating behind arguments of American exceptionalism that do not admit to our mistakes is counterproductive to that effort. 

The College cannot punish anyone for writing a piece such as Professor Schaefer’s letter, but to wield academic freedom as the end of discussion is a disservice to other, equally important elements of the College’s mission. Holy Cross has repeatedly vowed to foster a diverse and inclusive community on campus, and to contribute to a more just society. In his June 19, 2020 email to the campus community, Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., wrote affirming the College’s “commitment to be an actively anti-racist organizaiton.” The College’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, published over the summer, describes a number of constructive actions which have been taken or are being pursued, which provides a strong start to striving the goal of being an anti-racist organization. But if the College wishes to sustain its goals, it must also respond to incidents such as these.

The intersection between academic freedom and anti-racism work can be a tricky one, even though both causes are motivated by the utmost good. But the College must engage with that intersection in order to do both causes justice. Professor Schaefer is free to publish whatever he wants, but the College must take responsibility for addressing the harmful nature of his work. This responsibility isn’t born out of the school’s need to enforce “political correctness,” nor out of a need to force every community member to follow the school’s mission to a T. Students and staff are not obliged to live out the school’s mission. That’s what academic freedom is for, after all. But the school itself is obliged to cultivate a space in which its mission can thrive. If the college fails to engage Professor Schaefer’s letter in a way which honors both academic freedom and anti-racist justice, it will fail in that moment to live up to the mission it has established for itself. 

As of the publication of this article, it has been 11 days since the letter was published. Members of the administration became aware of it several days before then, after the letter was first circulated privately to Professor Schaefer’s students. There has not yet been a visible administrative response. Surely it takes time to develop an intelligent, fair response to a complicated matter such as this letter, but the school must publicly respond, sooner rather than later. Students who are not privy to the inner workings of the administration should know that this challenge is receiving the attention it deserves. 

The following individuals call for the College to address “A Thanksgiving Wish to my Students” in order to preserve its commitment to being an anti-racist organization, while also honoring its commitment to academic freedom

Grace Bromage ‘23, Chief Features Editor 

Julia Maher ‘23, Opinions Editor

Kim Fetherson ‘22, Co-Chief Graphic Designer

Hannah Johnson ’21, Chief Eggplant Editor

Bridget Flaherty ’21, Features Editor

Sarah O’Rourke ’21, Copy Editor

Hui Li ’21, Co-Chief Graphic Designer

Grace Manning ’21, Opinions Editor

Jocelyn Buggy ’22, News Editor

Cassandra Smith ’23, Social Media Manager

Dennis Liu ’22

Nathan D. Manna ‘21

John Larsen ‘22

Isabella Giaquinta ‘23

Kathleen Segal ‘23

Ryan Wynn

Omar Richardson ’24

Nora Sheehan ’23

Tom McHugh

Alyssa Martinez

Rachel Chenette

Jennifer Flores

Andrew Carter

Lynn Verrecchia

Olivia Berlin

Erin Reinhart ’23

Kyle Irvine ’21

Antonio Willis-Berry ’13

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