Response to Spire Editorial

I want to thank the staff and editors of The Spire for publishing a thoughtful response and call to action in their recent Holy Cross Must Balance Values of Academic Freedom and Anti-Racism article. The article lays out the competing forces of academic freedom and an institutional commitment to become an anti-racist organization in compelling ways. 

The challenge of any meaningful conversation about race on campus is mirrored in the challenge of conversation about race in America. The sad reality is that many of us do not know how to meaningfully engage in dialogue about race, racism, and the historical legacies that powerfully shape current day inequities. For example, even though segregation in public education has been outlawed for 65 years, the reality is that high schools are largely still separate and unequal. If familiarity with the “other” is essential for deeper understanding, then how can we expect students in particular to have the tools to engage in dialogue about race without the appropriate structures and skill building required for deep and reflective inquiry?  

As a trained facilitator of intergroup dialogues on race, I have had the opportunity to lead many such conversations across racial boundaries. These dialogues are not easy and require careful and thoughtful planning, facilitation, setting of ground rules, spaces to exchange ideas, a willingness to let go of our preconceived notions and to be open to new perspectives. In other words, such exchanges are thoughtfully structured dialogues.

A thoughtful dialogue requires the consideration of opposing viewpoints, including those that might be controversial – perhaps even offensive. The liberal arts tradition compels us to put ideas in conversation with one another so that students can learn the tools for deciphering the arguments, using data to understand particular points of view, and to then come to their own reasoned conclusions. We take pride in a liberal arts education that teaches students to think critically, and to guide students “… to be open to new ideas, to be patient with ambiguity and uncertainty, to combine a passion for truth with respect for the views of others.” (Holy Cross Mission Statement)

It is precisely here that Prof. Schaefer’s emailed letter to his classes, and subsequently published in the Fenwick Review, falls short of the ideals of liberal arts education in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition. First, the purpose of this letter to students enrolled in Prof. Schaefer’s classes is unclear. Are the ideas expressed part of the course work or even related to it? Do they connect with any of the course readings? Are students expected to respond to the letter? The letter does not include any invitation for further dialogue, nor does it provide any clarity for students on how they might engage (in agreement or disagreement) with its contents.

Second, the letter fails to put any competing arguments (and there are many) in dialogue with the ideas expressed in the letter. The letter largely relies on a myriad of racial tropes that broadly paint many people of color as savages and violent. There are many scholarly critiques of settler colonialism, a supposed culture of poverty, “the ‘good’ person of color as the exception”, and “black-on-black violence” arguments. Those interested in such scholarship might consider Prof. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning: A definitive history of racist ideas in America. 

I was especially surprised to see that Prof. Schaefer not only fails to present any competing arguments, but instead actively encourages students to outright disregard any opposing viewpoints. He states, “Attend not to the slanders hurled at our country by race-baiters and demagogues like the Times editors, “the Squad,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates …”  Is Prof. Schaefer unwittingly implying here that students should only engage with ideas that align with their, or his, world-view? The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics states that “professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry …” The outright dismissal of ideas from particular sources, as not even worthy of consideration, again falls short of enabling our students to think critically for themselves. 

Third, the letter falls short to invite students to live up to Jesuit ideals. Even if we were to accept the arguments in the letter at their face value, they do little to evoke conversations about our collective responsibility to address inequities in society. The Society of Jesus recently published its Four Apostolic Preferences which call us “To walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice”. Even though Prof. Schaefer acknowledges the “continued existence in our country of large inequalities”, there is little offered on how to address these issues. 

Fourth, and most importantly, the letter fails to create space for students to engage in meaningful dialogue on race. Race is a contentious issue in America, and on our campus. I have no doubt that there are many who subscribe to the perspectives shared in the letter. I want to unequivocally state that principles of academic freedom allow Prof. Schaefer the right (and some might argue – the responsibility) to engage his classes with these ideas. However, the liberal arts and Jesuit, Catholic identity of the College also require that we equip our students to engage with competing ideas using their own critical thinking skills. The letter, as a stand-alone document, lacks that invitation for further inquiry and discussion. The most meaningful conversations on race need to be thoughtful, deliberative, and intentional in their approach. Otherwise, we risk repeating the unfortunate reality of race dialogue demonstrated on the national stage. As scholars and teachers, we have a higher responsibility to model effective dialogue structures so that we can robustly exchange ideas. This responsibility is especially elevated when we engage our students with ideas that are divisive and controversial.

One possible way of such engagement, for example, could have included an invitation for students to reflect on their own understanding of race – either through an academic, intellectual or lived experience perspective. I found Prof. Schaefer’s willingness to share his own family’s history as a compelling example of a potential starting point for a dialogue. I expect that many of his students appreciated his willingness to share his own story with them. However, I also imagine that many of his students might have their own stories and histories that he and others could learn from. As an immigrant, gay, working-class person of color, I have my own story – and one that would contradict many of the assertions made in the letter. It is through such personal encounters and exchanges that we learn from one another in the hopes of changing hearts and minds. This foundation can then lead us to engage with theory, research and data to make meaning, expand our own world view, and “remain open to that sense of the whole which calls us to transcend ourselves and challenges us to seek that which might constitute our common humanity” (Holy Cross Mission Statement). 

The College has provided a number of such recent opportunities for thoughtful and sustained engagement on race, racism and anti-racism. First and foremost, many faculty continue to offer or enhance curricular offerings on race. A number of College offices and academic departments continue to offer diversity, equity and inclusion related programming. The Office of Multicultural Education has hosted a number of book-reads and dialogues since the summer. The Chaplains’ Office offered an examen on racism and has revamped the Ignite Retreat and trained dozens of students, faculty and staff to facilitate dialogue on social justice. The College published a free, public resource guide titled “How to write an anti-racism action plan” that is being used at many other institutions. This semester alone, eighty faculty and staff and twenty-seven students are participating in the “Becoming a white ally for racial justice” series. The annual MLK winter book read will be Fr. Bryan Massingale’s “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (see campus emails with details on how to participate; Alumni are invited to join in the book read as well). These opportunities exemplify the ways in which the College enacts its mission driven values through action. 

In the spirit of promoting open dialogue, I hope that Prof. Schaefer will choose to bring his expertise and his ideas to campus programs and dialogues in the future. 

I want to conclude by encouraging the campus community to use this moment, and the months ahead, to seek opportunities for further reflection and dialogue. There are deep racial divides in our society, and we are collectively in need of healing. There are significant inequities in our society. Racism is a moral sin. Dialogue on race is difficult. Most of us don’t always know how to meaningfully engage in conversations about race. Even when we can see and understand racism, we do not know how to dismantle it. However, I continue to maintain hope that thoughtful, intentional and meaningful opportunities for dialogue on race can help us work together and create systemic change. 


Amit Taneja

Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Categories: Opinions

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