Faculty Resource Network

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Confronting Racial Injustice and the Politicization of our Universities

Redesigning Higher Education after COVID-19
A National Symposium
November 19-20, 2021
Virtual Network Symposium 2021

Beverly L. Kahn, Farmingdale State College, SUNY

The 2021 National Symposium of the Faculty Resource Network focuses on a timely and important challenge: Redesigning Higher Education after COVID-19. For the opening panel, the speakers have been asked to comment on “Our Shifted Roles as Change Agents in Higher Education Due to COVID-19.”

We have indeed been beset by multiple changes and disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include abrupt shifts to remote learning, new policies on masks and vaccinations, pedagogical demands on faculty who must master virtual teaching and advising, drops in enrollment, financial cuts, the diminished college experience of students accustomed to in-person learning and a rich campus life, and the emotional fragility of students, faculty, and staff. My colleagues on this panel will undoubtedly suggest ways in which we might act to cope with and then improve the college experience in the face of such specific COVID-19 disruptions.

For my part, as a recently retired professor of political science and former provost/academic vice president, I intend to speak more broadly and philosophically. Moreover, I will issue a challenge. It is incumbent on all educators—faculty and administrators alike—to act as change agents in addressing two very serious threats to our universities and to the broader society: 

  1.  Racial injustice in our nation
  2. The politicization of university governance

The pandemic did not appear in a vacuum. There were significant changes in US culture and society underway pre-pandemic. Yet those changes and resulting challenges seem more acute today because the pandemic shift from business as usual has magnified preexisting problems and tensions in our society and on our campuses. Witness the heated and sometimes violent debates on Critical Race Theory, abortion, voting rights, Toni Morrison’s place in the curriculum, the Big Lie, the rights of transgender people, police funding, confederate monuments, the Black Lives Matter campaign, anti-immigrant and white nationalist rhetoric, the January 6th insurrection and attack on the US capitol.

Racial Injustice
The United States today is a fractured society. These fractures and tensions are a real threat to our democracy and to our ideal of America as a community of equals in which citizens strive together for the well-being and common good of all. Civic education is normally thought of as a mainstay of a university’s mission. Yet most of us have been remiss in undertaking that important mission. We have not developed clear plans and methods by which we might raise our students to levels of understanding and awareness at which they practice respect and tolerance, at which they celebrate diversity and treat others as equals, and at which they earnestly commit themselves to the common good of all. Democracy requires a sober, thoughtful, and well-informed citizenry. Here are some ways in which we can act to build a strong democracy in our fractured society while also confronting racial injustice.

In general, we should provide all students with a strong liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is not an accumulation of courses checked off in the arts, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and natural sciences. At their heart, the liberal arts seek to challenge students—to expand their horizons with knowledge and information, with new questions, and with new ways of seeing and interpreting the world around them. American history and America’s future demand a reckoning with racial injustice. We must come to terms with our dark side, especially with our tortured racial past and its legacy of racial inequality that threatens the very heart of a democratic society.

In post-war Germany, the Allies undertook a campaign to accomplish denazification. They sought to rid German society of Nazi ideology. One part of that strategy was (and continues to be) education: to expose the horrors of the holocaust to new generations of German youth and to educate them against hatred and bigotry. We in the United States would do well to undertake a concerted and systematic effort to open our students’ eyes to our racial past and its legacy. 

How can we provide our students with this eye-opening transformative liberal arts experience? First, we must meet them where they are. Do not assume that they know the history of race in America. I confess that—like many—I knew little of the 1921 Tulsa massacre until this year. All of us need a bit of professional development and education so that we, in turn, might enlighten our students to the consequences of racism found in American history, economics, education, science, government, politics, and the arts.

To help our students find their way through this difficult subject matter, we need to challenge them to think critically. Give them meaty topics and readings about race and then challenge them to think deeply through writing assignments, group projects, and classroom discussions. To be effective, this type of pedagogy requires careful preparation and guidance. We need to learn to develop challenging questions that stimulate deep and productive thinking. As an aside, one might consider using the free and extremely useful online curriculum produced by Stanford University. This Civic On-line Reasoning resource teaches university students to search for, evaluate, and verify social and political information online. Here’s the link: https://cor.stanford.edu/curriculum/

We also need to provide our students with factual evidence that is new to them. That means enriching our curriculum with new courses and modules. Not only should race—Afro-American history, Asian-American history, Native American history, Hispanic American history—pervade our US history courses, but we should provide lessons across the curriculum. Students should encounter the study of racial topics in our biology courses (discuss, for example, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis), our math courses (discuss, for example, statistical analyses of race, poverty, and health in the US), in literature courses (discuss, for example, Toni Morrison’s contribution to American Literature), and in other courses. Of course, one must be careful in selecting appropriate companion texts, readings, and films to introduce such subjects and to challenge our students. Reference librarians, as well as colleagues with a greater depth of knowledge in particular areas, can help. It might be wise to create a campus resource center and faculty colloquium on Race in America so that faculty, in turn, can help students understand how race underlies so many contemporary issues. 

As educators, we are familiar with the methods that make our students think:

First, writing. I know from my own experiences that, if I am required to write things down, I think carefully and critically. Writing enhances and deepens understanding. Give challenging writing assignments wherever possible.

Second, constructive civil conversation and discussion. Teach and guide discussion in such a way that what might be contentious issues are explored calmly and objectively. Our classroom example might teach our students how to conduct meetings where decorum and civility are maintained. 

Third, civic engagement and acts of service. Have students practice democracy through experiential learning. Engage in government by attending city council meetings. Work for the common good through service projects focused on the disadvantaged, the environment, and children.

The Politicization of University Governance
The way in which universities are governed has changed. One need only scan recent headlines to see that money and politics are corrupting our universities. A few examples should suffice.

At the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Last fall Nikole Hannah Jones, the esteemed New York Times investigative reporter and author of the 1619 Project, was offered the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. While the journalism department and its promotion and tenure committee approved granting her tenure (as is the case with all Knight Chairs), the university’s board of trustees chose not to vote to confer tenure in her case. A close examination of the board membership reveals the politics and money behind the board’s inaction. One trustee and donor is a Republican publisher who endorsed Donald Trump. Another who opposed Jones had given $5 million to the university. Beholden to such moneyed interests, the top university leadership chose to remain silent. For her part, Jones left UNC and has accepted the position of Knight Chair of Race and Reporting at Howard University . . . and she is suing UNC-Charlotte.

At Yale University. Here’s a case in which donors have undue sway over matters of academic freedom, curriculum, and faculty hiring. For 20 years Yale has offered a prestigious Grand Strategy course to a select group of 20 undergraduate and graduate students. The goal of this interdisciplinary course is to prepare future leaders through the examination and discussion of ancient and contemporary texts and controversial issues. Suddenly, this past year, some of Yale’s donors (including Charles B. Johnson, the mutual fund billionaire and leading Republican donor who in 2013 gave Yale its largest donation ever—$250 million) sought control of the curriculum and the power to appoint an advisory board for the course that would be populated by conversative thinkers. Beverly Gage, a tenured professor of history who directed the Grand Strategy course, resigned, citing the failure of the university administration to defend academic freedom.

At the University of Florida. In Florida, one can point to two recent incidences where Governor DeSantis has interfered with normal university practice. It is normal for faculty who are experts in their fields to share their expertise with others outside of the university. Yet when three political science professors who are experts in matters of voting legislation stepped forward to provide expert testimony in a case challenging a new state law that restricts voting access, the university initially intervened and prohibited them from testifying. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, abiding by the wishes of Governor DeSantis, stated that “Outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.” When challenged in court, the university relented and permitted the three to testify. The second instance has to do with actions taken by the university’s board of trustees at the request of the governor. Note that Governor DeSantis appoints 6 of the 13 members of the board. The chair of the board (a prominent Republican donor and DeSantis advisor) arranged for the university to quickly hire and grant tenure to Dr. Joseph Lapado, an anti-vaccination professor from California, so that the Governor could then immediately appoint Lapado as the State Surgeon General. There was no consultation with university faculty and no peer review of this candidate.

At the University of Idaho. In Idaho, university trustees have banned the teaching of critical race theory.

At the State University of New York (SUNY). Comprising 64 institutions, SUNY is the largest university system in the United States. Of the 18 members of the SUNY Board of Trustees, 15 are appointed by the governor. The chancellor of the system is the chief officer. Yet when the chancellor resigned in 2020, there was no formal nationwide search for a new chancellor.  Instead, an aide to Governor Cuomo was simply appointed by the board to be the new chancellor.

How Should We Respond?
How do we respond to external players attempting to decide tenure and curriculum? How do we respond to the attempts by external players to appoint faculty and chief administrators without normal searches? Faculty and administrators must become change agents. They must step forward. They must call out the corruption of our universities by money and politics. As appropriate, they should speak to the press and initiate legal action. As public intellectuals, they should bring the misuse of power to the public arena. Honor donors as donors, but do not put them in charge of academic institutions. Follow the example of hospitals, for which donors get their names on buildings, but are not empowered to make medical decisions. Granting tenure should not be in the hands of political cronies of the governor. Academics such as distinguished emeritus professors and retired administrators from other universities are much better equipped to serve as university trustees and to grant tenure, protect academic freedom, and maintain academic standards. 

Conclusion
I have identified two very serious threats to our universities and to US democracy. While efforts to redress these threats will be difficult and contentious, it is our moral responsibility as educators and as citizens to step forward and work for the betterment of our universities and of our society.