Identity Politics: Reductio ad Absurdum

Photo: Michael Marsland for Yale University

Photo: Michael Marsland for Yale University

It seems like daily there is a story from the world of higher education that is designed to show absurd and out-of-touch students, faculty, administrators (or all of the above) are with the rest of the world.  The most recent offering is from Yale.  (The press loves to pick on the Ivies, even as many of them have Ivy degrees.)

Yale English students have written a letter to the department faculty demanding changes in one of the major requirements that focuses on English poets:

When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.

It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action. …

We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.

The Yale letter emphasizes that reading dead, white, male poets “actively harms all students” and creates an “especially hostile environment to students of color.”  How does this work in the sciences?  Does studying Newton, Einstein, Mendel, Crick and Watson create the same hostile environment?   The students are using absurd logic and identity politics to, in part, try to override the faculty’s control of the curriculum and control what students have to study.  This certainly is not to suggest that the faculty should not consider a broadly diverse curriculum, but one reason you go to Yale (or any university) is because you trust the faculty to be expert and up-to-date in their fields.  If you want to create your own curriculum, knock yourself out, but don’t expect a credential  that has the imprimatur of a college faculty.

This episode is part of the bigger “safe space” and “trigger warning” movement that has become so prominent in higher education, but it goes a distressing and depressing step farther.

This argument suggests that students are unable to empathize with or even learn from someone who is not of the same race or gender or sexual orientation.  This narrow mindset seems to believe that 21st century students have nothing to learn from the giants of the literary canon.  The idea that reading Shakespeare creates a hostile environment and therefore one can learn nothing from The Bard unless you happen to be a straight, white, male is simply laughable.  The man who wrote dozens of strong women, as well as movingly about Othello and Shylock–really? Presumably one becomes a canonical thinker because of the ability to examine the human condition in a timeless and universal fashion.

image003 copyTaken to its logical end, this reasoning concludes the only person I can truly understand is myself.  The possibility for understanding, empathy and even love between individuals is non-existent if understanding each other is impossible.  Of course this is ridiculous and surely the students writing to their Yale professors don’t believe it.

Fortunately, we don’t see much of this kind of logic at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, but that is only natural when you take the teachings of a 6th century, white, male monk as the foundation of your mission.

By |June 9th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Parental Promises

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

With graduation behind us and about 400 new Johnnies launched into the world, we are feeling pretty good in Collegeville.  The weather gods gave us a spectacular commencement day—70 degrees and a light breeze.  Our speakers, Joe Cavanaugh ’81 and Paul Knaak ’16 were both great. And, most importantly, our parents were happy.  Fine weather and pleased parents: it is a hard combination to beat.

While we certainly want our graduates to feel good about Saint John’s, and most do, parents’ opinions matter very much to us.  They play a significant role in footing the bill, and they are what our admission staff calls “influencers,” those individuals who can sway young men and their parents to take a look at Saint John’s when they begin their college search.  So parents matter a lot.

Of course on commencement day, parents are very generous and appreciative.  Numerous parents took the time after the ceremony to find me and thank me for what Saint John’s did for their son.  I reminded them that it was our great faculty and staff who did the hands-on work with their sons, but I was more than happy to be the representative of the institution they were thankful for.  I asked them to send us their sons’ younger brothers and cousins (and their sisters to CSB).

I was reminded of these parents when I read the Star Tribune article entitled, “Goodbye, empty nest: Millennials staying longer with parents.”  Data included:

  • Living with parents is now the most common arrangement for people ages 18 to 34, an analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center has found;
  • The proportion of older millennials — those ages 25 to 34 — who are living at home has reached its highest point (19 percent) on record, Pew analysts said;
  • Nearly one-third of all millennials live with their parents, slightly more than the proportion who live with a spouse or partner. It’s the first time that living at home has outpaced living with a spouse for this age group since such record-keeping began in 1880.

Among young men:

  • Declining employment and falling wages are another factor keeping many 18-to-34-year-olds unmarried, Fry said. The share of young men with jobs fell to 71 percent in 2014 from 84 percent in 1960 — the year when the proportion of young adults living outside the home peaked.
  • Incomes have fallen, too: adjusted for inflation, wages plunged 34 percent for the typical young man from 2000 to 2014.

Young adults living at home is clearly not new, but Americans have tended to think of this as a European, maybe even specifically Italian problem, as stories like this one in the NY Daily News reported that, “52% of Italian men still live with their mothers.” Obviously these data suggest that for American millennials the economic challenges of leaving the nest are harder than in the past.

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Whatever economic challenges facing this generation of young people, education is certainly part of the solution.  At Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict we are doing what we can to help our graduates (and their parents) overcome these trends.  We make two promises to our incoming students: one explicit and another implicit.

The explicit promise is “four and done.”  If an incoming student meets their academic obligations and responsibilities, mom and dad can pencil in graduation for May four years hence.  This is not typical of most colleges as the Department of Education Scorecard uses a six year graduation rate as the standard.

The implicit promise is that your CSB/SJU son or daughter won’t be returning to their bedroom post-graduation—they will be employed (or at least gainfully situated). We are very proud of our placement rate: 99% of our graduates are employed, volunteering full-time or in graduate school within one year of graduation.  And we are happy to share the data by individual major or even by individual student.

By |May 26th, 2016|Categories: Alumni, Higher Education||0 Comments

Harvard to Punish Membership in Single-Gender Organizations

Photo: Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

Photo: Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

Harvard University announced recently that it will prevent members of single-gender social organizations that are unrecognized by the University from serving in leadership roles in campus organizations and athletic teams.  They will also be prevented from receiving the College’s endorsement for prestigious scholarships like the Rhodes and Marshall.  The primary target seems to be Final Clubs, a Harvard-specific social organization that has traditionally been all male, though there are now female only Final Clubs.  They are loosely analogous to fraternities and sororities, though they typically do not provide housing.  Final Clubs have no formal association with Harvard other than that their members are Harvard undergrads.

President Drew Gilpin Faust, responding to the recommendations of Dean’s report in a letter to the Harvard community entitled, “Letter on Single-Gender Social Organizations,” writes:

Over time, Harvard has transformed its undergraduate student body as it has welcomed women, minorities, international students, and students of limited financial means as an increasing proportion of its population. But campus culture has not changed as rapidly as student demography. In recent months, we have been forcefully reminded that diversity is not equivalent to inclusion and belonging, and we have rededicated ourselves to achieving a campus where all members fully belong and thrive. For us to make progress on this shared endeavor, we must address deeply rooted gender attitudes, and the related issues of sexual misconduct, points underscored by the work of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault.

A truly inclusive community requires that students have the opportunity to participate in the life of the campus free from exclusion on arbitrary grounds. Although the fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are not formally recognized by the College, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values. The College cannot ignore these organizations if it is to advance our shared commitment to broadening opportunity and making Harvard a campus for all of its students. Nor can it endorse selection criteria that reject much of the student body merely because of gender. As reflected by the University’s decision to withdraw recognition of the male final clubs in 1984, those practices are inconsistent with the educational environment the College seeks to create. They encourage a form of self-segregation that undermines the promise offered by Harvard’s diverse student body. And they do not serve our students well when they step outside our gates into a society where gender-based discrimination is understood as unwise, unenlightened, and untenable.

She then addresses the recommendations of Dean Rakesh Khurana:

I agree with the judgment that, at this time, the College should not adopt a rule prohibiting students from joining unrecognized social organizations that retain discriminatory membership policies. Students will decide for themselves whether to engage with these organizations, as members or otherwise. But just as students have choice, so too the College must determine for itself the structure of activities that it funds or endorses (including through fellowship recommendations from the dean), or that otherwise occur under its auspices. Captains of intercollegiate sports teams and leaders of organizations funded, sponsored, or recognized by Harvard College in a very real sense represent the College. They benefit from its resources. They operate under its name. Especially as it seeks to break down structural barriers to an effectively inclusive campus, the College is right to ensure that the areas in which it provides resources and endorsement advance and reinforce its values of non-discrimination.

As Faust writes, this new Harvard policy is part of the University’s attempts to change “campus culture” around gender.  Though Faust uses the language of inclusion and non-discrimination, the policy appears clearly focused on all-male Final Clubs with an attempt to address sexual misconduct on campus.  As Harvard Magazine notes in its article on the policy, “Single-gender organizations that are recognized by the University, such as the South Asian Men’s Collective or the Association of Black Harvard Women, won’t be affected.”

Photo: Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

Photo: Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

Sexual misconduct is clearly a challenge and has been the focus of much college and university administrative time and energy  across the country since the Department of Education (DOE) issued its now infamous “Dear Colleague letter” in 2011. Many colleges, including Harvard, have found themselves under investigation by the DOE  for possible violations of Federal law over how they handle sexual misconduct and harassment.

As complicated as the issue of sexual misconduct is, this policy seems likely to be both ineffectual and, more importantly, unjust.  First, creating coed Final Clubs does not go to the root of the problem, which is alcohol use and abuse among undergraduates.  Schools all over the country know this problem has no easy solution.  Most students go to university for the social interactions with their peers and alcohol is inevitably part of those interactions, even on allegedly dry campuses.

Second, the policy punishes individuals on the basis of whom they associate with.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was strongly critical of the decision as a violation of students’ right to freedom of association .  In an article entitled, “Harvard Brings Back the Blacklist for Final Club, Fraternity, Sorority Students,” FIRE writes:

Harvard’s decision simply demonstrates that it is willing to sacrifice students’ basic freedom of association to the whims of whoever occupies the administrative suites today,” said FIRE co-founder, civil liberties attorney, and Harvard Law alumnus Harvey Silverglate. “Who’s to say that Harvard’s leaders five years from now won’t decide that Catholics or Republicans should be blacklisted because they might not line up with Harvard’s preferred values?”

The concerns about freedom of association seem quite legitimate to me.  As a President of a single gender college, I particularly find the language of “self-segregation” problematic.  The young men who attend Saint John’s University consciously choose, as part of their education, to “self-segregate” in Saint John’s dorms and on campus in the evenings when Bennies have returned to CSB.  The notion that Johnnies need to defend that choice or are implicitly accused of have “unenlightened” ideas about gender is highly offensive.  The Harvard administration would never imply that the choices of women at Wellesley or Smith or Mount Holyoke or the American Association of University Women are cause for concern.

We certainly need to think hard about how to address issues of sexual misconduct on campus, but stereotyping men who might choose to socialize with other men and punishing them in the absence of any evidence of bad behavior does not seem likely to improve campus culture.


By |May 12th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments