Halt! Let’s Understand This FIRST! by Professor Kassow
In response to the faculty’s letter reflecting the recent incident at Trinity College (originally written for faculty listserv):
I do not believe that we improve our “campus climate” when we reduce important and sensitive issues to simplistic generalities. A case in point is a recent post on the faculty list serve about the “racist and homophobic status quo” at Trinity. While we should deplore all instances of bigotry and harassment we should also remember our responsibility as faculty to heed the difference between sloganeering and thoughtful, reasoned analysis. I, for one, do not believe that the majority of Trinity students are racist or homophobic. All of them are young and many of them are immature. A few–beer cans in hand, baseball caps reversed–might even conform to the stereotype that the faculty has formed about Trinity students. Nonetheless, we owe our students patience and respect and should not rush to judgment.
“Racism” is a serious accusation and I have the distinct impression that there is a tendency at Trinity, especially among faculty, to bandy this term about in a somewhat careless and uncritical fashion. That said, I agree that we can not ignore these recent incidents and should punish those who were behind them.
It may be that we have a special problem here with race relations. It may indeed be the case that a complicating factor is our location, which inculcates in some students a feeling of fear and prejudice towards people of color. We should conduct serious surveys and really understand what drives racial and social attitudes here and what factors contribute to tension and alienation.
And before preaching to our students, let’s not forget how many of us, after telling our students to ‘embrace the community’ return to the leafy and safer confines of West Hartford at 5pm. Few faculty live in the neighborhood anymore(as I did for 11 years) and I believe that few of us really engage with students after hours.
Other campuses witness incidents of bigotry. A few months ago at UCLA there was a disgusting rant posted on You tube about Asian students. I do not believe that this incident caused the UCLA faculty to brand their institution as racist. Another incident happened at Wesleyan a few years ago. No Wesleyan faculty member, as far as I remember, ran to the New York Times to smear the university. Yale has recently been in the national news because of accusations of rampant sexual harassment. Recently, a student was allegedly raped by a Notre Dame football player. How did faculty there react to those incidents?
I am worried by our penchant for self-flagellation. I am concerned by what I perceive to be a tendency of faculty to treat “Trinity students” in the abstract with a certain degree of contempt. Of course we all know many wonderful students, but our faculty culture tends to regard them as the exceptions, while the drunken louts are seen to be the rule. I clearly remember a weekend a few years ago when an offhand remark appeared in the Sunday New York Times about Trinity being the “epicenter of the East Coast party scene.” Predictably the faculty listserve immediately sprang to life. But not one faculty member noted that that same weekend a few hundred students participated in the Relay for Life. No one mentioned a sold out theater performance at Austin. No one remarked that an alumna, who headed a department at an Ivy League college, spoke that day on campus and praised the education she received at her alma mater.
And with our educational resources stretched thin , I do not think that we should be talking about “co curricular” initiatives. Our priority is serious liberal arts education, not indoctrination. Besides, hasn’t the EPC already made Race, Gender and Class a top priority?(I for one would have preferred something more specific, such as the arts, or the life sciences. But far be it from me to question educational policy)
I assume that many faculty who read this post will see it as a defense of the status quo. This is not the case. In the past I too participated in some of the umpteen committees that have investigated student life. As early as 1980 I advocated a “house system” that would reduce the outsized role of the fraternities in campus social life. That did not happen. But in the past few years we have made some real progress in providing alternatives to the fraternity culture. And students appreciate it. There is far too much of a drinking culture at Trinity. Far too many students want to transfer. These problems are serious and we have to address them. But careful policy, based on facts, will achieve much more than jeremiads about racism or frog-marches into courses about “diversity.”
What we need to know now is to what extent incidents of racial and sexual harassment are more likely to occur at Trinity than at other schools. We need to look at our peer colleges and carefully assemble data. If it turns out that we are indeed worse than others, then we have to take appropriate measures.
I may well be wrong and my colleagues on the faculty may well be right. Perhaps the situation is indeed much worse than I happen to think. But until we actually have the facts and know what we are talking about, it is too early to jump to conclusions.
|Samuel D Kassow|
|Charles H. Northam Professor of History|