Lessons From a Fall of Unrest
As Oxy joined this fall's wave of student protests over campus race relations, I followed the debates occurring elsewhere—including Amherst, Brown, Princeton, and Yale—in a search for perspective. What stayed with me was an exchange at Yale between a black student and the head of one of the university's undergraduate colleges. "It is your job to create a place of comfort and a home for students," the student said. "It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It's about creating a home here. You are not doing that!"
Last semester's events made it clear that we have students of color who don't feel comfortable on campus in the way we want them to ("A Movement Not a Moment"). That is an issue we are determined to address through a series of concrete steps we announced in November. Oxy students must feel at home in the world before they can be fully prepared to take on intellectual provocations.
At the same time, providing students with a thought-provoking education must also be one of our top priorities. Occidental has to be a place where a full range of political opinion is available, and students make up their own minds. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson famously observed, "Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard." The Oxy ethos must be one where community members have the freedom to be wrong, to stumble, to rethink their positions and change their minds.
There is an inherent tension between the comforts of home and the discomforts of a good education—one that is playing out at campuses all across the country. This is our collective challenge: How can we make all of our students feel at home in the world and still deliver the kind of intellectual stimulation that is fundamental to our mission as a college? While addressing the lived experience of students of color, how do we ensure that our campus is a place where everyone is welcome, even those who disagree with each other?
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Thorne Hall in 1967, he addressed the struggle for civil rights and such issues as segregation, voting rights, and jobs. Today's students speak in terms of their lived experience, about cultural bias and a lifetime's accumulation of small indignities. Peter Dreier, Oxy's E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, wrote in the Huffington Post: "Because of Oxy's history and reputation as an inclusive institution—aided by its identification with [President] Obama—students arrive with high expectations … The current student protest reflects their concern that even if Oxy compares well in some respects with other institutions, it isn't sufficient."
Even as we agree with the protesters' broad goals—to make Oxy an institution where all students can thrive—we need to be realistic about how we can reach them. Our continuing effort to diversify the faculty—already one of the most diverse of any liberal arts college—faces "multiple hurdles, not the least of which is the paltry production by American universities of black Ph.D. recipients," as The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in December. For a place like Oxy, which produces more Ph.D.s per capita than many universities, our role is not only to recruit a diverse faculty but to increase the number of candidates by encouraging more students of color to pursue graduate school.
In 1971, faculty and trustees adopted a statement on academic freedom that spells out our obligation "to respect the dignity of others, to acknowledge their right to express differing opinions, and to foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and free expression on and off the campus." We need to hear the voices that haven't been heard during the protests even as we listen carefully to the activists.
As The Atlantic wrote of the Amherst protests, "Administrators, faculty members, and fellow students need to engage the activists, knowing that they can learn from their testimony and urgency." At Oxy, we are engaged with everyone who wants to find a home here and receive an intellectually challenging education.