Published on 7/13/2021.
In his “Day of Affirmation Address” in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966, Robert F. Kennedy invoked a saying that is often attributed to an ancient Chinese curse - “may you live in interesting times.” Referring to this as a curse suggests that “interesting times” are often eras of great difficulty and disagreement, and I think that was precisely what RFK was saying. The 1960s were undoubtedly a time of great social upheavals.
Some would say that the times we live in today are equally full of difficulty and disagreement. As an educational professional, I can attest that difficulty and, especially, disagreement have made their way into our institutions of higher education. We see this, for example, in the disagreements surrounding Race, Equity and Inclusion issues and in the media’s focus on the Critical Race Theory controversy at the K-12 level.
California is bestowing significant fiscal and political resources toward institutionalizing diversity, inclusion, and equity into higher education, in areas as various as hiring, student recruitment, and curriculum. College of the Redwoods has demonstrated its commitment to this direction by sponsoring several campus discussions over the past few years devoted to fostering diversity, and by the College of the Redwoods’ Board of Trustees revision of the District’s mission statement. Our new mission statement now includes this language “We strive to create a safe and inclusive environment that promotes and values diversity, equity, and inclusion among students, faculty, and staff.”
Few people at our college would argue against promoting racial equity in higher education, but these are complex and nuanced issues, and we should be open to candid conversations about, for example, how we achieve that equity and at what cost. However what we see instead, on college campuses across the country, is that this new focus on diversity and inclusion has actually had a troubling effect on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Faculty members have been censored, coerced and, in some cases, even fired for voicing opinions contrary to the new orthodoxy of diversity at all costs.
On July 9th, I read an article by Tom Ginsburg in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled How to Truly Protect Academic Freedom that encapsulates the complex problem higher education has had to face since the George Floyd murder and the resulting protests. Mr. Ginsburg points to a survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology that found widespread self-censorship among faculty and warned that fear of reproach has led to the politicization and weaponization of education. On the left and the right, voices are vying to dictate what our faculty can talk to students about inside the classroom.
I believe that the weaponization of education is an existential threat to the purpose of higher education—the pursuit of truth and promulgation of critical thinking. In his article, Ginsburg suggests that we consider institutionalizing the protection of academic freedom in the same way we are institutionalizing diversity. As President of College of the Redwoods, I agree. I believe we should be vigilant in protecting the core values of freedom of inquiry, thought, and speech on our campuses. It is the only way to arrive at truth and knowledge.
I know that conversations relative to diversity and academic freedom can be difficult. However, I believe that those conversations should be welcomed as an opportunity to build clarity and foster relationships between people with differing perspectives. Academic freedom and the free expression of thought and ideas can help us reach a common understanding of the issues we face and help preserve democracy. College of the Redwoods’ faculty and staff are committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity but we are also an institution that values inquiry and ideas—regardless of whether or not those ideas support the prevailing opinion or make some people uncomfortable.
In Cape Town, RFK went on to say that the times they were living through, although challenging, were “also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.” Today I believe that there is a great opportunity to foster a culture of creative dialogue and constructive progress, but only if we protect the freedom of speech and inquiry.