Proposed Faculty “Re-education” Should Address the Real Issues

Everyone recognizes that Day Hall is being challenged by the anti-racism movement, but this week’s proposal for faculty re-education creates more problems than it solves.

Last July, President Pollack asked the Faculty Senate to start “Development of a new set of programs focusing on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the United States, designed to ensure understanding of how inherited social and historical forces have shaped our society today, and how they affect interactions inside and outside of our classrooms, laboratories and studios. All faculty would be expected to participate in this programming and follow-on discussions in their departments.”  The request was made in response to demands in online petitions.  The Dean of the Faculty then appointed a group of radical students and some anti-racist faculty to develop a proposal which was released on April 5 and will be up for a Faculty Senate debate on April 14.

The group shifted the President’s goal to include mandatory faculty education to help “faculty learn to communicate effectively across the differences that they will encounter as they go about their work.”  In an exercise of raw political power, the proposal would force independent-minded scholars to spend 1.5 to 2 hours per semester on anti-racist political re-education.  This is akin to the political re-education camps existing today and started by the Red Guard after the China cultural revolution.  Although the report acknowledges the need to protect academic freedom, it puts forward a program that is inconsistent with academic freedom, freedom of conscience, and important social and legal norms.

A debate over fundamental values is sweeping higher education and larger society.  The “anti-racist” viewpoint, as articulated by Ibram Kendi and Critical Race Theory (CRT), is that human behavior is best understood in terms of identity groups and efforts of some groups to oppress other groups.  This is the opposite viewpoint of classic liberalism, which views society as being composed of unique individuals who are vested with personal rights and responsibilities.  Rather than create a program to help faculty reach their own conclusions, the task force assumes that the anti-racist approach has already won the hearts and minds of all American society. Instead of carrying on an informed debate, the task force would take a victory lap by educating all faculty to realize they are oppressing their students through systemic racism rather than facilitating education.

The Faculty Senate can move forward by fundamentally modifying the report’s recommendations.  First, the definition of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) needs careful clarification.  “Diversity” should include a diversity of viewpoints as well as identity groups.  “Inclusion” in an academic community must mean welcoming into dialog the people with whom you disagree rather than trying to “cancel” them.  By taking off the blinders of a constricted DEI goal, the Faculty Senate (who has never enacted a formal DEI definition), can put the proposal in a more constructive light.  Otherwise, the proposal would slip away from the official Cornell core values toward views aligned with Kendi’s anti-racism.

Second, rather than devoting more faculty time to studying historical grievances, the time could be better spent reading about the concept of equal rights under the law,the history of academic freedom, the history of Cornell, and the philosophy of education .  The advocates of CRT are determined to realign our university based upon a new set of beliefs, and it is up to each individual faculty member to have a sufficient background to be prepared to decide for himself or herself.  

A wealth of material is relevant to this debate.  The proposal would have the same “cross disciplinary group of Cornell faculty colleagues” assemble both the mandatory undergraduate anti-racist class and the faculty training materials.  The Faculty Senate might instead consider engaging a group of emeriti faculty, particularly with expertise in Philosophy, Law, History and Education to compile a set of faculty readings.  

Even if the materials were top quality and relevant to Cornell’s instructional mission, is it worth the loss of individual college faculty autonomy to force all faculty to participate? Should the faculty fear that the amount of time will creep up beyond the proposed two hour per semester to impose a serious redirection of faculty time?  Because STEM and computer science faculty bring in the most research dollars to Cornell, and their undergraduate classes are in high demand, could the report’s rationale also be used to impose STEM classes on all faculty to better orient them to the interests of today’s Cornell mainstream?  Will the focus on culturally diverse student backgrounds hinder faculty from establishing a vibrant present-day Cornell educational environment?

Third, the task force expanded its role to include DEI student course evaluations and criteria for faculty promotion.  This would be consistent with the “anti-racism” goal of inverting existing power structures.  The group would add a question to the questionnaire that students complete at the end of each semester asking if “the professors and teaching staff fostered an inclusive environment such that the class is welcoming to all…”  The problem is that anonymous, amorphous complaints filed months after-the-fact are impossible to defend against. 

Fourth, the report would make existing Cornell faculty members write a “DEI statement” when applying for a contract extension or for tenure.  This is a watered-down response to the demand made by “Faculty, Graduate Students and Staff for an Anti-Racist Cornell“: “LT7. Make retention offers for all BIPOC faculty.”  While broadening and diversifying the intake funnel of first-time faculty through the consideration of DEI may make some sense, ultimately each faculty member must meet Cornell’s very high standards for retention and promotion.  These standards judge individual merit without engaging in employment discrimination.  Contrary to Ibram Kendi’s claim that  “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”  Cornell can and should maintain promotion policy based only upon academic merit.

The Faculty Senate should reframe the definition of DEI, refocus the required faculty education requirement, and drop the proposed anti-racism aspect of student course evaluations and promotion criteria.

This paper was written by a member of the Cornell community who prefers to stay anonymous.

Janelle B. Smith

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