Sunday, August 13, 2017
When Neutrality Isn’t an Option
Community colleges serve people with very different political perspectives, and that’s by design. Their mission is to take all comers, and to serve the needs of the entire community. That means working with people from different backgrounds, with different tastes and different politics.
Most of the time, that means that leaders of community colleges have to be relatively circumspect about partisan politics. That doesn’t mean giving up the right to vote, but it does mean making sure that you don’t inadvertently alienate someone whose political or economic support would have benefitted the college or the students. Supporters come from many sides, and their support makes a meaningful difference. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here.
The shorthand version of that is “neutrality.” Anyone who went through grad school in the 90’s, at the crest of the postmodern wave, knows how loaded that term can be. But as shorthand, it’s useful. I work with Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and socialists, and my job involves finding common ground with all of them in the name of helping the students and the community. When I worked at the County College of Morris, the Board and county were mostly Republican, though we had a series of Democratic governors. At Holyoke, the Board and the community were mostly Democratic (although it now has a Republican governor). At Brookdale, the Board and county are mostly Republican again, though it looks likely that we’ll soon have a Democratic governor. And donors, faculty, staff, and students have all sorts of political perspectives. If I ruled out working with one party or the other, or were simply incapable of it, I couldn’t do my job.
And that’s just one version of difference. My college, for example, is more diverse racially than the county it serves. The faculty has more women than men. If you can’t work across lines of difference, you won’t get anything done. Even aside from morality, it’s a practical necessity.
But this weekend was a reminder that even the shorthand version of neutrality has limits.
At its core, the defining trait of a community college is openness. It’s about serving anyone in the area who wants to learn. That mission rests on a moral position that holds that anyone is as good, or as bad, as anyone else. It rests on basic humanism.
Not everybody shares that basic humanism. Some people honestly believe that, say, white people deserve better than everyone else, and that their cultural primacy is being taken from them by a shadowy cabal of Others. In fact, some believe that so strongly that they’re willing to mow down crowds of innocent people with their cars in order to intimidate the majority.
White nationalism is toxic, and terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Both are entirely out of bounds, and our institutions need to be willing to stand on that.
The philosopher Richard Rorty used to say that we shouldn’t be so open-minded that our brains fall out. There are limits to what we can tolerate without becoming complicit.
Public higher education is for the entire public. A movement that denies that there even is such a thing -- that assumes a better and a worse public, whether by race, religion, or whatever else -- is an existential threat to our mission. We need to be willing to treat it accordingly.
That means not “teaching the controversy,” or pretending that there are “many sides” to this one. Anti-semitism, for instance, doesn’t really lend itself to a “pro or con” analysis. It’s wrong. It’s just flat wrong. White supremacist terrorism is wrong. And that’s not just a personal view, although it is also that; it’s a precondition for doing the work we do every single day.
I’m willing -- happy -- to work with people who share my goal of helping students, even if their understanding of the economy is different from my own. But if they can’t recognize some of the students, or the community, as people? No. That’s where neutrality ends.