Rod Dreher reports on dramatic recent events at Providence College where Professor Tony Esolen teaches literature.
The first piece this fall, published in late September, is an eloquent plea for the humane learning of a Catholic liberal arts education. Esolen's chief theme in this piece is the homosexual agenda and the attacks from the left upon any organization that continues to maintain its distinctively Catholic identity in the realm of sexuality. He is particularly concerned about the abuse of the word "diversity" in this way at his own college. The editor at Crisis gave the article the very slightly provocative title, "My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult."
The second piece this fall, published almost a month later in October, is more militant and less contentful, but the types it describes are certainly recognizable. It is about persecution of conservatives within Catholic contexts, and it describes four types: The Persecutor, the Quisling, the Avenger, and the Soldier. (Hint: Esolen is encouraging us to be the last of these.) My only demurral about this piece is that at one point Esolen pauses in describing the Persecutor and pointedly corrects himself for using the generic "he," switching emphatically to "she." This could easily give an impression that all or virtually all totalitarian leftist persecutors are female. In fact, as I'm sure many of those who have been hounded by Persecutors in their own institutions and jobs can attest, there are plenty of male Persecutors and plenty of blame to go around between the sexes when it comes to totalitarian leftism. But in any event, that isn't what the fuss is about. (In fact, it's the leftist Persecutors who are going right ahead and persecuting Esolen for Blasphemy Against Diversity. Presumably they have no standing for being offended by being characterized as mostly female or otherwise! They are proudly taking on the role, whoever they are.)
Oh, and this article, published way back in February, appears to be a major locus of fury. In it Esolen had the temerity to argue that the "diversity" activists are really demanding less cultural diversity by rejecting the study of Western civilization. The article is learned, urbane, and articulate, and the idea that it is offensive is patently absurd, despite the fact that (horror!) Esolen kicks it off with an allusion to recent events on his own campus in which the office of the President was occupied by student protesters. Again, much of the outrage seems focused on the title, which dares to use the term "narcissism" for leftist agitators who think they are promoting diversity of viewpoint. Here is the terribly "offensive" paragraph in the article itself:
Everything is about ourselves. We don’t want to study other cultures. We want to make other people study about us, and from our preferred point of view. I say to students, “Here, let me teach you about Milton,” the author of the greatest poem in the English language. The students reply, “No, let us teach you about us.” Dear Narcissus, there is a great and beautiful world beyond that pool.
Oh, noes! The literature professor used a literary allusion! Run for the hills!
Dreher gives a good run-down of the history of the attacks on Esolen, which blew up in the last couple of weeks when protests were organized on campus implying that Esolen is some kind of racist, of all things, for opposing "diversity." Of course, anyone who has read his articles will see the absurdity of this implication. Indeed, a great oddity of the attacks is that his article with the title about "the diversity cult," which title apparently provoked such anger, was about homosexuality and other sexual perversions, not about race at all! Apparently racial activists are not averse to being used by sexual activists for the latter's own ends.
The President of Providence College has behaved, frankly, as a typical quisling. His letter in response to the protests (given in full in Dreher's article) is rather reminiscent (to my mind) of a certain philosopher's recent panderings to similarly ginned-up outrage. Of course, what they both represent is a perfect type of the spineless, bureaucratic administrator who sees only one side as in need of cossetting.
Fr. Shanley, the President of Providence, implies that Prof. Esolen was mean and uncharitable to, specifically, students with whom he disagreed. (There's nothing like pretending that someone has been mean to students to make him out to be the Baddie.) Here are a few choice paragraphs, with a few of my comments interspersed:
Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education. It allows professors the freedom to teach, write, and lecture without any restraint except the truth as they see it. It also gives them the freedom to express their opinions as citizens so long as it is clear that they do not represent the views of the institution with which they are affiliated. This freedom obviously extends to espousing views critical of their own college or university. [LM: Quick, get that out of the way so you can start criticizing Esolen and making every possible concession to those attacking him. Hmm, gotta think of some way to make this not really apply to what he said...]
So when one of our professors writes an article accusing Providence College of having “Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult,” he is protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. [LM: The grudging tone would be amusing if it weren't so sad. Anyone would think Esolen had cussed people out.] But it must be understood that he speaks only for himself. He certainly does not speak for me, my administration, and for many others at Providence College who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him. [LM: Yeah, we're gathering that. Oh, wait, Esolen's article by that name was about homosexuality. Do you support homosexual sex, Fr. Shanley? Oh, never mind.]
Universities are places where ideas are supposed to be brought into conflict and questioned, so let us robustly debate the meaning of “diversity.” [LM: Baloney. The activists to whom you are fully catering don't actually want any such debate at all.] But we must also remember that words have an impact on those who hear or read them. When a professor questions the value of diversity, the impact on many students, faculty, and staff of color is to feel that their presence is not valued and that they are not welcome at Providence College. [LM: Oh, burrother.] I have heard from many students about the pain that this causes. [LM: Double oh, burrrother. Tell the little snowflakes to learn to interact with people who disagree with them.] When student activists are described as “narcissists,” they understandably feel demeaned and dismissed. [LM: Seriously, one wonders if Shanley even read the articles or just read the titles and one or two carefully selected sentences. Or perhaps he's just so uneducated that he can't tell the difference between a literary allusion and a psychological diagnosis.] We need to be able to disagree with each other’s ideas without attaching labels to them or imputing motives that we cannot know.
At the same time that we value freedom in the pursuit of truth, let us value even more our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another. We may deeply disagree on any number of topics, but we should do so in such a way that respects those with whom we disagree. [LM: There is nothing remotely disrespectful in Esolen's discussion of the curriculum. But the people marching around shouting for Esolen to be fired are certainly being disrespectful.]
This is all absolute rubbish. Esolen's articles about diversity and the curriculum are precisely the sort of intelligent, eloquent, contentful, learned, carefully worded debate that anyone would welcome who actually welcomed scholarly debate in a university context. The attack on Esolen is the purest crybullying, and Shanley is making it clear that, in fact, no such debate will be allowed. According to Esolen, there have been demands for his firing, though he is tenured.
My own prediction is that Providence will make no serious attempt to fire Dr. Esolen, and I hope that I'm right. But in the meanwhile, the complete lack of support for him and the continued agitation by the despicable crybullies can make things very unpleasant indeed for him and his family and may well make him wonder when and if formal proceedings to fire him might begin. Living under a sword of Damocles is more or less the essence of a "hostile work environment."
Here are the ominous words of a recent petition leveled against Esolen, without (of course) naming him:
Conferred by the institutions of which we are a part, professors possess the power and authority over students to determine the content of the syllabi, assign tasks, create supportive or destructive learning environments, and evaluate student performance, and we are able to do so largely free from direct oversight. Such a large degree of academic freedom — especially the power to grade — coupled with the right to free speech comes with professional standards and responsibilities. Some professors have openly, publicly, and unabashedly articulated a disdain for racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and religious inclusion. In contrast, we the undersigned, are committed to ensuring that marginalized groups are not further marginalized in the classroom, especially when many of our students already experience multiple forms of exclusion at Providence College.
Puh-lease. So, because Tony Esolen wrote articulately questioning the abandonment of a distinctive Catholic vision of liberal arts education and of sex, he's a suspected bully against students? Give me an ever-lovin' break.
The activists are using the incident (which is really not an incident, except of their own creation) to make sweeping demands. See here. Everybody is supposed to be forced to undergo diversity training, students and faculty alike. "Goals" for minority hiring are to be aggressively pursued, with minorities hired then being carefully shepherded through the tenure and promotion process. The Bias Response Team is to be expanded. And so on and so forth. Pure Orwellian totalitarianism. Of which, it sounds like, there's already plenty around at Providence, but apparently not enough for the activists.
Again, particularly bizarre is that the demands are said to be "in response to racism and anti-blackness at Providence College." Only someone seriously reading-challenged could possibly get "racism and anti-blackness" out of any of these pieces by Esolen, which (I repeat) haven't been about race at all! But again, this isn't about actually reading anything. It's about pure power.
The dust-up at the SCP, though extremely distasteful, had no chance of actually harming Dr. Swinburne. Nor (as many people pointed out) was Dr. Swinburne the actual target of the bullies in that case. Rather, the goal was to intimidate younger scholars. Unfortunately, President of the SCP Michael Rea was only too willing to be used as a tool to that end.
The stakes are higher here for Dr. Esolen. The attack is coming at his own institution, and a direct demand for his firing for wrongthink has been put out there. Fr. Shanley, the college President, is bending over backwards to make the activists feel that he agrees and sympathizes with them. Whether the attempt to fire Esolen succeeds or not, he has a rocky road ahead, and those of us who see the truth need to rally round. May God be with Prof. Esolen and his family.