Lest We Forget
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy son's sons. — Deuteronomy 4:9
Over the past few years, we have seen state officials and legislatures attempting to limit or dictate curricula and interfering with the faculty hiring and tenure process. Some of these overreaches have been in response to faculty serving as expert witnesses in court cases in which their testimony was unfavorable to the state’s position; some are battles over ideology; some are acts of political theatre; and some are attempts to whitewash history.
Each example strains or violates the principles of shared governance. In the classic higher-education governance model, faculty, who are the trained experts determine the curriculum and the standards for faculty appointment, promotion, and tenure. The administration and board have authority over budgets and their allocation, and they provide a check-and-balance review in the confirmation of tenure and promotion.
There are often dynamic tensions between the three bodies within institutional shared governance, but on the whole, this has been an important component of the ascendancy of American higher education. Public higher education has an additional complication in that boards are often, in-part, or entirely, appointed by state governors. Typically, when the shared-governance apparatus of these institutions is respected, continuity is maintained even when entire boards are repopulated with a change in state leadership.
New College in Florida is an example of a wholesale change in mission and leadership of an institution connected to a board change. Beginning today, Ohio State University will not have a president. Following commencement this past weekend, President Kristina Johnson is leaving the post, and neither a successor nor interim has been named. At present, the cabinet will report to the board’s subcommittees seemingly eliminating or shortening one of the three legs of the shared-governance tripod.
These machinations are concurrent with pending decisions of the supreme court on the future of affirmative action in college admissions and financial aid and numerous bills in state legislatures aimed at limiting or eliminating DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) services, programming, and supporting curricula.
In her opinion in the 2003 landmark decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in college admissions, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
I firmly believe Justice O’Connor thought that the playing field of higher-education admissions would have become more consistently equitable in that timeframe than has been the case, but many believe the current cases being brought by Students for Fair Admission against Harvard and UNC will lead to Grutter v. Bollinger being overturned. The extent and reach of such a decision are still unknown.
In anticipation of a change, I was a signatory from among LACRELA (Liberal Arts College Equity Leadership Alliance) presidents in an open letter outlining strategies to improve access for all students to our institutions. Shaun Harper wrote about this letter in a recent editorial in Forbes.
DEI programming on campuses works. On Friday I attended Lavender Graduation and our event for seniors in our TRiO program. Efforts to build community and a sense of belonging help students from minoritized populations that historically did not persist in higher education at rates consistent with the overall student body to achieve comparable graduation rates. These efforts don’t make it easier, but they do help students to feel that they belong here, that they are seen, and that they are loved and respected.
Part of being seen is being represented in the curriculum. This includes the literature, music, and art we teach and study. It is also our history. Our history is complex and filled with jubilation and regret. We are an exceptional nation when we address the faults of our past and commit to learning how we can avoid repeating the sins of our fathers. We become better neighbors when we understand the shaping forces that have affected those around us for good or ill, and we become better leaders when we understand the legacies our decisions have on generations who follow them.
Let us teach, speak, and write that which is true, “lest we forget.”