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On the Campus Protests

03 May 2024 10:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Alma Mater

Soon a typical NCSCE e-news will bring the usual encouraging reports of the great work of our network of SENCER educators—successful grant applications, workshops and presentations offered, conferences organized, promotions, publications etc., as well as news about the SENCER Summer Institute in August. However, as I write this from London, I have been deeply and painfully preoccupied with the callous response of Higher Education institutions to student political engagement and protest, in which they are joined and supported by many faculty, at campuses all over the US.

I have a been especially pained by the catalyzing events at Columbia University. For half a century, my own history has been deeply entangled with that institution—as a student, spouse, the parent of Barnard graduate and Columbia post-doc, as an employee, and perhaps most profoundly, as a neighbor.  From 1968 to 2013 my family’s home was a few blocks downtown from the campus, which was also the site of many of my happiest memories, including my wedding in St. Paul’s Chapel.  But I also witnessed CU’s dramatic expansion as a corporation that dominated the commercial, cultural, and economic life of the area. During this period, I have witnessed decades of student protests and demonstrations, though none have been subject to the degree of violent repression that we have seen over the past few weeks.  

The stairs in front of Low Memorial Library, where the bronze statue of Alma Mater stands, have always represented the very heart of Columbia University—a place to meet colleagues, take photos, gather for events and class trips, and to advocate, give speeches, and of course, to publicly protest. Daniel Chester French’s bronze statue was placed there in 1903, by which time most colleges had adopted Alma Mater as the symbol of a deep and abiding filial connection with their graduates. But as the Library’s website notes, Alma Mater, or “nourishing mother,” has had a much longer history and special significance for Columbia students and alumni for centuries. As the central figure in the first seal of King’s College in 1754, and reflecting the 18th century ideal of the “Republican Mother,” the image of Alma Mater has served as a representation of the university’s very mission and commitment to all members of its academic family—students, faculty, and staff, past, present, and future. That mission is to nurture, support, and educate conscientious and discerning civic agents, responsible leaders, and honest producers of knowledge.  Now Columbia’s administration has revealed that Alma Mater is now Matria Potestas—She whose authority must not be challenged.

Correspondingly, and in alignment with the stated aims of most US colleges and universities, NCSCE’s mission is to advance the democratic values of civic responsibility and engagement for all students. Teaching science “through” civic issues means dealing with even the most unpleasant, and often suppressed, facts with frankness and transparency, addressing head-on the ethical and non-scientific dimensions of public problems.  These include the inequities, exclusions, and power imbalances that are at the root of our greatest civic challenges—whether it be threats to public health from disease, poverty, food insecurity, or toxic waste, the global crisis of climate change, or the threats to privacy and human rights from technology, media misinformation, and manipulation of data.

As stated in the SENCER “ideals,” a core element of this approach to teaching is “relevance” ---respect for the interests and concerns of students and the problems that most deeply motivate and drive them to engage, understand, act, and seek solutions. Given the continuing and fast-moving spread of the protests at Columbia and at universities across the U.S., there is no question that the issues that concern and motivate them—the problems they feel a responsibility to act on—are shared by growing numbers of students, as well as faculty and staff, throughout the country.

Given the direct relevance of widespread student political action and civic engagement to our mission, NCSCE will necessarily host a discussion at the SENCER Summer Institute on the protests and their wider context of free speech, academic governance, policing, and the degree to which educational institutions are adhering to their stated values. The questions that will frame the discussion are those same foundational questions raised regarding recent events in an open letter, copied below, from faculty at the University of Southern California to educators throughout the US.  They offer these questions in a spirit of “deep appreciation for students and colleagues who are working towards a more just world,” and I would add, holding to the true spirit of Alma Mater. I hope many of you will join us for that conversation.

As faculty and staff whose work is dedicated to the creation and implementation of policies and practices that promote equity and the well-being of students, faculty, and staff — in particular those from historically and currently marginalized backgrounds — we, like many of our colleagues in higher education, are grappling with the following questions: 

  • How do we support academic freedom for all members of our community?  
  • How do we as a community provide space for conflicting views on complex issues?  
  • How can we bring students and faculty into discussions about campus decisions on areas like commencement speakers and investment/divestment?  
  • What values do our actions reflect? How do our decisions at this moment center our commitments to student learning, growth, and development?

Adrianna Kezar, Professor

Dwuana Bradley, Assistant Professor

Zoë Corwin, Research Professor

Steve Desir, Assistant Research Professor

Royel Johnson, Associate Professor

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