Statement of the Faculty of Felician University (Updated)

After an hour of debate, the faculty of Felician University adopted the following statement, sponsored by Richard Burnor (Philosophy), James Smith (Counseling Psychology), and myself (Philosophy), as amended by Joshua Bornstein (Education):

In view of today’s social and political unrest and the renewed indications of bias and discrimination that have recently arisen in the United States and around the world, the faculty of Felician University wish to affirm the following:

In keeping with the Franciscan mission and the Christian and humanistic values of this institution, the faculty of Felician University unequivocally stand for the equal and intrinsic moral value of all human beings, regardless of race, religion, culture and ethnic background, country of origin, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.  We furthermore recommit ourselves to fair and unbiased, nondiscriminatory practices in all that we do at this institution and in our own personal behaviors.  To any who today feel themselves to be more vulnerable and less respected or cared for, we stand with and for you.

May God graciously bless and protect all peoples in this New Year.

The vote was 46 in favor, 19 opposed. It was touch and go there for awhile.

Academic politics, folks. Who says the stakes are low?

Postscript, Jan. 31, 2017: After about 40 minutes of discussion, my Phil 250B section (ethics) voted the resolution down. The vote was 6 in favor and 10 against, with 5 abstentions (and 7 students absent). The general consensus of those against was that the resolution was pointless, vacuous, wordy, and intended as a kind of PR stunt to ease tensions after a tense fall semester. The consensus of those in favor was that it was better than nothing. My response: the critics have a point, but they’re overly cynical, and have unrealistically high expectations of what can be achieved through politics (counting passage of the resolution as a form of politics).

Postscript, February 8, 2017: After about an hour of discussion, my Phil 100PCN section (Critical Thinking for a cohort of nursing students) voted the resolution down. The vote was 0 in favor and 13 against (0 students absent). I’m a little puzzled by the result, because the discussion seemed to indicate sympathy for the statement, but the vote was unanimously against it. Though some were inclined to regard the statement as a mere PR stunt, I argued against that. Still, the cynicism expressed for the university was so intense that students were inclined to downgrade the significance of the statement even if they agreed with the sentiments behind it.

Postscript, February 13, 2017: After an hour of discussion, my Phil100B section (Critical Thinking) voted the resolution down. The vote was 10 in favor and 11 against, with 2 abstentions (7 students absent).

Postscript, February 14, 2017: After about 30 minutes of discussion, my PSCI 303 section (International Relations) voted the resolution down. The vote was 3 in favor, 4 against, with 1 abstention (4 students absent).

10 thoughts on “Statement of the Faculty of Felician University (Updated)

  1. Bold stuff there. One might almost draw a controversial (and, perhaps especially for a Catholic university, surprising) commitment out of the inclusion of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in the list, but since all we’re affirming here is that people have “equal and intrinsic moral value” regardless of these things, that turns out to look pretty empty. I suppose it is worrisome that there are people out there who deny even that much, and that they are suddenly gaining prominence. But everything in the statement seems to be logically consistent with supporting, say, the “First Amendment Defense Act” and the right (and even the rightness) of business owners to refuse service to gay or trans people; after all, I need not be committed to denying that such people are of equal intrinsic value to everyone else in order to maintain that their behavior and choices are perverse and immoral and that it would be wrong for me to do business with them and thereby to sanction their immoral perversity. After all, if all human beings are of equal intrinsic moral value, that means that Richard Spencer is of no less intrinsic moral value than anyone else, but that (hopefully) doesn’t entail that I have to refuse to condemn Richard Spencer (though perhaps it means that bakers have to make him a cake for his celebration of Hitler’s birthday if he asks them to?).

    I suppose one could say that the clear spirit of the statement is inconsistent with condemning people based on their religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or whatever (and perhaps that is why some people voted against it?). The “we stand with and for you” bit might actually exclude some judgments that are not confined to the fringes of our culture. As a speech-act taken in its context, it seems apparent that this has something to do with opposition to some or other of the new administration’s policy proposals. So it’s not just a trivial pronouncement of platitudes. And perhaps institutional expressions of moral and political judgments have to be vague and indeterminate if they’re going to gain support. I’d have voted for it. But it doesn’t seem really to say very much. I mean, it does follow from what it says that Richard Spencer and his ilk are wrong. So that’s something. But that’s the place we go in our culture where we need a clear example of a morally mistaken attitude that everyone in the room will agree (or at least not disagree out loud) is mistaken regardless of what else they believe about anything.

    Granted that statements like these aren’t philosophical documents and so probably shouldn’t be held to the same standards, I don’t think I’d be satisfied with this aside from the fact that I doubt a group of faculty could agree on anything better. I’m curious: did anybody oppose it on the grounds that it was too thin and vague?

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    • Here’s a response I gave on Facebook that to some degree responds to your comment:

      James DiGiovanna: What were the 19 who were opposed concerned about?

      Irfan Khawaja: Hard to say, since it was a secret ballot (we vote with electronic clickers). But I can describe the debate in a generic way.

      The statement went through three iterations. The original version didn’t have the references to gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability that are now there. The second version, which was eventually adopted, did. A third proposal deleted the entire phrase beginning with “regardless of…” but was voted down. The debate revolved around one basic issue: we wanted to voice our concern in a way that would be meaningful and acceptable to the whole faculty (or at the very least, a majority of the faculty present at the meeting).

      The dilemma was this: if we enumerated the objects of our concern by group, we were sure to exclude some group, if only as a matter of specificity. Why mention “ethnic background” but not Mexicans or Muslims, or whatever? Why Mexicans and Muslims but not women? Why not African American women? Why not Latina women? Why not…(etc.) We didn’t want to generate a competition for Victim Inclusion Status. But if we didn’t enumerate specific groups at all, the statement was in danger of becoming utterly toothless and meaningless. (It’s already pretty anodyne as it is.)

      So the debate oscillated between those two poles, with some people wanting more enumeration of specific groups than the original proposal had, some wanting no enumerations of any groups at all, and some wanting to adopt the original proposal itself. Some people voiced concern (or alluded to the concern) that the references to gender identity and sexual orientation might run afoul of Catholic teaching or else commit conservative Catholics to “supporting” things they couldn’t support. One person thought that the opening sentence involved a sort of veiled anti-Trump partisanship and wanted it changed. And one person found the statement implicitly anti-Catholic on the grounds that it seemed to normalize homosexuality when Catholic doctrine holds that homosexuality is “objectively disordered.”

      There’s no way to know whether those concerns accounted for the 19 opposed votes; that’s just what came up in the discussion.

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    • Your last paragraph gets at something I’d want to underscore. The statement has to be understood in context: it’s not a philosophical document, but a political one. Specifically, it’s an exercise in academic politics mostly intended for internal consumption, that is, internal to Felician University. When it’s distributed, it will most likely be distributed on a list-serve intended specifically for Felician students, maybe for staff–though I’m not sure about the latter. It had to be written in such a way that (a) it wouldn’t arouse the ire of the administration, the trustees, or the university’s lawyers; (b) wouldn’t antagonize people committed to Catholic doctrine; (c) wouldn’t seem to privilege one kind of victim over another; (d) wouldn’t seem too partisan; (e) would have some bite, and (f) would, within about an hour’s discussion, win a majority of the votes of the faculty who happened to attend this particular meeting. By bona fide political standards, (a)-(f) is a joke. More significant political actions are taken at town hall or PTA meetings. But the fact remains that passage was a political task.

      The statement was mostly inspired by anecdotes to the effect that students–“students of color,” mostly I suspect African American–felt alienated and/or distressed by current political trends, trends that pre-dated Donald Trump’s coming on the scene and were not reducible to Trump-ism. Recall that events in Ferguson took place in 2014, long before Trump’s presidential candidacy. Still, no one would deny (no informed person could deny) that Trump epitomizes the problem that the statement discusses.

      I had a conversation with a pair of African American students not long after the election. It’s hard to convey the sheer sense of bewilderment and disquiet they expressed at it (the very opposite of the smug, knowing attitudes taken by Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle in their famous SNL skit). They just found it impossible to understand how Trump could have gotten elected. When they expressed relief that at least New Jersey had gone to Clinton, I found myself digging the knife in a bit and pointing out that in fact, rural New Jersey, west and south of the university, had consistently gone to Trump. That seemed to induce despair, and led to an impromptu discussion of exclusionary zoning and de facto segregation in New Jersey. It all came as news to them, and they expressed some exasperation that they’d never “learned any of this before.” Kind of a depressing teaching moment (in my experience, all teaching moments are depressing): for the first time, history and politics seemed to take on urgent personal relevance. Anyway, students like that are the primary audience for the statement.

      In other words, the statement wasn’t really intended for general distribution (not that it couldn’t be put to that use).* I made the unilateral decision to post it publicly here and on Facebook, mostly because I think Felician would profit from “external review,” so to speak–from outsiders taking a look at what we do, and commenting on it.

      I know that my colleagues are reading this, and some might take offense at what I say (and what I’ve done), but here’s what seems to me a belaboring of the obvious: Felician is an extraordinarily insular place that prizes caution to the point of encouraging timidity, and prizes a certain brand of “civility” to the point of encouraging downright conformism. Nominally, at least, we enjoy academic freedom, but substantively, we have no idea how to exercise it: we have no institutional habit of real discussion or debate; in a meeting of 70-odd people, almost no one knows (much less has internalized) Roberts Rules of Order, so that every substantive conversation gets bogged down in procedural ones. We were founded in 1942, but we’re still a fledgling democracy. If we’re going to make progress (it seems to me), we have to do it in a genuinely transparent way. A statement meant for public distribution–Felician students are members of the public, and are free to disseminate the statement–ought to be amenable to public discussion.

      Anyway, the statement has to be seen in that light. It had very limited purposes, and we were operating against powerful political constraints. That said, those two facts themselves deserve to be seen for what they are. In other words, the constraints we were operating under are themselves worth noting. They’re particularly worth noting in a milieu in which the dominant narrative holds that all constraints on speech in the academy come from the political left. That’s a topic of its own, but for now I’ll just say that our situation at Felician is pretty obviously a counter-example to that narrative.

      *Actually, one faculty member privately pointed out to me that he voted against it not because he disagreed with anything in it, but because some of the language in it might inadvertently open the university up to unforeseen legal liability–liability that we can ill-afford, given the institution’s financial health. If he turns out to be right, then general distribution was probably be a mistake, but since I can’t live my life in thrall to defense attorneys, or hold my academic freedom hostage to their advice, I’ve gone forward anyway. I’d like to think that I spend two months of the year under occupation, not twelve.

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      • Thinking about it as intended primarily for students helps gives it some bite, I think. It would certainly make me more inclined to vote for it. And while I hadn’t anticipated all the challenges you list, I’d imagined that something like those would arise. I might feel differently about it were I involved, but as an outsider it’s hard not to fixate on just how little of substance it really commits itself to. It’s better than nothing, but what does it really mean? It means that the faculty aren’t going to ridicule you if you say that you feel vulnerable or lacking respect in our current political and cultural climate. That’s something you’re not going to get from the Sean Hannities of the world, but it falls short of anything much more substantive than that; if the inclusion of sexual orientation is consistent with holding the Roman Catholic teaching that the inclination to homosexual acts is intrinsice malum, then it will probably be cold comfort to many, even if that teaching is not necessarily the expression of bigotry that many people take it to be. If analogous judgments are consistent with the statement’s claims about people’s other distinguishing characteristics, then it would seem to come down to saying: we’re going to be nice to you. It’s depressing that, in our current climate, that’d be enough to make it worth saying.

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        • So the deep philosophical issue here is: if a political proposal is better than the existing alternatives, and better than inaction, should one support it–co-sponsor legislation, vote for a candidate–even if one knows that, from a philosophical perspective, the proposal is full of holes and susceptible of a long list of objections? The answer is “yes, one should.” But there is a distinctive kind of person who, when faced with such a choice, will dither indefinitely over philosophical quibbles appropriate to a philosophy seminar, overlooking the fact that the proposal is better than all existing alternatives, including inaction. The proposal’s being better than inaction entails that it’s better than dithering.

          During the election, such people were to be found wondering whether they could “bring themselves” to vote for Hillary Clinton, even in the full knowledge (or “knowledge”) that Clinton was better than Trump. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: “Do I dare? Do I dare eat a peach? Do I dare vote for Hillary?” But that is not the way politics works, whether in a university, in a town council meeting, or anywhere else. You can’t dither indefinitely over an agenda item that requires action. This seems to me the fact ignored by a lot of political philosophy today, especially in our anti-democratic moment: politics requires huge compromises; what we need is a worked-out account of the sorts of compromises that are or aren’t legitimate to make. The compromises here seemed well worth making. The quibbles I might have had with the statement (even with the reference to God) were far outweighed by the downside of saying nothing or of adopting a completely toothless statement (more anodyne than this one).

          I might feel differently about it were I involved, but as an outsider it’s hard not to fixate on just how little of substance it really commits itself to.

          I agree. Part of my point is to highlight the interesting tension involved there: you can criticize something as an external observer that you would endorse as an insider. My point is, there’s no inconsistency there. We need both perspectives, and in the course of deliberation take both: the critical outsider and the engaged insider. But the value of both perspectives is something lost on the partisans of either perspective, as is the need to integrate their insights in one coherent account.

          I should probably read more contemporary political philosophy than I do, but my impression is that it doesn’t effect that integration in a successful way. Libertarian political philosophy certainly does not. Libertarian theorizing is almost all done from the perspective of the critical outsider, observing the political scene as though from Mars, Pluto, or Olympus.

          …if the inclusion of sexual orientation is consistent with holding the Roman Catholic teaching that the inclination to homosexual acts is intrinsice malum, then it will probably be cold comfort to many, even if that teaching is not necessarily the expression of bigotry that many people take it to be.

          I had to chuckle at that sentence. Of course the statement is consistent with Roman Catholic teaching. “In keeping with the Franciscan mission and the Christian and humanistic values of this institution…” You trying to get us in trouble or something? Getting fired for violating the university’s mission would be cold comfort to us! (Recall that Felician is not a tenure-granting institution.) 🙂

          Some members of the faculty undoubtedly do believe that the inclination to homosexual acts is intrinsice malum, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

          2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

          Would the injunction to accept people with respect, compassion and sensitivity come easier if the person in question wasn’t simultaneously committed to describing homosexuality as objectively disordered and to prescribing sexual abstinence for those with the inclination? It sure would. But is it impossible for a committed Catholic to obey or at least approximate the preceding injunction? I don’t think so. At the very least, conservative Catholics or Christians (or Muslims or Jews…etc.) can make an effort in the relevant direction. But lots of people fail to make that effort (or any effort), and the statement entails that they ought to try (or try harder). Which is not nothing.

          Maybe “[i]t’s depressing that, in our current climate, that’d be enough to make it worth saying.” But that entails that it’s worth saying. I guess it also “entails” our getting depressed about it. As I’ve done both, I feel OK about things.

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          • I certainly didn’t mean to take on an attitude analogous to “how can I vote for Clinton?” As I said, I’d have voted for it. I think I would be less disappointed in its shortcomings if I were thinking about it as something that I would be signing on to as a public expression, but I don’t mean for that to imply that I am only disappointed in its shortcomings even as an outside observer. It seems worth doing, and it seems done about as well as one could hope given all the limitations. Even if I were a participant, though, it would be hard for me to be very enthusiastic about it for the reasons I’ve given. Your quotation from the catechism is illustrative. Unlike some people who do not accept the Church’s teaching on this point, I think it is perfectly consistent and that holding homosexual inclinations to be intrinsically disordered is entirely compatible with being respectful, compassionate, and sensitive towards people with such inclinations (and even toward people who wholeheartedly embrace those inclinations, which is, notice, not exactly who the catechism is talking about). Thing is, almost none of the gay people I know are convinced by that. They might be happy to acknowledge that they know Catholics who believe this and are otherwise respectful, sensitive, nice people. They just think, not implausibly, that simply holding the view is a failure of respect and compassion. It’s not hard to see why someone might think: “oh, sure, you’re very nice to me and all, and I’m glad, but in your head you think my feelings for and my relationship with my partner are intrinsically bad; you think that this incredibly important part of who I am is a disorder; you know what? fuck you.” For all that the Felician faculty statement says, it doesn’t do anything to soothe that kind of worry, the worry that while the faculty is eager to say that they respect us and stand with us, their ideas of what respecting and standing with us amount to may not involve very much in the way of respecting us or standing with us.

            Again, this isn’t a critique of issuing the statement or of the way the statement is expressed. It’s a lament about the limitations of such statements. Rice issued a roughly similar statement shortly after the election, though it was put out by the president’s office, if I recall correctly. It suffers from the same limitations; it’s nice to know that the school doesn’t officially reject claims about the equal dignity of all people and so on, but it’s not clear that it makes any real difference to the things that people who are worried are actually worried about. It would be silly, as you say, to treat this as a reason for not issuing such a statement. While it might provide some grounds for issuing a different kind of statement, you’ve already said plenty about why this is the best that could get the necessary support, and in light of that these shortcomings don’t provide reasons to change the statement in one way or another. It’s not a critique of the action; it’s an expression of disappointment in the limitations that circumstances impose on the available actions. In terms of the Trump/Clinton analogy, it’s a complaint that we couldn’t do better than Hillary. I’m less sympathetic to that particular complaint than many people are, but it’s not an unreasonable complaint; it would be unreasonable to take it as a reason not to vote for her, but the fact that she was the best choice doesn’t mean that we ought to be happy that she was the best choice.

            I suppose one response to all of this might be to observe that to a great extent these limitations are going to affect not just any document written by a committee of people with divergent views, but any kind of speech at all. I can say as much as I want about respect and dignity for people and yet fall far short of showing that respect to people. That’s true and not unimportant. But even within the limits of speech, it’s hard not to wish that we could do better. That’s different than the unrealistic belief that we can and so should. But realism doesn’t need to be cheerful.

            Let’s just hope that the Trump/Clinton analogy breaks down somewhere before the part where she loses because people didn’t like her despite her obviously superior qualifications.

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          • As usual, we’re agreeing. I didn’t actually take you to be taking an attitude analogous to the “How can I vote for Clinton?” crowd; I was just making a separate observation about people who hold that type of view.

            As you might have surmised, I’m sympathetic to the gay view you describe in your comment, i.e., that simply upholding Catholic doctrine on homosexuality constitutes a failure of respect. Put it this way: a person who held the view defended in the Catechism on the basis of the reasons given in the Catechism really would be failing to respect gay people. The reasons given in the Catechism are pretty flimsy: you can’t legitimately declare someone “objectively disordered” for reasons like that. Arguably, the contemporary psychiatric profession is guilty of a similar sort of over-reach, but that bolsters my point rather than undermining it: just as we take issue with psychiatrists who over-medicalize mental illness (or, in some cases, sheer eccentricity), it’s legitimate to take issue with conservative Catholics who stigmatize (hard to think of what other word to use) the supposed “disorder” of being gay. One can be more or less respectful of gay people within the context of holding such views, but the view itself, in its standard form, really does seem disrespectful and irresponsible.

            In that respect, the Felician statement walks a bit of a tightrope for just the reasons you give. You’re right that it doesn’t address the “fuck you” worry at all. Honestly, if I were gay, my own thoughts would be probably just skip to “fuck you” part of the internal monologue, and dispense with the congenial preface that precedes it. (But we all know that I’m temperamental.)

            The funny thing is, my first inclination is to ask a gay student what he or she thinks of the statement–but I don’t think I know any. They’re not necessarily in the closet, but they don’t advertise their sexuality, either.

            Incidentally, I forgot to answer your initial question about whether anyone criticized the statement for lacking content. It depends on what version of the statement you’re referring to. The second sentence of the original version of the statement read:

            In keeping with the Franciscan mission and the Christian and humanistic values of this institution, the faculty of Felician University unequivocally stand for the equal and intrinsic moral value of all human beings, regardless of race, religion, culture and ethnic background, country of origin, and immigration status.

            The same sentence in the second version (the version that won the vote) said:

            In keeping with the Franciscan mission and the Christian and humanistic values of this institution, the faculty of Felician University unequivocally stand for the equal and intrinsic moral value of all human beings, regardless of race, religion, culture and ethnic background, country of origin, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.

            And a third version (which was voted down) said:

            In keeping with the Franciscan mission and the Christian and humanistic values of this institution, the faculty of Felician University unequivocally stand for the equal and intrinsic moral value of all human beings.

            The third version was criticized for its lack of content. The original version was criticized for its lack of inclusivity. The second version was criticized for being implicitly anti-Catholic.

            I get this sentiment, but have a different reaction than you:

            I suppose one response to all of this might be to observe that to a great extent these limitations are going to affect not just any document written by a committee of people with divergent views, but any kind of speech at all. I can say as much as I want about respect and dignity for people and yet fall far short of showing that respect to people. That’s true and not unimportant. But even within the limits of speech, it’s hard not to wish that we could do better. That’s different than the unrealistic belief that we can and so should. But realism doesn’t need to be cheerful.

            This will probably come out sounding terrible, but I guess I have more of a sense of equanimity about both sets of limits.

            We’re trying to put together a quasi-political statement that will soothe people’s fears without offending anyone and pass a vote of our peers at a Catholic institution. It’s a tall order, so one has to have modest expectations about it. Those modest expectations were met, so I’m satisfied rather than disappointed. I didn’t write the statement myself, but I thought that the colleague of mine who wrote it did a better job of it than I would have done. So I was happy to sign on. Am I disappointed that people balked at the inclusion of “sexual orientation”? Yeah. Do I wish it had been a barn-burning rant against Trump and the Republican Party? Yeah. Do I wish that we had a community of discourse at Felician (and generally in higher ed) more committed to polis-like deliberation on matters of moral concern? Yeah. But my New Year’s Resolution is to cultivate a Stoic sense of resignation to cheerful acceptance of life’s challenges.

            As for actually reaching the alienated, here is where it helps to distinguish the task of the educator from that of the therapist. Ultimately, if someone is black or gay or a woman or an undocumented immigrant, and really alienated from the social world in which they find themselves, what they really need is a therapist, not an educator. It’s not just that no statement will help them. Ultimately, no educator qua educator can give them what they need. Obviously, we all have an obligation to show proper respect. But that won’t be enough, and we know it won’t. We just have to accept the limits of our role and move on.

            I wish things were otherwise, but I don’t wish I could do better. At a certain point, I wash my hands of the problems of the world, and luxuriate, cheerfully, in the soothing waters of recrimination. The fact that things could be better is not my problem. It’s one of life’s pleasures, after all, to end a hard day’s work with the thought that it’s over and done with. As I learned at an early age.

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  2. Pingback: Statement of the Faculty of Felician University | Khawaja's Phil 250 Blog

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  4. Pingback: Felician University Statement on the Repeal of DACA | Policy of Truth

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