At the University of Rochester, bake sales are meant to raise not money, but awareness.
At least that’s what members of the UR College Republicans say about their recent Affirmative Action Bake Sale, held on March 19. Inspired by an ongoing series of similar events at other schools, the CRs peddled the usual treats, but employed an unusual pricing system: one determined not by the product, but by the buyer–and, more specifically, the buyer’s race.
Asian males looking to snag a package of Oreos had to pony up $1.50. White males? $1. Black students lucked out–only 50¢. For Native Americans (with proof of tribal affiliation, naturally), cookies were free.
At the bottom of the price list, the CRs wrote, “Our Goal: $1 For All.”
This witty protest–meant to question prevailing liberal doctrine about race and affirmative action–proved too much for certain members of the UR community. Not for students in ethnic clubs, mind you–not for students at all, actually. Thirty-five faculty members–in an effort spearheaded by James Johnson, associate professor of political science–insisted that the College Republicans be punished just for staging the sale.
The professors wrote to UR president Thomas Jackson: “The students involved clearly have a right to think and say what they want. But words have consequences and those who exercise their right to free expression bear a correlative responsibility for the views they express. In this instance the students who participated in this activity ought to be told quite clearly that their views are bigoted, intolerant, and patronizing.”
In other words, students have the right to say what they want–unless what they say is disagreeable to certain professors, and in that case, they should be formally disciplined.
To the College Republicans, the histrionics over the bake sale seemed ridiculous. (Small wonder: The professors even condemned the CRs’ decision to sell Oreos and Moon Pies–offensive presumably because they’re black and white–even though ten different types of common pre-packaged cookies were offered.) Clarence Hardy, a member of the CRs, dismissed the professors’ hypersensitivity: “As a black person, if I felt in any way it was a racist decision, I would have put a stop to it.” He added, “These professors completely misinterpreted what we were trying to do.”
At least the students didn’t. CR chairman Noah Lebowitz reported, “Those who came up to our table were intrigued, not offended. They wanted to discuss affirmative action with us, and to debate it–and that was the goal of the event.”
The CRs probably know better than the 35 professors whether their event was “bigoted” or created a “hostile environment.” According to Hardy and Lebowitz, the group is diverse. “We have many women, many minorities–Hispanic students, Asian students, a black student, a quadriplegic student. All of these people were in favor of the affirmative action bake sale.” (James Johnson, by the way, is a white male.)
Fortunately for the College Republicans–and UR’s institutional integrity–President Jackson denied Johnson’s punitive demands. But gratifying though this response may have been, the College Republicans have not let the matter drop. For them, there is too much at stake.
First, they are concerned by how Johnson’s complaint was written and circulated–furtively, to avoid discovery by the students it sought to punish. Indeed, Lebowitz said he only learned of the letter in the first place because another professor read it aloud in one of his classes.
“I was surprised,” Lebowitz said. “The letter used incendiary language to demean us just for expressing our views. I was shocked and alarmed, as I knew it was a very serious issue–more than just a couple of faculty members expressing an opinion.”
The letter was, he noted, also in violation of the university’s “Statement of Communal Principles,” which stipulates, “To uphold…freedom of expression and action in the public arena, each person has the responsibility to own his or her ideas and actions…This means that ideas and actions are neither anonymous nor isolated” (emphasis added).
Upset by the disregard for these principles, Lebowitz tried to obtain a copy of the letter, to find out who had signed it. His mission proved frustratingly difficult: Johnson and another professor kept the letter’s contents from Lebowitz, and refused to provide the names of any of the other signatories. Lebowitz ultimately got the letter from Jackson’s assistant, along with the president’s response. But on the matter of the 34 anonymous signatories, Jackson’s office wouldn’t budge.
This illuminated the crux of the CRs’ dilemma. Thirty-four faculty members–quite possibly their professors–thought them “bigoted, intolerant, and patronizing,” and wanted the administration to punish them for it. And the CRs had no way of finding out who they were.
“The response from several people was that they felt intimidated by the letter, and the faculty members who’d called them bigots,” Lebowitz said of his fellow CRs. “They felt that if the administration didn’t take disciplinary action against us, these professors would on their own, when it came to grading.”
Clarence Hardy knows that one of his professors signed Johnson’s letter, and has secured an oral assurance that she will not punish his views through his grades. In this, he is lucky. But, Hardy adds, “I’m still concerned about my academics,” because of the likelihood that the 34 anonymous signatories are concentrated in his major field of study–political science (Johnson’s department). “A lot of the College Republicans are political-science majors,” he notes, “about half. It leaves me feeling really uncomfortable about the whole thing.”
Lebowitz and the other CRs remain uncomfortable, too–which is why they’re seeking official administrative protection. They have been ignored thus far by the administration, and so plan to bring formal harassment charges in the fall–accompanied by a campaign for an official UR academic bill of rights.
In the meantime, however, Johnson has only stepped up his intimidation. In an open letter to the university community, Johnson reiterates his concern that “the ‘Bake Sale’ was designed to question the presence on our campus of individual students who, by virtue of their gender, racial and/or ethnic identities, the College Republicans assume have no rightful place at the University.” (If Johnson–or any of the original letter’s signatories–had actually attended the bake sale, perhaps the sight of women and ethnic minorities among the College Republicans themselves would have quieted their fears.)
According to Lebowitz, Johnson’s latest missive was distributed in political-science classes as professors announced their general support for its message.
While the faculty seem to stack more and more against the College Republicans, their fellow students–whether they agree with the group’s stance on affirmative action or not–at least support their right to have held the bake sale. Lebowitz and Hardy say that several left-leaning student organizations and publications have condemned Johnson’s efforts. Lebowitz observes that “on most issues, student debate is fruitful and structured. The students here are being more mature than the faculty.” (Johnson has, incidentally, declined the CRs’ offers to participate in moderated public discussions of affirmative action; he also refused to comment to NRO.)
In his open letter, Johnson wrote that the bake sale was “a direct, calculated attack” on everyone “who is committed to free inquiry and expression under necessary conditions of inclusiveness and diversity. The College Republicans desperately hope to undermine those conditions. I invite you to join me in deflating their hopes. Speak out for diversity. Defend inclusiveness. Decry bigotry and intolerance. Do so publicly.”
In defending their right to voice opinions unpopular with the University of Rochester’s liberal faculty, that’s exactly what the CRs are doing. Instead of harassing them, shouldn’t Johnson and his groupies be applauding them?
–Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.