Politics & Policy

The Price of Protection

Toe the administration's line at Holy Cross, or else.

Holy Cross College is a premier American institution of higher learning. It has an outstanding faculty and highly motivated student body. Unfortunately, over the last two years, the college has suffered from the effort of a determinedly partisan administration to stifle open debate on campus. The culmination of the administration’s endeavor in this direction — which has included attempting to close down the college’s alternative conservative student newspaper, the Fenwick Review; and the removal by the president, Michael McFarland, S.J., of the faculty adviser (me) to the college’s public-affairs lecture committee on the ground that the committee had been inviting too many Republicans — was a systematic effort to uproot from the campus the so-called “climate of hate,” understood as any mockery of the college’s “diversity” (i.e., race- and ethnicity-based) programming, or of the gay-rights agenda. Alarmingly, the campaign appears to have inspired at least one student towards an act of arson. Near the end of the 2005-06 academic year, during which the “Hate Not Here” campaign reached its peak, some (unidentified) student set fire during the night to a copy of the Fenwick Review outside the dormitory door of the Review’s editor, Shawn Sheehy.

Remarkably — particularly in view of the fatal dormitory arson at a sister Jesuit institution, Seton Hall University, some three years ago — the college’s administration has displayed a thorough equanimity, even a nonchalance, about the arson. Although college president McFarland routinely sends out blast e-mails to students denouncing “hate” whenever a naughty anti-gay word is found scrawled on a dormitory wall, and even e-mailed the campus to denounce students for “embarrassing” that supposed hero of the civil-rights movement, Jesse Jackson, when he spoke on campus a couple of years ago (by publicly asking Jackson about his embezzlement of funds from his foundation to support his mistress and illegitimate child), the president has issued no public statement at all, let alone a blast e-mail, warning students that arson is a terrible crime and will not be tolerated.

Instead, when pressed by Shawn Sheehy (now an alumnus) to issue such a message, the president offered a combination of patronizing dismissal and unabashed partisanship. After initially denying (then retracting the denial in response to Sheehy’s challenge) that the college’s public safety office had discovered evidence of the arson, McFarland still denied that there was any evidence that the arson was an instance of harassment of the student / editor for his political views — even though the arsonist had used a copy of the Fenwick Review as his incendiary device. Here are the relevant parts of McFarland’s reply to Sheehy (with a couple of key passages boldfaced):

Whether this incident was a response to your political views is a matter of speculation. Many students and faculty have expressed quite conservative views without receiving any threatening response. It is just as likely, if not more so, that the incident was a response to some of the very personal attacks on individuals and groups that appeared in the Fenwick Review last year. If that is true, it still does not justify what happened. No one should be subject to harassment or threats for any reason. Nevertheless, it would not be accurate to say you were harassed for your ideas or political views. One can, I think, be a conservative without demeaning other people.

Two aspects of this statement bear emphasis:

1. McFarland doubts that the arson was “a response to [Sheehy’s] views” since other students and faculty who “expressed conservative views” did not receive any threats. By this reasoning, no threat or act of violence directed against a student who had been denounced for expressing “politically incorrect” views should be regarded as an attempt to deter the expression of such views unless every single individual on campus who expressed such views had been targeted by threats — or worse. It is unimaginable that McFarland would offer the same argument had the object of arson or threats been a gay or “minority” student, with the fuel being some publication associated with gay or minority causes.

2. McFarland offers a puzzling distinction between harassing or threatening a student on account of his “personal [verbal] attacks” and doing so on account of his “ideas or political views.”

Although Fr. McFarland does not identify the sort of “personal attacks” he had in mind, one item undoubtedly stood out as the most “hateful” thing the Fenwick Review had done. During the 2004-05 academic year, Holy Cross’s gay-activist organization was selling T-shirts featuring stick-figure drawings of three couples: a man and a woman, a man and a man, and two women — supplemented by the motto “fine by me.” In other words: I’m a tolerant person who agrees that “gay marriage” is just as “fine” as “traditional” marriage. In response, the Review’s editorial page reprinted the three stick-figure couples and the caption but added one more pair: a man with his pet sheep. As the Review quite rightly was suggesting, once we claim the right (or duty?) to redefine marriage — understood throughout recorded history as a legal relationship between members of the two sexes — so as to encompass same-sex relationships, why not go further and sanction “marriage” between a man and his pet sheep or goldfish (or pet rock)?

That is what Holy Cross’s president evidently regards as an unacceptable “personal attack” that falls short of meriting even the term “political ideas.” Through the ages, satire has been recognized as a legitimate form of political discourse. Nor is it at all obvious why making fun of the oxymoronic “gay marriage” constitutes a “personal” attack on homosexuals — unless one accepts the claim that depriving homosexuals of any privilege they demand constitutes unjust personal discrimination rather than legitimate political disagreement. But from the perspective of President McFarland, gay rights are much too serious (or sacred?) a matter to allow them to be satirized.

There is simply not space to consider here the numerous implications of McFarland’s letter, revealing and lamentable though they are. It will have to suffice to quote and put in context the remarkable closing paragraph, in which he responds to Shawn Sheehy’s trenchant observation that it would be “strange” for the college “to zealously pursue students who write heinous words and not pursue students who commit heinous actions” such as arson (again, I have added boldface for emphasis):

The “Hate Not Here” protocol was introduced specifically to protect groups who are vulnerable and regularly subject to harassment and prejudice. Because of their marginal status in society and the history of disrespect and mistreatment they have suffered, they are seen as needing an extra level of protection and support in order to have the same opportunities to flourish as other members of the community. I understand that not everyone agrees with that, but that is the rationale for the program. In any event, conservatives are not seen as particularly vulnerable or in need of the extra support and protection. Neither are liberals or other groups that represent large and powerful parts of society.

In other words, in response to Sheehy’s contention that a college committed to liberal education should offer no less protection to those who express what the college administration (albeit not the Catholic Church) regards as heterodox views on matters of sex and marriage, or who challenge the college’s PC race-based programming, than it does to other “minorities,” McFarland responds that conservatives or other dissenters from the college’s orthodoxies simply are not entitled to the special concern afforded to those who allegedly suffer from a “marginal status.”

Tell that one to Mia Martinez, Holy Cross ’08. Because of her Spanish surname, Mia qualifies as an officially defined “minority” student — hence deserving (according to McFarland) of more protection than your average, “privileged” student. But after Mia wrote a column last spring for Holy Cross’s official student newspaper, the Crusader, criticizing the college’s pre-freshman program for minority students as engendering self-segregation on the part of those students once classes began (since entering students at a college far from home naturally tend to stick to the friends they have already made), she was ordered to appear at the office of one of the college’s numerous “diversity” administrators, where she received an hour-long, and quite nasty, tongue-lashing (precisely the sort of “personal” attack that the president wrongly accused Shawn Sheehy of engaging in). And when Mia subsequently published another Crusader column reporting, and objecting to, the treatment she had received from the administrator, he then threatened (in writing) to sue her for libel. (A couple of calls to the college counsel ended that threat, though McFarland never apologized for it.)

So Holy Cross does not really aim even to provide special “protection” to members of socially “marginal” groups on campus — assuming that that term means members of racial and ethnic “minorities” or even gays. It will offer you protection against abuse, and denounce threats issued against your personal safety on account of the views you express, only if you agree with the College’s officially sanctioned policies and programs. If not, better fend for yourself.

David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at Holy Cross College and author of Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition.

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