The University Cannot and Should Not Speak on Behalf of its Students and Professors About the Affirmative Action Ruling (OPINION)
Editor’s Note: This blog was written in response to our call for opinion pieces on the recent SCOTUS ruling on race-based college admissions at Harvard and UNC. You can read the ruling here.
Over the past few days, I have received several “statements” from my university in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on Affirmative Action: from the university president to campus associations claiming to speak on behalf of students and the campus community.
These emails begin with messages such as “We are greatly disappointed” and “We are disheartened.” While I have no problem with individuals voicing their opinion on these matters (and indeed welcome their perspective), I challenge the implication that these viewpoints represent the university and its community at large. “We,” as the students and educators of the university, are not a monolith and did not “elect” these members to speak for us.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in college admissions, we must remember that university administrators and others on campus in positions of authority should not speak as if their personal political statements represent the consensus of those within the university.
I would have less of a problem with such statements if they represented an honest effort to poll or otherwise quantify the prevailing sentiment of those at the university. However, even if most respondents agreed with a certain view, does this really give an individual the authority to say this view somehow “represents” the university as a whole?
"I challenge the notion that a university can offer or provide a singular viewpoint on a complicated and nuanced issue like the legality of Affirmative Action."
I challenge the notion that an institution or university can offer or provide a singular viewpoint on a complicated and nuanced issue like the legality of Affirmative Action, or anything similar. To claim the university offers such a view implies that it has a will that goes beyond (and can even override) the plurality of voices within.
The very idea that the university itself could in principle take a stand on political matters seems to me misguided — it erases the views of those who may disagree or dissent and implies accord where none may exist. I’d argue that the purpose of the university, and the guiding telos behind practices such as tenure, is to welcome and protect diverse and minority viewpoints, not speak over them. It is ironic that advancing a specific viewpoint in the name of diversity may itself obscure diverse views; some of which involve the nature of diversity itself.
I do not question the intentions of those who make these statements. Instead, I question the precedent such statements set and whether our students are encouraged to healthily disagree with them. I am concerned that those in positions of power at my university and others are overstepping their boundaries, unaware of the effect this has on the intellectual climate on campus.
Since there is no public consensus on Affirmative Action, why should we expect consensus from within the university, which is made up of members from the public. This isn’t limited to Affirmative Action either: on any issue where there is disagreement, we should expect a plurality of views. We come to a greater place of empathy and understanding by listening to these different views, not speaking over them or pretending they do not exist.
What unites me with my fellow faculty and students is not the extent to which we agree with each other, but the extent to which we disagree. I see such disagreement as an invitation to learn instead of a problem to be “solved.” By ignoring or downplaying disagreements, administrators arguably treat healthy dissent as problematic instead of the academic process running its course.
"Those in positions of authority would do well to remember their job is to represent us, not speak for or over us."
My suggestion is thus for administrators to continue to voice their opinions, but state they are speaking for themselves and not for the university and its members at large. As a courtesy, I would appreciate if they acknowledged that their colleagues, faculty, and students may disagree with them, and that such disagreement is not only okay, but welcomed, especially on campus.
While I understand that administrators need to make decisions on behalf of what they think is best for the university, I would argue that speaking in its place is not one of them. Those in positions of authority would do well to remember their job is to represent us, not speak for or over us. When someone claims the university “speaks” one way or another on a topic, my response is “it certainly doesn’t speak for me.” My fellow students, faculty, and I are more than capable of speaking for ourselves.
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