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An Open Letter to University Presidents, Provosts, and Governing Boards - The Feminist Wire

An Open Letter to University Presidents, Provosts, and Governing Boards

By Monica J. Casper and Adela C. Licona

In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.

To Toni Morrison’s prescient admonition we, with due respect, add academics and academic administrators. So, in times of dread, artists, academics, and administrators must never choose to remain silent. With this letter we mean not to be silent. We mean too, as Morrison notes, to “do language.” It is after all what we do. While many see Donald Trump’s executive agenda as an extension of increasingly visible right-wing extremism, his administration has quickly proven to be chaotic. Again, and still following Morrison, we mean to begin to gather wisdom that can come from chaos in order to practice an outloud response to the silences and exclusions this new presidency is imposing.

As a reminder, in the first week of power, Donald Trump issued an order to halt the flow of information to the public from government agencies. We are inspired by government workers and their supporters who pushed back, launching a cascade of twitter feeds that functioned as a refusal to be silent about administrative efforts to shut down scientific findings and facts about climate change and the anthropocene period we ushered in and in which we are living. Of course, there is no way to confirm if these are “real” accounts – that is, run by government employees in the shadows – but their existence suggests a robust war of information and a tactic of resistance.

Trump has repeatedly castigated certain outlets and journalists for unfavorable reporting, including The Washington Post which he referred to as “dishonest” and “inaccurate.” Since becoming President, he has ushered in an era of state control over the media, going so far as to handpick his preferred media outlet, Fox News. He continues to exercise tight control over the press through choreographed briefings, increasingly limited access, revocation of credentials, and outright bans.

There is little doubt, based on these moves and others, that Trump is working to establish authoritarian rule in the U.S. With his recent Executive Order banning Muslims from entering the United States, indicating a preference for Christian immigrants and refugees, Trump has signaled the collapse of separation between church and state.

Trump’s settler nationalist version of autocracy continues to be heteropatriarchal, avidly racist, deeply misogynist, relentlessly xenophobic, and gleefully homophobic. He and his inner circle are anti-planet and anti-humanity, and they embody every precept of white nationalism. Already Trump has violated the Constitution and fostered human rights abuses, and it is only week two.

While we are unsurprised by the silence of many in establishment politics, we are surprised by the silence on these matters from university leaders across the United States. As people nationwide take to the streets and airports, social media and the press, and the offices of their elected representatives, we ask where are our academic administrators, beyond tepid bureaucratic statements that, by and large, maintain the status quo of limited engagement in the political sphere? We are on the brink of, perhaps already in, a constitutional crisis. Where is the courage?

If Morrison is right, and we believe she is, then there is no better moment for the leaders of universities to speak out on issues relevant to our students’ lives and our educational mission: freedom of speech, academic freedom, religious freedom, the right to assemble, the right to a free press, LGBTQ rights, QTPOC rights, migrant rights, constitutional rights of all kinds, human rights violations, immigration, authoritarian rule, and more. Our students – even those who are undocumented and at immense risk – are not remaining silent, nor are many of us on the faculties of public and private institutions despite cautions from legal counsel that we not be political (sic).

But do our university leaders really expect us to be silent? Do academic administrators themselves really want to remain silent while those at greatest risk and those newly rendered vulnerable (the list grows each day) speak up and while an avowed white nationalist sexual predator seeks to undermine the tenets of higher education as well as the foundations of democracy? We cannot help but be reminded of theologian Martin Niemöller’s oft-quoted and widely circulating anti-Nazi statement. We cannot and will not be silent in the face of executive roundups and creeping fascism. Nor should our leaders.

In asking university administrators to speak out, we are asking that they reflect on the critical role of universities to make sense of and to intervene in the world, and especially in the vital messy politics of our time. We are asking that administrators – most of whom are highly paid and enjoy tremendous racial and gender privileges – see beyond carefully crafted public responses to broader external challenges, and act with courage even if it means threats to their job security. (Former acting attorney general Sally Yates knows something about this kind of valor.)

The role of universities has long been to foster curiosity and inquiry, free and critical thinking, free speech and expression, and also dissent. It is to teach students about the responsibilities and privileges of living in a diverse and constantly evolving democracy, and to encourage a lifelong commitment to learning about and intervening in the world. It is to teach facts alongside tools for interpreting and measuring the truthfulness of those facts. It is to encourage our students and each other to ask hard questions and take ethical positions on matters of grave consequence, such as democracy, borders, histories, knowledges, and the value of human lives and of the earth.

Not only is the future of higher education at stake in this current political moment. So too are the lives and livelihoods of many of our students, including those most at risk from Trump’s discriminatory and likely unconstitutional executive orders. These include undocumented students, queer students, international students, Muslim students, students with disabilities, and others. To be very clear: many people will suffer and die as a result of Trump’s malignant policies.

Academics and administrators, listen to your students and those being made vulnerable on our campuses and home communities. Be responsive to their immediate and long-term needs. Be prepared to continue to teach those whose education may be interrupted by bans, detentions, or deportations. Maintain tuition levels even if students must access classes from out of state. Think of ways to meet the needs of students from mixed-status families whose housing and food needs may shift dramatically in the coming days. Speak against climate change deniers. Speak and act against xenophobic and racist executive orders. Keep student, faculty, and staff records confidential. Keep ICE and Border Patrol off campuses. Teach, and support those who teach, about autocracy, fascism, settler colonialism, climate change, rights, justice, and dissent. Set up and support legal clinics on your campuses. Teach threatened knowledges. Vigorously defend and practice freedom of speech.

In the face of chaos in the White House and a swiftly changing political landscape, we understand there may be genuine fear and confusion about the best way to support students, staff, and faculty. Concerns about retaliation are legitimate, especially in states like Arizona that are generally hostile to public education. We also recognize that universities are organizations with corporatized structures, stakeholders, reputations, and profits — these attributes may work against commitments to social justice. Yet they are still institutions of higher learning and, while we can, we should continue to treat them as such.

We are reaching out now, inspired by Juana María Rodríguez, as we, too, believe “in virtual connections, touching through text.” We write this open letter as multiply-situated tenured feminist scholars with the relative privilege to speak. We fully understand that not every scholar and teacher or even university administrator can refuse silence, given academic hierarchies, contingent and precarious status, and fears of retribution. We make no claim to speak on behalf of others here, but we do hope our words can help to break open institutional silences fostered by this current state of emergency. We ask you to let this text “hum in your hands” and to do what you can to speak up and act. Now.

In solidarity,

Monica J. Casper and Adela C. Licona

#BridgesNotWalls #NoBanNoWall #NoRegistry #EducatorsForandWithUndocumentedStudents_Staff_Families #SayHerName #BLM #NativeLivesMatter #NoDAPL #TransLivesMatter #ReproductiveJustice #ClimateChangeIsReal #NoAlternativeFacts #FreedomofExpression …

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Monica J. Casper
is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Inclusion in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Public Health at the University of Arizona. She is also an affiliated faculty member in the School of Sociology and in Africana Studies. She has published several books, including the award-winning The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery; The Body: Social and Cultural Dissections; and Critical Trauma Studies: Understanding Violence, Conflict, and Memory in Everyday Life. She is founding co-editor with Lisa Jean Moore of the NYU Press book series “Biopolitics: Medicine, Technoscience, and Health in the 21st Century,” as well as managing co-editor of The Feminist Wire and editor/publisher of TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism. Her creative writing has appeared in Mojave River Review, Slow Trains, Vine Leaves, The Linnet’s Wings, Moonsick Magazine, and elsewhere. Born and raised in the Midwest, she lives in Tucson with her partner, teenage daughters, two canine persons, and a very sweet geriatric rat. More information can be found at www.monicajcasper.com.

Adela C. Licona is Interim Director of the University of Arizona’s Institute for LGBT Studies, Associate Professor of English, Associate Chair of the GIDP in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory, and affiliated faculty in Gender and Women’s Studies, Family Studies and Human Development, Institute of the Environment, and Mexican American Studies. Her research and teaching interests include cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies, race, critical youth studies, non/dominant rhetorics, community literacies, action-oriented research, borderlands studies, space and visual culture, social justice media, environmental justice, and feminist pedagogy.

She has published in such journals as Antipode, Transformations, Journal of Latino-Latin American Studies, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and Critical Studies in Media Communication. Additionally, she has co-published a number of community research briefs with community educator-activists, youth, and graduate students. These policy-relevant briefs have circulated beyond the university across local communities. Adela is co-editor of Feminist Pedagogy: Looking Back to Move Forward (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and author of Zines In Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2012).

Adela has served as the co-director of the Crossroads Collaborative, a Ford Foundation-funded think-and-act research, writing, and teaching collective designed for action-oriented research on youth, sexuality, health, rights, and justice. Together with graduate students, she is co-founder of Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric, FARR, a group of progressive feminist scholars committed to public scholarship and community dialogue. She was the 2015 and 2016 Co-Chair of the National Women’s Studies Association, NWSA, Conference and is a member of the NWSA Governing Council. She is Editor Emeritus of Feminist Formations, and she serves on the advisory/editorial boards for Women’s Studies in Communication, QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, a project of Spoken Futures.