See Clearly, Decide Wisely, Act Justly

An Open Letter to the Converse College Community

Jeffrey J. Poelvoorde

Editor's Note: This open letter was written by Jeffrey J. Poelvoorde, an associate professor of history and politics at Converse College. It is written in response to the administration's decision to make all those employed by the college watch a series of videos on systemic racism acquired by the college's department of "diversity and inclusion." 

To the Board of Trustees and Administration, Faculty and Staff, Present and Former Students of Converse College and to the Public beyond the College:

On June 2, 3 and 5, 2020, President Newkirk, Provost Barker and Chair of the Converse College Board of Visitors, Phyllis Perrin Harris, respectively, issued passionate and anguished statements following the killing of George Floyd and laid out a series of measures to demonstrate the College’s seriousness in addressing the existence of racism and racial bigotry here and in the nation. Among those measures, they included the mandatory viewing of several videos that purport to address the issues of sensitivity, bias, prejudice, diversity and inclusion. My purpose in addressing the members of the College community is to inform them (you) that I cannot and will not comply with this mandate and to explain to them (you) the reasons for my decision.

When I viewed the video of Mr. Floyd’s sickening death, I, like all Americans of goodwill, was horrified. But as the days and weeks unfolded, and the ensuing protests were accompanied and overwhelmed by atrocity, mayhem, rioting, looting, and yet more murder, I was still more horrified by the images unfolding in my country as they increasingly came to resemble what Jews have always called “pogroms.” I was horrified, too, by the apparent indifference and very encouragement of the chaos by politicians, journalists, celebrities, and, yes, the leadership of the academic world, even as the violence consumed the lives and livelihoods of scores of African-American communities and their inhabitants.

One thing that we heard during this time was “silence is complicity.” This phrase was invoked in order to lay blame on those who, consciously or unconsciously, enabled “systemic racism” to exist in our police departments and in the life and institutions of the nation at large by refusing to acknowledge and denounce it.

Evidently responding to the need to denounce racism rather than be complicit in it, President Newkirk’s, Provost Barker’s and Chairperson Harris’s statements contained angry condemnations of Mr. Floyd’s and others’ killings by the police. They pledged to address, individually and collectively, inside the College and outside it, the “systemic racism” which they perceive and to craft measures to eliminate it, including, of course, the coercive mandate with which I take issue.

Yet, all of their statements are strangely silent on the horrors that engulfed and continue to engulf innumerable African-American communities and the scores of American cities that lay in ruins after the violence and chaos took their toll. They expressed anguish over the loss of Mr. Floyd’s life...but not a word over the murder of David Dorn, the former police captain in St. Louis who perished at the hands of looters.

Our leaders profess that “Black Lives Matter.” But is it ALL Black Lives or only SOME Black Lives that matter to them? Perhaps they are only concerned about the loss of the Black Lives that confirms their political narrative and supports their progressive ideology. Perhaps Black Lives...but not Black Livelihoods...matter to them. (JimBob, The Washington Examiner, 6/09/2020, p. 9)

Were their urgent declamations merely panicked virtue-signaling to themselves, the College Community, and the outside world? (Peter Wood, “The Mandatory Banality of University Presidents, NAS, 06/02/2020) Or were they genuinely anguished and sincere proclamations, grounded in real moral outrage, aimed at “systemic racism?” I do not know and cannot and will not judge.

Am I and are my colleagues at Converse in need of additional training in order to overcome unconscious bias and prejudice? Perhaps. I shall address the existence of systemic prejudice at Converse College below. Would the watching of the videos that our leadership has mandated harm me? Would I benefit from them? Certainly, the answer to the former question is no and to the latter possibly. My quarrel is not so much with the content of the materials the administration would impose upon us but rather the coercive imposition itself.

As an aside, I must admit that I am already quite familiar with the videos in question and the other materials produced by the company employed by our “Office of Diversity and Inclusion.” They are at worst inoffensive and at best anodyne. But the administration must be either naive or disingenuous to deny that there is an ideological content and substructure to this material. Does the urge to impose upon us this material derive from a sincere desire to free the College and its members from bigotry...or from a felt need on the part of our leadership (and throughout the academic world) to impose an ideological conformity which masks itself as an embrace of “diversity?” (See Barton Swaim, “‘On Diversity’ Review: Conformity Rebranded,” WSJ, 6/10/20). Again, I do not know and cannot and will not judge.

As a kind of preface to my explanation of my refusal to comply with the Administration’s diktat, let me remind you of several unpleasant facts from Jewish history. Even though Paul in Romans teaches that liberty is perhaps the most precious effluent of faith in the Resurrected Christ and even though Muhammad warns in the Qur’an that there must be no compulsion in religion, Jews repeatedly during the last two millennia were subject to horrific persecution at the hands of Christian and Muslim authorities. In particular, from 1100 to 1500 in Christian lands, Jews were compelled to engage in forced disputations in order to demonstrate to them the falseness of the Jewish religion. The Rabbis and Jewish leaders who were engaged in these “debates” did not respond with violence or vandalism, but rather summoned dignity and firmness in the rational defense of their faith, often at the risk of and actual suffering of torture, imprisonment or public shaming for themselves and the imposition of civil penalties, expulsion or extermination for their communities. Simultaneously free and unfree, these courageous individuals shine as examples of the power of the free mind to overcome the deprivation of freedom, of the power of the human spirit to triumph over coercion. (See The Disputation by Nachmanides, Faith Strengthened by Isaak Troki). I hope to follow their example.

Is there “systemic” racism at Converse College? Is there “systemic” anti-Semitism at Converse College? For most of my thirty-four years at Converse, I have been its only Jew–certainly its only orthodox Jew. A year after I arrived in 1986, one of my colleagues in the Religion Department asked me to conduct a model Seder for her class, which I was happy to do. She invited a reporter from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the paper subsequently published an account of the Seder with information about me and my background.

I received shortly afterward a prompt and enthusiastic letter from the Ku Klux Klan of the Upstate questioning the appropriateness of my teaching at the College (attached). I was gratified and encouraged by the shock and horror of my colleagues here regarding this ironic display of Southern Hospitality. I realized that I made a mistake in reading the letter to my mother who lives in my home state of Illinois when she gasped and whispered: “Jeff, you’ve got to get out of South Carolina!” Well, I didn’t; I stayed put and allowed my life to unfold here.

As Converse’s only traditional Jew, I have often played the role of informal Faculty Adviser to Converse’s Jewish students. Over the years I heard many tales of non-Jewish students constantly berating our Jewish students for not believing in Jesus or demanding of them to display their “horns.” (Talk to Michelangelo about that one.) As the Faculty Adviser for many years of Converse College’s Association of African-American Students, I listened to many of our Black students pouring their hearts out to me about the abuse and prejudice they faced from many of our White students. I counseled them to summon patience and to bear with the occasional departures of the College’s inhabitants from the College’s ideals.

I did this in the conviction that the best way to enable our students to overcome the challenges of religious and racial bigotry was to provide for them a genuine and rigorous liberal education which would equip them with the intellectual depth and spiritual fortitude to follow the lead of Booker T. Washington. As paraphrased by my great professor Herbert J. Storing, Washington–and all the other great minds that constitute the canon of liberal learning–could teach our students that “dignity and self-respect are not within the gift of any man or any law and to deny that a man consists of his psychological reactions to the psychological prejudices of those around him [or her–JP].” (Storing, “Booker T. Washington and the School of Slavery” in A More Perfect Union, pp. 204-205)

For many of my years at Converse, I have been the constant recipient of criticism and disparagement from fellow faculty and even administrators regarding my adherence to traditional Judaism. I have frequently been accused of being unprofessional or lacking in commitment to the College or in devotion to my students because of canceling or rescheduling classes that conflicted with Jewish holidays or because of non-participation in admissions events or ceremonies, such as graduation, that occurred on the Sabbath. Once, when I was falsely suspected of failing to submit my senior grades on time because of observing the festival of Pentecost, one of the College’s administrators remarked–not to me but concerning me and reliably reported to me on the following day–that: “We are under no obligation to respect that man’s religion.” I was furious. But I did not react with threats of hurling bricks through the College’s windows or torching its buildings or even employing legal action against it–a recourse available to me as an American that was not available to my Jewish predecessors. Indeed, under my department chair’s ministrations, and because of the respect, even affection, I bore towards the parties involved, I let go of my anger and maintained my silence.

One might have thought that providing students the opportunity to behold an orthodox Jewish professor laying out a careful, attentive, respectful and even loving, exposition of the New Testament or the Qur’an might itself constitute the very embodiment of the Founder’s embrace of a “truly tolerant and liberal Christianity.” (One of my students once remarked in a course evaluation: “I just wish my pastor could preach Jesus as good [sic] as you!”) One might have concluded that such an experience might outweigh the occasional inconvenience of a missed class or admissions event and perhaps constitute an experience of “diversity and inclusion” that would outweigh the watching of a hundred videos touting diversity and inclusion. But, evidently, some faculty and some administrators do not agree.

I am also a Republican and a political conservative. I will not rehearse here the utter lack of intellectual and ideological diversity and the distressing intolerance of conservatives that tend to predominate in the American academic universe and to some degree at Converse. Here is a brief example from my experience: After the unfortunate death from cancer of one of our esteemed colleagues in the English Department, Karen Carmean (OBM), who taught film, I conceived of a fitting memorial to her which would also enhance the College’s culture, the “Carmean Film Series.” The idea was that several times a year, one of our faculty (but also staff and administrators) would present a favorite film and lead a discussion of it. I worked very hard to bring this idea to fruition and, indeed, supervised the series for five years. At the inaugural reception and first film, several faculty and administrators rose and urged me--publicly-- not to allow my political beliefs to mar Karen’s memory or the integrity of the series. I felt hurt, angry, unappreciated, and humiliated but said nothing lest the jocularity of the event is overturned. I am absolutely certain that, had I been a progressive or a Democrat, no such comments would have been uttered–or tolerated. I challenge anyone to examine the films presented over the life of the series to see if a political or ideological bias was evident. Again, where was Converse’s embrace of “diversity and inclusion?”

Converse College, like the American nation around it, is an imperfect entity, as must any entity engendered by the broken and corrupt human heart be. Converse (and America) may contain dark and ugly elements that frustrate the attainment of our highest ideals. But in life, we must never confront our lowest by abandoning our highest.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what the leadership of Converse College has done by imposing this coercive mandate and embracing an expedient to address the problem of racism that departs from the essential nature of a liberal arts institution. The administration has simultaneously invoked–and abandoned–the Founder’s ideals. How? By employing one of the ideals in abstraction from the other two. Dexter Edgar Converse hoped to create an institution that would encourage its members to “see clearly, decide wisely and act justly.” I have always loved those words because in my mind they encapsulated perfectly the meaning of a liberal education. But “liberal” derives from “liberty.” The enlightened mind cannot emerge, cannot escape from ignorance and prejudice, without freedom of thought. No clarity or wisdom. Without clarity and wisdom, justice degenerates into self-righteousness, intolerance, and moral indignation. As the political philosopher Leo Strauss reminds us: “Indignation is a bad counselor. Our indignation proves at best that we are well-meaning. It does not prove that we are right.” (Natural Right and History, p. 6) I do not dispute that the leadership of Converse College is well-meaning in its attempts to extirpate bigotry. But those attempts must occur within the framework of a liberal education, guided by an essential respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual to think and learn on his or her own. I do not tell President Newkirk or Provost Barker what to read or watch or think. I demand the same respect from them.

What am I recommending? By all means, let the leaders of Converse College continue to address the problems of racial bigotry according to their lights. Let them express their opinions on these grave matters and let them encourage the members of the College community to engage in debates and discussions based upon materials that our leaders recommend, even urge. And,

G-d willing, let them see beyond ideology and embrace the complexity and diversity of opinions and interpretations that these events require. And, finally, let them check their coercive impulses at the front gate of the College.

The Administration has not specified how it will enforce its mandate. Will it prohibit me from assuming my teaching duties? Will it ban me from Converse’s administrative structures or its public ceremonies? Will it bar my access to the internal means of communication of the College? Will it attach a reprimand to my professional record? Will it lower or cut off my salary? Will it terminate my position? Whatever comes, I believe that I have done the proper and correct thing by refusing to comply with this coercive mandate and by sharing with you the reasons for my decision. I have tried to follow the example of my Jewish predecessors by meeting coercion with dignity and firmness.

With all its imperfections, I still love the College. I have enjoyed here a long and good life, both professionally and personally. Although my nearly four decades at Converse have sometimes seen controversy and turbulence, most of my time here has been characterized by the joy and excitement of pursuing the life of the mind through free inquiry, scholarship and teaching.

Converse College stands poised at present to transform itself into something other than what it has been. I hope and pray that what will engineer that transformation is merely a change of name, the addition of a few graduate programs and the admission of men to the undergraduate student body–and not the abandonment by the College of its soul.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

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