What’s On The Menu?

February 26, 2024

Who knew that deli sandwiches could generate so much controversy?  I’m not talking about the regional hoagie v. sub v. grinder, or the ever present debate on mayo-mustard-olive oil.  The controversy in question was not really about food at all, although a Black History Month menu from Dining Services triggered the difficult, fascinating, honest discussion of racial and ethnic cultural mis-appropriation, stereotypes, microaggressions and respect for those who work hard to nourish the rest of us.  I put the controversy on the agenda for last week’s Campus Conversations and the discussion was honest, courageous, and, for some, vexing.

At a time when Black history is being eradicated by governors and state legislatures all over the country, we should work harder to get it right at Trinity.  I wanted to have the discussion on Campus Conversations so that we could lift up our concerns, differences of opinion, and issues that sometime stay repressed when we have to be more open about them.  We have an obligation to live our mission in social justice honestly and authentically, and when a concern arises about racial equity and justice, we need to address it.

Jumping to the end, what I heard loud and clear is that we should be more intentional, authentic and pro-active about providing a context for any and all activities we promote for Black History Month or any and all of the other “Month” observances — Women’s History, Hispanic Heritage, LGBTQ+, and others.  Going forward, I would like to invite members of the campus community to engage in processes to plan the programs, menus, communications and all relevant dimensions of such observances.

Back to the beginning.  While I don’t want to re-ignite the controversy, this image of the menu is important for the subsequent discussion:

While the Deli Sandwiches are clearly out of place — Director of Dining Services Gilles Syglowski later explained that the sandwiches are part of the regular weekly menu and probably should not have appeared on this “special” menu — the rest of the menu appeared as delicious and even ambitious.  Chef Renee Fitzgerald created the menu based on her own experience with Southern and Black cuisine, and she is proud of her work.  We are all very grateful to Chef Renee and her team in the kitchen for their hard work every single day!

As the conversation unfolded during Campus Conversations, it became clear that the controversy was not really about the food at all — students in particular commented about how much they enjoyed it — but rather, about how we tell the story, who has the right and responsibility to tell the story, what is the story we are trying to tell and what racial/ethnic/cultural symbols and experiences do we use to “celebrate” or observe a heritage that is rife with pain and suffering and pride and triumph.

The menu was not really the problem at all, but rather, we failed to tell the story about what the menu represented.  We failed to be good teachers in a moment that cries out for courageous instruction.  We did not educate our students and campus community about the importance and symbolism of food as a vital dimension of the Black community’s response to centuries of oppression.  We missed a “teachable moment” but created another one that is even more valuable in the long run.

Annette Coram, executive director of Conference Services, sent out the menu on behalf of Metz Dining Services and she was stunned by some of the criticism that ensued.  Annette gave a statement during Campus Conversations that was excellent —- the missing context for the menu!  With her permission, I am sharing her statement here because it is a powerful explanation of the menu, and a great example of how we should be more intentional and authentic as we plan our future heritage observances:

Statement of Annette Coram on the Black History Month Menu

Good afternoon- I am Annette Coram, author of said email about the Black History menu offered by Metz dining services.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add my comments to this upsetting and troubling discussion.

I have to start out by saying I am both disappointed and confused at the response to the email about a Black History Month Menu.

For those unaware, the menu shared with all Trinity was curated by our dining hall chef, Renee Fitzgerald—an African American native from North Carolina who was raised in Washington, DC. The menu presented featured food offerings such as Ribs, Potato Salad, Green Beans & Yams, Meatloaf, Mashed Potatoes Gravy & Sweet Peas, Roast Beef, Wild Rice, Roasted Carrots & Cabbage Beef Ribs, Collard Greens  Potato Salad  & Corn Bread—types of food that would be termed traditional Soul food.

Now, I know we have many educated people on this call so I will not delve into how one creates and illustrates culture but let it suffice to say culture is universally experienced through a people’s customs, clothing, housing, —and food.

Food is a HUGE part of black culture because it demonstrates not only our experience in this country but illustrates our ingenuity in creating wonderful cuisine often from the scraps the colonizers left for trash.

And because of this, soul food is ensconced in culture for African Americans.  We—residents of the DMV–see this most vividly displayed at the National Museum for African American History and Culture.  This month the museum is celebrating BH month with Michelin reviewed chefs bringing their talents to the museum.  In speaking about the 1st visiting chef of the month, the website says – in the sweet home café, Enjoy delicious dishes such as BBQ Ribs with Rhubarb Chow Chow, Grandpop’s Meatloaf Sandwich with Caramelized Onion Relish, and Crispy Cornmeal Catfish with Hot Pepper Lemon Butter—again soul food.

The Metz menu presented was not listed as a culmination of all of what African Americans have accomplished.  This menu was curated with the intention to highlight and celebrate a community and culture that has survived these types of proposed erasure for over 400 years.

To fully understand how food has impacted the African American community in this county I encourage all on this call to watch the Peabody and NAACP Image award winning Netfix documentary, “High on the Hog”—How African American cuisine transformed America.  It is a fascinating look at the important bond between food and culture in our community.  I don’t see anyone picketing or protesting this film series. On the contrary, it is being hailed as groundbreaking and true to our culture.

Black food is American food.  Is it a part of our history, yes. Is it food that we have created, curated, and shared with the world, yes. Soul food is a part of who we are as a people, absolutely yes! By the way, it is called soul food because it nourishes the soul as well as the body.

So in conclusion, I ask that we take a moment to understand why we are in the middle of this uncomfortable conversation at this point in time.  Is it because we are ashamed of sharing our culture?  Have we embraced the privilege and power of our accomplishments so much that we have forgotten from wince we came?

The topic of this conversation should not be about what is or is not Black History Month soul food. The conversation should be why does soul food make some people uncomfortable? What are they ashamed of?

Thank you.

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DACA on the Docket Once More

January 23, 2024

(Trinity’s very first class of Dreamer Scholars August 2014 with Gaby Pacheco, top left)

Read:  Washington Post Editorial calling for Congressional Action for Dreamers 1/26/2024

Ten years ago, Trinity enrolled our first class of Dreamer Scholars thanks to TheDream.US that celebrates its tenth anniversary next month.  The women in our first class, some of whom are in the photo above, have gone on to amazing careers, have created beautiful families and in every way exemplify Trinity’s values of service and leadership for their communities and our nation.

Unfortunately, the bright promise of the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) faded quickly after President Obama left office.  President Obama created the program by executive order in 2012. Encouraged by the ugly rhetoric of the succeeding administration, numerous states attorneys general raised legal challenges to DACA with different levels of success.  New admissions to the program ended but the Supreme Court and other courts have allowed the original DACA recipients to maintain their status while various challenges continue to wend their way through the legal system.  The case that is most likely to set the ultimate precedent is in Texas where a judge ruled DACA illegal (actually, twice) but the order is stayed while appeals are pending.

In cooperation with the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and with TheDream.US, today I participate in a webinar to encourage college and university presidents to join an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit urging those judges to overturn the lower court’s finding that DACA is illegal and allowing the program to continue.  Trinity has signed onto the amicus brief as we have in the past in similar cases.

Below are the remarks I gave during today’s webinar on this case and the future of DACA:

Higher Education Leaders Must Support DACA and Undocumented Students

Remarks by President Patricia McGuire for the Presidents’ Immigration Alliance Webinar, January 22, 2024

In 2013, when Trinity’s good friend Don Graham called me to say he had an idea about how Trinity could help a very special group of students who were undocumented immigrants in the U.S., I confess I had never heard of DACA and I had a lot of questions about Don’s proposal.  Ultimately, Don convinced me that Trinity should be one of the first private university partners to participate in TheDream.US — and the success of Trinity’s Dreamer Scholars across the last 10 years has been fantastic.

Trinity is one of the few remaining historic Catholic women’s colleges in the nation, and so we joined the partnership with a deep sense of commitment to our underlying moral principles of social justice and the dignity of all persons.  We are also both a Predominantly Black Institution and a Hispanic Serving Institution.  Trinity specializes in women’s education at the undergraduate level and we quickly realized that the undocumented women we welcomed through TheDream.US were absolutely amazing students with blazing ambition, fierce resilience, and a level of fortitude in the face of political and public hostility that most of us could not begin to match.

As we got to know our Dreamer Scholars and other undocumented students, we grew increasingly bewildered about why anyone in this country — any politician, any corporate leader, any academic, any citizen — would NOT want these amazing students to be part of the future of our nation, our economy, our society.  Today, more than 10% of Trinity undergraduates are undocumented persons, and we are glad to support them with millions of dollars in Trinity grants and other scholarships funded through TheDream.US and generous benefactors.  Trinity provides a large network of support services to Dreamer Scholars who also are effective advocates for their own needs.

The return on our investment in these students is so clear.  Since 2014, Trinity has graduated hundreds of Dreamer Scholars — with a retention rate above 90%, most finish in four or five years.  Dreamer Scholars at Trinity quickly advanced in student leadership, from leading student government to being team captains and advancing advocacy for many different causes.  More than half of our annual inductees into Phi Beta Kappa are Dreamer Scholars, and most graduate with honors. Many go on to graduate school — our recent Dreamer graduates have earned advanced degrees at Duke, Brown, the University of Illinois, the University of Maryland, Trinity, and other universities.  They have become teachers, nurses, medical personnel — all professions that have high demand for well-educated workforce — public policy specialists, and vital leaders in state and federal offices.  We are so grateful to our partners at TheDream.US for working with us to support these amazing women — so many thanks to the new CEO Gaby Pacheco (a fabulous leader!), former CEO Candy Marshall, team members Hyein Lee and Trinity’s very own Sadhana Singh ’18, a member of our first Dreamer class now working with the program.

The political and legal attacks on DACA and undocumented persons are almost incomprehensible when we consider the history and values of this nation — a nation built by immigrants, a nation forged in the fire of the quest for human rights and freedom.  The paradox of the anti-DACA movement is even more bewildering when we consider the more mundane but important calculus of the future of the U.S. economy and workforce.  Our nation desperately NEEDS the talent, commitment, and yes, the patriotism of our Dreamer Scholars, the DACA recipients fortunate enough to get in while the program was still open, and the tens of thousands of other undocumented persons who remain excluded from full participation in American life and higher education.

Higher education has suffered many bruises in the last year as well-funded movements seek to curtail our advocacy for students on the margins – our Black and Hispanic students, our LGBTQ students, and yes, our undocumented students.  I fear that too many of my fellow presidents are stepping back from the barricades at the very time when we need to rise up upon them and reclaim our voices and rightful leadership positions on behalf of our current and future students and the nation they will serve and lead in the future.

We should be as fierce as our students are in our advocacy for justice for all undocumented students, for equal access for our students to the support they must have to complete their higher education and move into the workforce.  We must be champions for the rights of our graduates to have work permits, drivers licenses, and the ability to live in the sunshine, not the shadows.  If the architects of this Texas case succeed, the thought that DACA recipients who have work permits today might lose them in the future as they move toward their 30’s and 40’s, building families and communities with their earnings, is simply an unimaginable offense against moral good and simple justice.  The injustice of the heinous threat to deny the right to work — the right to earn a decent living and to support a family — this is a deep stain on the American soul.

Let’s call out the cynical use of the law to debilitate good people as the immoral act that it is.  Let’s be clear:  those who seek a permanent end to DACA and stripping away DACA’s modest grant of legal protections are not about legal hygiene but rather about human oppression.  They seek to impose maximum human suffering to send a message that certain people are not welcome here – people who are, largely, Black and Brown, deeply impoverished, people whose only real mistake was believing that their children might have a chance for a better future in the greatest nation on earth.

We must be stronger in our determination to make sure that the small gains won through so much hard work for undoc students across the last decade do not dissipate in the toxic political cauldron of racial and ethnic hatred.  We must have hope — HOPE! — that good solutions are still possible, and that the pursuit of the American Dream is not just some outmoded fiction from byegone days.  We owe it to our students today and in the future to do all in our power to make The Dream their reality, to empower them to become fully part of this society, using their talents and ambition and creativity to make these United States even more just for future generations.

My brother and sister presidents:  please join me in supporting the amicus brief for this case.  And by signing on, please reaffirm your commitment to working for a brighter future for our undocumented students.

Below:  graduation day for our first Dreamer Scholars in 2018, with Don Graham, Gaby Pacheco and Candy Marshall of TheDream.US and Trinity Board Chair Sr. Pat O’Brien, SND.

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Adonis Mokom ’22 to Trinity Nurses: Believe in Yourselves, Trust Trinity!

January 10, 2024

(Enjoy this one-minute video of the Nursing Pinning Ceremony on January 8, 2024)

One of our outstanding Nursing alumnae — Adonis Mokom ’22, BSN, RN — gave the keynote speech at the Nursing Pinning Ceremony on January 8.  Adonis is a nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Medstar Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C.

I asked Adonis if I could share the speech she gave to the new class of Trinity nurses.  Here is her speech:

Speech for Pinning Ceremony for Fall 2023
Adonis Mokom ’22, BSN, RN

Good evening, dear faculty, family, friends and soon-to-be nurses, Today, January 8th, 2024, marks the culmination of one journey and the start of another. My name is Adonis, and it is a privilege and honor to have been asked to speak at this Pinning Ceremony for the Graduating Class of Fall 2023. I stand before you as once a nursing student, but also as an observer of the hard work and devotion that each of you invested to reach this moment, and I am filled with optimism and hope that those of you here today will take those qualities forward into the nursing field.

Let’s take a few minutes to travel down memory lane to the first day in your first nursing class, be it foundation or health assessment. Remember the joy you felt and the wonderful feeling of wearing the Trinity nursing scrubs while learning about your first head-to-toe assessment. The excitement, anxiousness, and fear but yet a wonderful feeling of having made it this far was all I thought about even totally forgetting about how difficult and challenging the journey ahead was (especially the exams – hahaha). I totally felt the same way.

But you have made it so far, despite the rigorous work, lengthy study nights, the disappointment from not receiving the grades you expected, and the headaches — but you overcame all of them. You endured 4 semesters of nursing school, beginning from the introduction of nursing skills and the nursing process in Foundation of Nursing course, to learning about how to thoroughly conduct a head-to-toe assessment in health assessment, and the hard work to create and study 300 medications and their classes in pharmacology. A journey further into more challenges, which involved understanding the various diseases and combining your knowledge from pharmacology class about medications that are used to treat or manage the care for patients with those diseases. But you were strong enough to make it through successfully, even to the Capstone course to which you brought all the knowledge learned and skills from all your courses throughout nursing school during weekly tests in order to prepare for the VATI. Now to the present: you are successfully seated at your Pinning ceremony here after receiving the green light. WOW. You all made it through because you believed in yourself.

The next step of your journey is the NCLEX, which is the Nursing Licensure Examination needed to practice as a Registered Nurse. You may feel like it’s too much to handle, very anxious, or even overwhelmed by the thought of how to start studying for it or even what to expect. It is all normal because I felt the same way while studying for and taking the NCLEX. But during those difficult moments, I would constantly reflect on the words of Dr. O’Reilly and other nursing professors: “You should believe in yourself, in your skills, trust that Trinity has prepared you well, and use all that you have learned to diligently answer each question.” Truth be told, those words are 100% true, despite not constantly feeling like I was ready, but I took my NCLEX 3 weeks after graduation from Trinity and felt excited and confident because I knew I am a graduate of Trinity Washington University and I would succeed.

Secondly, you all are graduates of Trinity Washington University, and all the faculty, your family, and friends are constantly cheering, praying, and belief in you, so don’t doubt yourself even for a second. Utilize the same belief even when starting your first nursing job. I believe some of the nursing graduates here have already accepted job offers or are still deciding on a specialty. It could be the specialty you enjoyed during your nursing clinicals or by taking the course. I had an offer to a Medsurg unit, IMC (ICU step-down), and patiently waited for a response or an offer for an ICU position. One lesson I learned during the process is “delayed doesn’t imply denied” — reach out to those facilities and advocate for yourself. It could sound very confident,  but be flexible and have a positive and open mindset to learn.

Thirdly, remember you are all transitioning from a nursing graduate to a licensed RN position, and you will face more challenges, but turn to your left and right . While asking yourself, “What support do I have available?” it could be your preceptor, managers, nursing director, educators, other experienced nurses and even your fellow colleagues in residency. I accepted a job in a Medical-Surgical Intensive care unit (ICU) at one of the best hospitals here in Washington D.C. It felt surreal at the beginning because there was either an excitement component or an increased fear of being a brand new nurse stepping into the ICU (which was described as the “Lion’s den”). OR maybe it could have been the “imposter syndrome”. The Webster dictionary defines it as “persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by fear despite evidence of ongoing success”.

Nursing is a very challenging profession but at the same time, a rewarding one. The rigorous and lengthy 12-hour shift providing care for both the patients, their support system, and effectively maintaining active communication with all members involved in the interdisciplinary care for the patient. It is not all about the medication or the education provided to the patient and their families, but it’s beyond the care you provide deep down from your heart. Through active listening, while using either verbal or nonverbal cues to advocate for the patient and put them first always.

I remember my first week off orientation in the ICU and walking into my patient room who was extubated (which means they previously couldn’t breathe on their own and needed ventilator support). Just listening to the joy expressed by the patient who had been intubated twice and their vacation plans after leaving the hospital.  A few minutes later, stepping away to get a warm blanket and returning to see my patient’s appearance which portrayed fear, anxiety, and loss of hope because of their intent to move towards end-of-life care at home. That was one of the scariest moments of my life. The lesson I learned from this scenario is that nursing is very unpredictable and cannot be fully understood, but your patient comes first. You will be faced with moments in which you will engage, advocate, and facilitate difficult conversations such as end-of-life wishes and care but remember you have a duty to make every patient encounter the best memorable experience, even through the little things such as dancing or singing.

Finally, when preparing this speech, I thought a lot about how the message from my speech would be beneficial to the nursing graduating class and support their transition to nursing practice at the bedside. I arrived at a few conclusions: Always put your patients first, either through your care or advocating for them, even if it entails walking up to the attending physician. Secondly, nursing will test your resilience, and take care of yourself, it is ok to step away for a few minutes when feeling overwhelmed. Reflect on the words of wisdom from the Trinity Nursing Professors, “When in doubt, don’t assume but seek out the support around you because nursing is a teamwork.” And remember, you are a Trinity Nursing graduate, strong enough to overcome anything and you are never alone. Congratulations once again to the Trinity Nursing Graduating Class of Fall 2023.

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The Inevitable Destruction of Claudine Gay

January 3, 2024

(Dr. Claudine Gay, photo from Harvard website)

Let me be clear from the start:  plagiarism is a serious breach of academic ethics that rightfully incurs serious consequences.  At Trinity, those consequences include expulsion for seniors and graduate students.  We expect students at that stage of their academic careers to know how to write and do proper citation, to refrain from copying the words and ideas of others without correct attribution.  We have expelled students who have violated our policy on plagiarism.

We also expect college and university leaders to be models of academic integrity.  So, it seems inevitable that a president whose scholarly writing reveals evidence of plagiarism will not be a president for very long.  Such is the case of Claudine Gay, the now-former president of Harvard University.  The evidence published in various news outlets shows that Dr. Gay allegedly committed the kind of plagiarism in her dissertation and other papers that warrants severe penalties for students, including dismissal.  The president cannot be held to a lesser standard, so her resignation from office earlier this week was inevitable.

If this were simply a case of a college leader’s alleged plagiarism exposed and consequences imposed, the story would end right there. But the case of Dr. Gay is not simply about sloppy citation and some words carelessly lifted from other sources.  Dr. Gay has paid a heavy price for those errors in judgment, but her case is far more disturbing, a morality tale about the rancid political climate with its relentless provocateurs seeking to debilitate and constrain the freedom of the university, and to destroy this nation’s hard-won progress on racial and social equity.

Those who are celebrating Dr. Gay’s demise and Harvard’s humiliation are not cheering for academic integrity — except, perhaps, as a foil to promote their goals to put a stake through the heart of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, the practice of affirmative action in admissions and hiring, and all other efforts to promote racial and social justice in this nation, efforts they denounce under the all-encompassing penumbra of “wokeness.”  What they are really cheering for is the destruction of a Black woman who dared —- dared! — to sit in the Harvard president’s chair. They are cheering for the shame of Harvard; they are proclaiming victory in the endless battles over racial equity and justice.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the conservative commentator Liz Wheeler did not mince words:  “Claudine Gay RESIGNS from Harvard in a crushing loss to DEI, wokeism, antisemitism & university elitism. The way to defeat wokeism is to be SAVAGE and relentless. If we are, morality will triumph over Marxism.”  Christopher Rufo, one of the people who organized the investigation of plagiarism charges against Dr. Gay, also wrote on X:  “We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”  Hmmmm…. Rufo, it seems, wants to abolish DEI, but not a word about abolishing plagiarism!

Dr. Gay’s right-wing critics were sharpening their swords long before the immediate crisis.  They attacked her appointment as Harvard’s first Black woman president from the moment of the announcement, calling her appointment a result of “woke” ideology and an example of rampant liberalism in higher education.  Conservative members of Congress are part of the chorus chanting doom for higher education.  Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, wrote in a statement:  “Postsecondary education is in a tailspin. There has been hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty, and partisan administrators. College campuses are a breeding ground for illiberal thought.”

In fact, in what now appears to be either a cruel coincidence or cleverly orchestrated trap, it was an appearance before Rep. Foxx’s committee that triggered the immediate cause of President Gay’s demise, along with that of President Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania.  Along with MIT President Sally Kornbluth, the three presidents of arguably the most prestigious universities in the nation testified before the Foxx committee about the response of higher education to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and subsequent campus protests including major demonstration by Palestinian students against Israel.  The rise of antisemitism on campuses became a focus for committee questions, culminating in Representative Elise Stefanik’s question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s [repeated for Penn and MIT] rules on bullying and harassment?”  Each president gave a similarly weak answer:  it depends on the context.  In the context of that hearing, the answers were unacceptable, too mild and timid.  (I wrote about this on an earlier blog.)

The weak responses of the presidents drew a firestorm of protest from major university donors, politicians on both sides of the aisle, student groups and various members of the commentariat.  President Magill of Penn was the first to resign as a result of a well-organized campaign against her by wealthy donors at Penn’s Wharton School of Business.

While Magill’s forced resignation arose from relentless donor pressure against her management of the Israeli-Palestinian protests on campus and her weak Congressional testimony, the truly ruthless, racist campaign against President Gay of Harvard was just beginning.  The campaign against Dr. Gay had little to do with Israel and everything to do with race in America and the ongoing battle of ideologies between those who desire a more authoritarian state and those who promote more progressive ideas about society and governance.  Among the most prominent progressive ideas are those of social justice, tolerance and openness to others, and promotion of opportunities for those who have suffered severe historic oppression including, most notably, African Americans.  Conservatives see university campuses as bastions of such thinking, places where academic freedom runs amok, havens for liberal ideas such as deliberately appointing the first Black woman president of Harvard because that “first” is an important marker of social progress for the nation.

Unfortunately, Dr. Gay, it turns out, was a flawed standard bearer, and her academic mistakes came back to haunt her and Harvard.  While in no way excusing her plagiarism, we also have to ask whether other university presidents have ever had their body of academic work subject to the same withering examination as hers was during these last few weeks.  We have to wonder whether the conservative activists, the members of Congress who have denounced her, the columnists and pundits who have had their field day with her story are all without any hidden deficits that might expose their frailties and compromises should their stories be examined as ruthlessly as hers was.

We have to ask, with sadness and regret, whether Dr. Gay’s story will discourage Black women from pursuing high office in universities and corporations and public positions because the exposure to those whose entire existence is devoted to the abolition of “DEI ideology from every institution in America” will terrorize and debilitate their ability to lead, eventually hounding them out of office to the satisfaction of the wolfpack.

Having asked these questions, we then have to say:  NO!  We cannot let this happen.  Not in higher education.  Not in America in the 21st Century.  Not to those who are strong enough, courageous enough to step up to positions of leadership.

Yes, we need to advise every prospective leader — and especially women, Black Women, women of color — that they must have spotless records.  It is absolutely true that women and people of color have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, to be considered successful, to be able to run a few steps ahead of the wolfpack.  I wrote something on X that was picked up by insidehighered.com :  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years as president of a far less visible university: someone is coming for you every day — you have to keep your record spotless because they will find the one loose thread and pull it until you are naked…”

Harvard cannot back down from its commitment to racial justice and social equity.  Yes, the nation’s wealthiest and most elite institution of higher education has had a terrible year on that score, from the Supreme Court ruling banning Harvard’s affirmative action practices in admissions to the implosion of President Gay.  We smaller, more obscure, less wealthy colleges can probably go about our business without worrying about Harvard’s future — but we should not!  Higher education is in the crosshairs of politicians who seek to diminish, if not eliminate entirely, our independence, our academic freedom, our ability to fulfill our critical societal role as a counterweight to government.  We must do a better job of defending our enterprise and engaging the fight with those who want less academic freedom and more government mandates about what to teach, who to admit, who to hire and who to fire.  We need Harvard and other elite institutions to show some muscle and spine in this fight, to stand up for the principles of equity and justice we believe in, to stop quibbling and start advocating for the future of higher education.

Let Harvard remember and act upon this moving passage from Dr. Gay’s inauguration speech given only so recently (September 29, 2023):

“Not four hundred yards from where I stand, some four centuries ago, four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba—lived and worked in Wadsworth House as the personal property of the president of Harvard University. My story is not their story. I am a daughter of Haitian immigrants to this country. But our stories—and the stories of the many trailblazers between us—are linked by this institution’s long history of exclusion and the long journey of resistance and resilience to overcome it.”

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2024: Democracy On the Ballot

January 1, 2024

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863)

160 years after President Abraham Lincoln made his landmark address on the Gettysburg battlefield — and twelve score and 8 years (248 years) after the “new nation” began to emerge through the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — the United States of America enters the most consequential new year in its history.  2024.  Oh, sure, many other years earned the title “consequential” across the decades as this nation has faced countless tests of its resolve to remain that nation of liberty and freedom “so conceived and so dedicated” by the Founders.  But the 2024 presidential election is looming at the most severe test yet of the stark choice between continuing the American experiment in democracy or conceding to the preference for authoritarianism that the Founders specifically rejected in their design of the Constitution with its balance of powers among 3 branches of government, including its constraints on the presidency lest that office and its occupant devolve into monarchy or worse.

Democracy is on the ballot this year —- not only in the United States, but in nearly half of the world’s countries also holding national elections — and among the myriad issues that confront our nation and interdependent global village, none is more serious or consequential than the stark choices the electorates must make about who will lead them and whether those leaders will protect or abridge democracy.  Preserving Democracy is the foundation for all of the other choices we will make as a free people.

“…we here highly resolve … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg)

For the last few months I’ve been reflecting on the fact that the Civil War never really ended in this country.  Yes, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and the United States entered the era known as Reconstruction.  But those who yearned for the “lost cause” remained an active force, albeit mostly underground in certain parts of the South — except for those times when the brutal fires of racial hatred surged in lynchings and denial of the most basic of civil and human rights.  The shooting war became a legal battle across the next century and more, with hard-won cases assuring the rights of African Americans, legal principles of equality enacted into federal and state legislation, and advances in employment and education for Black persons.  Those advances are now in full retreat as state governors and legislatures denounce and penalize schools for “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs, attack “critical race theory” scholarship, and redraw voting lines to repress the power of the Black Vote.  The Supreme Court has ended affirmative action in college admissions, and cases are wending through courts to do the same in employment.

The rapid rollback of racial justice is not the only issue.  From women’s rights to the humane treatment of transgender persons to climate change to border policy, the impulse to defer to authoritarian solutions is growing.  A growing number of governors believe they can even dictate what college faculty teach, something that once only existed in the most tyrannical regimes elsewhere.  This nation fought a Revolution to get out from under the monarch; millions of Americans fought in wars to confront and defeat fascism and authoritarian regimes elsewhere.  Americans once carried the Stars & Stripes high as they liberated concentration camps and oppressed peoples around the world.  Not any more.  The world sees the U.S. in decline and powerless to govern its own affairs.  All of our history, all of those sacrifices, all of the values we once held dear now seem to be at risk in this election year.

Certainly, it is the essence of Democracy that each individual citizen may vote for any candidate they choose, and we must respect every decision as an exercise in freedom.   No school or college may suggest how anyone should vote.  But we do have an obligation to educate our students to participate fully and robustly in the responsibilities of citizenship, with voting as the chief responsibility and most precious right of all.

As we move into 2024 at Trinity, we invite all students, faculty and staff to engage in active learning about all of the issues at stake this year in the U.S. and the many countries represented in our community.  We will encourage forums and symposia on the critical issues at stake in domestic and international elections, and the role of citizens in determining the future shape of nations through the choices we make at the ballot box.  “2024: Democracy On the Ballot” is an ongoing project through which we invite you to develop and present your ideas for how to ensure the continuing vitality of Lincoln’s vision “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Send me your thoughts and ideas for programming by commenting on this blog or via email at president@trinitydc.edu

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