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Villanova Mentholates The Cultural Revolution

You had better -- or it will go on your permanent record, Professor (Kelleher Photography/Shutterstock)

Over the weekend, I posted a link to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by two Villanova professors expressing concern that in its pedal-to-the-metal push for “diversity,” the university was trampling on the heart of a liberal arts education. The professors (James Matthew Wilson and Colleen Sheehan) wrote, in part:

Last fall we were notified by the Villanova administration that new “diversity and inclusion” questions would be added to the course and teaching evaluations that students fill out each semester. In addition to the standard questions about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction, students are now being asked heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated “cultural awareness” or created an “environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”

The president and provost of Villanova have now responded at length — and their response, I believe, fully vindicates the concerns of Sheehan and Wilson. Below is their entire response, which does not refute the Sheehan/Wilson piece, but only mentholates it — that is, uses the language of Human Resources to make what is harsh and intolerable go down smoothly. My own commentary is sprinkled throughout.

There is nothing more central to Villanova’s Catholic, Augustinian identity than our community. When Villanova first opened its door to poor immigrant Irish young men needing an education, a tradition of committed welcome was established. We know at Villanova that such a welcome does not end when we say hello. We know that to be fully a part of our community means to be an essential part of the education offered and practiced.

You may have seen an opinion piece recently published in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the University for including questions on the long-standing course evaluation survey asking students about their perceptions of the classroom experience, including technology, the setting and the quality of instruction. In a time when it is easier, and, for many, more satisfying to paint policies and persons in extreme terms, guided by the history and mission of Villanova University, we would instead offer a different view of this issue, one rooted in the inseparability of truth, unity, and love.

Here we go. When you see phrases like “the inseparability of truth, unity, and love” in a document like this from church leaders, understand that Handsy Uncle Joe is coming in to cop a feel.

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The opinion piece portrays this survey as part of a political litmus test, as an aggressive attempt to target faculty with particular views and as an effort opposed to Villanova’s historic Catholic identity and mission. This is untrue. While for some this polarization may be tempting, it fails to offer the kind of perspective that is, and has always been, characteristic of a Villanova education, and the Villanova community as a whole.

Catholic Intellectual tradition is best accomplished through and by a diverse community of scholars and students with a wide variety of viewpoints. Student evaluations are important: Surveying students about their experiences in the classroom is not only a reasonable response, it is the only way to know how well we are meeting the challenge of creating an authentically diverse community of scholars.

More anaesthetic human resources talk. The precise claim by Sheehan and Wilson is that these surveys allow students to rate their professors according to ideological categories that have nothing to do with the subject matter. Their argument is not that students should not be surveyed as a general matter; it’s that these particular questions on the student surveys turn students into ideological monitors of their professors’ political correctness.

It gets worse:

At Villanova we value the voices of each community member. We celebrate hearing and listening to everyone’s thoughts and opinions, which embody a wide spectrum of perspectives. Diversity and inclusion are not accessories in higher education today, they are at its core. We know that it is through dialogue between respectful colleagues that differences are resolved and progress toward understanding made. When different voices are included in important conversations, new insights are reached, and discoveries can begin. In today’s society, all Villanovans must be prepared to live, thrive, and work effectively across and through the lines of difference.

Stop right there. “Diversity and inclusion” are at the core of higher education?! What an extraordinary admission! They are proud of politicizing the university’s mission. Villanova’s administration has re-defined the university’s purpose to include indoctrinating students into a particular ideological worldview. Sheehan and Wilson, in their op-ed, objected that this is a de facto way of getting rid of dissenting professors. If a professor is judged by students to be insufficiently “diverse” in her teaching, she can then be accused of not doing her job — this, no matter how good her scholarship and instruction is.

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We are greatly concerned that the op-ed fails to accurately or adequately characterize the nature of a liberal arts education, and especially such an education as it occurs here at Villanova. The authors suggest that a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is antithetical to a liberal arts education, and this is a position we firmly reject.

Wrong, and unfair. They object to how Villanova defines these terms, and how it applies those definitions to teaching.

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Our Catholic Augustinian Mission Statement insists that “to foster academic excellence, we as a University: create a diverse community of scholars, united and dedicated to the highest academic standards.” Villanova, as a faith-based institution, takes this claim seriously, recognizing that there is no conflict between academic standards and the values of unity and love, our academic mission and our Catholic heritage.

Note the language here: “unity and love” and “our Catholic heritage.” These are phrases meant to sugarcoat something that ordinary people would object to if they had it put to them straightforwardly.

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As a result, we believe that a Villanova education must not simply address questions of fact, but also questions of the linkages between knowledge, perspective, and action. We advance a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. To foster knowledge without a concern for human connection, or absent a concern for how such knowledge can “ignite change” in our communities is, simply put, inadequate and hollow.

There you have it: the purpose of education is instrumental, to “‘ignite change’ in our communities.” It seems to me that Sheehan and Wilson have accurately characterized what Villanova’s administration intends to do: turn its classrooms into factories to educate Social Justice Warriors. After all, as a famous philosopher’s epitaph reads:

That’s Karl Marx’s gravestone in London, by the way. I don’t bring him up in this context gratuitously or to be inflammatory, or to take a cheap shot. The leadership at Villanova really is proposing to change the purpose of the Catholic university’s approach to education in a radical way. It’s doing so using the moralistic, therapeutic language of the Human Resources department, but make no mistake: something revolutionary is going on here.

Here’s more from the Villanova president and provost:

Yet, even more hollow is an education wherein these concerns over truth, unity, and love are ignored in one’s own community. As an academic institution committed to excellence, we challenge ourselves every day to prove it.

“Truth, unity, and love” — keep these in mind, Villanovans. You are going to be hearing this mantra repeated many times over the course of this controversy.

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We do this through our faculty’s research efforts, which are reshaping knowledge in a variety of fields, and making critical interventions in contexts and communities across the globe.

We do this through our students, who meet the challenge of excellence by winning postgraduate awards like the Fulbright, finding meaningful employment or postgraduate study, and, in all ways, truly use their Villanova education to ignite change.

And, yes, we do this through embracing thoughtful pedagogy that recognizes that knowledge creation is part of the dynamic exchange among and between perspectives.

Gobbledygook, all designed to distract from the specific concerns of Sheehan and Wilson.

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Our work is not to eliminate perspectives, as suggested by the op-ed, but to be carefully attentive to ours and others’ perspectives. It is only through such communal, caring engagement that our students and teachers can exemplify the teachings and wisdom of St. Augustine.

This is flat-out wrong. Of course the work is to “eliminate perspectives” — the perspectives of any professor or instructor who diverges from the administration’s highly politicized concept of “diversity” and “inclusion,” as judged by students in their evaluations. Why have the evaluations at all if the administration wasn’t prepared to act on the information gathered by them? This is all about compelling scholars to be conformists. The idea that St. Augustine would in any way approve of this ideological chicanery is truly shameless.

Ready for some more? Because you’re going to get it:

Also missing in the op-ed is the thoughtful, planned process that led to the creation and addition of three questions to the regularly administered course evaluations. Through a process that began with student input, then moved through the administration for formation and then to the faculty for evaluation and shaping, three questions were added to the survey. After pilot testing and more evaluation, the questions were added to the standard survey form. Even after the addition of these to the evaluation form, we continue to solicit faculty and student feedback on these questions, and also examine the patterns evident in students’ responses to them. Indeed, we have been quite pleased to note that students at Villanova overwhelmingly rated their faculty at the very top of the scale.

So what? The fact that the university thoughtfully and carefully put together this program has nothing to do with whether or not it is good. The United States thoughtfully and carefully put together a plan to go to war against Iraq. The thought and care that went into devising the scheme did not make it right.

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Although the op-ed makes it appear as though we are using this tool to evaluate faculty for employment decisions and identify faculty members’ beliefs, the purpose is actually to provide guidance for internal self-improvement.

“Professor Smith, your student evaluations indicate that you are not bringing diverse and inclusive perspectives to bear in your medieval philosophy class. What do you intend to do about that?”

“Nothing. I teach medieval philosophy.”

“But professor, we would like you to improve yourself professionally by adding diverse and inclusive perspectives. The students are not seeing themselves reflected in your teaching.”

“I don’t get it. I’m teaching them about medieval philosophy. What would it mean to ‘see yourself’ in medieval philosophy? These students don’t know anything about medieval philosophy — that’s why they’re taking this class!”

“Professor, calm down. If our graduates are to ignite change in the world, then they must be able to grasp the relevance of what they study to their own lives. Why do you insist on ignoring this?”

“Look, you want me to queer Thomas Aquinas, don’t you? You’re serious about this.”

“Yes, we are. Please contact Katie Grimes in our theology department for advice on how to do that. You will find that her scholarly work shows the way into how we can bring queer perspectives to bear on our understanding of Scholasticism. She once wrote a paper on how Aquinas can come out of the closet.”

“I’m sorry, that’s daft.”

“Professor, I’m sorry to hear you say that. When your tenure evaluation comes up, your file will note that you oppose truth, unity, and love, and object to one of the core missions of higher education. It will also be noted that you stand in opposition to the Catholic intellectual tradition, and indeed to St. Augustine.”

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The survey questions themselves were generated from the community and provide evidence that our classrooms are spaces where faculty and students are embodying Villanova’s ideals every day.

This is not easy work; but it is the work that stands as the foundation of a civil society. We are far from being the perfect model in this endeavor. There are ways in which we must continue to reflect upon our failings and then strive to rectify them. But our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not among them. On the contrary, Villanova University stands as a great educational institution because of our commitment to difference and the authentic community we create.

We come to Villanova and learn the words Veritas, Unitas, Caritas. We live Villanova when we place Truth, Unity, and Love at the core of who we are.

Sincerely,

Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD
President

Patrick G. Maggitti, PhD
Provost

Truth, Unity, and Love™. Folks, this is a con. This is a cultural revolution hollowing out the meaning of the humanities, and a liberal arts education — and demonizing opponents as enemies of Truth, Unity, and Love, as well as the Catholic intellectual tradition, and St. Augustine. Don’t be taken in by the soothing language! The Donohue and Maggitti response, sent out to the Villanova community and alumni, vindicates the WSJ op-ed.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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