When I read The Mirror’s article on the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag from Counseling & Psychological Services’ office last Wednesday, I was disappointed, yet unsurprised. It follows a trend of the University’s reluctance to make statements and failing to identify a clear stance on the phrase. Despite considerable criticism from alumni, faculty and students on the University’s statement following the murder of George Floyd, which omitted “Black Lives Matter,” the University’s senior leadership has still avoided unequivocally vocalizing their support for its sentiment, and as of Monday, Feb. 28, it has refused to do so.
As President of the Fairfield University Student Association, I have close relationships with many of our administrators and I know that the vast majority fundamentally believe that we must support and uplift the marginalized members of our community. They share our desire to be a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus. Their values are the same as ours. But they can’t say it to everyone else.
From my conversations, and following President Nemec’s speech at the “Community In Action” event this week, two explanations for the BLM flag’s removal have been put forward. The first is that the signage was in violation of hanging policies and posed a potential safety hazard, preventing the egress of individuals in the event of an emergency. Assuming this is true, there are surely locations where it would be safe to hang (say a wall) and it would not explain why the flag has not been re-hung in such appropriate, yet visible spaces.
The second explanation is far more problematic, and stretches farther than this one incident. There is a belief among some members of administration that universities are to remain neutral in the discourse of the day and that debate should not just be led by students and faculty, but restricted to them. They believe that institutions of higher learning are meant to sponsor discussion but not engage in it, host the critics, but not be a critic themselves. I simply disagree with this approach.
I am under the belief that an institution like ours cannot remain neutral, nor should they. The University’s work to make the University more diverse and serve the marginalized (expanded scholarship programs, the new Bellarmine College, etc.) is evidence that they are not neutral on these matters, they are only neutral when it comes to speaking about them. If the University was truly bound by a position of neutrality, would not Campus Ministry and the Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Office be expected to remove their Pride flags?
While it is true that, nationally, the LGBTQ+ community has become more accepted over the past few years, this does not overcome the fact that students walk these very halls believing gay-marriage is immoral and that queer people do not belong here. I know several students personally who have been called slurs both behind their backs and to their faces. Who have been demeaned and humiliated in front of classmates and dormhalls for their sexual orientation. At what point does hate stop being “discourse” and start being hate?
Furthermore, part of Fairfield University’s mission is “to be an inclusive, welcoming community that is representative of an ever-changing and diverse global populace.” How can our University espouse these beliefs and lay out these goals but stay silent when their voice can move them closer to that mission? How can our University claim to want a welcoming community and then fail to tell our students who are most vulnerable to hate and exclusion, that they are actually welcome here? This second explanation, this doctrine of neutrality, runs counter to the University’s core mission and, as we have seen time and time again, it only undermines their own standing on this deeply important issue.
Another challenge to this way of thinking is why the University has been so quiet about its position of neutrality. The first time I and others at this university heard this argument spoken publicly was at the university’s Diversity Narrative rollout this Monday. But why not earlier? Why was President Nemec noticeably nervous when speaking on this issue? Was he embarrassed by his beliefs? He cited several statements and reports on the principles of free expression, but holds these ideas as the one-true-opinion and chooses to ignore those that critique an institution’s ability to remain neutral in the eyes of racism and discrimination.
Finally, I must state that the Diversity Narrative released this week fails to address the real history of Fairfield’s inclusive excellence. I spoke up multiple times in the presence of my colleagues on the President’s Working Group to impress on them the importance of telling the full story. I wanted to ensure that although the university is working to promote a diverse future, we cannot possibly ignore our troubled past. We have had extraordinary struggles–the 2016 “ghetto party” to name one. But to write a narrative that focuses solely on the positives of our University’s diversity work pretends that our advancement has been entirely linear. It has not been.
Fairfield University, and President Nemec in particular, need to reevaluate their stance on institutional neutrality because it fundamentally does not adhere to the university’s current actions, their mission, and given the inherent harm that their silence causes.