A huge part of what makes Fairfield University so great, and what made many of us choose to come here, is it’s foundations in the Jesuit tradition.
The University Mission Statement boasts, “Fairfield University is Catholic in both tradition and spirit and celebrates the God-given dignity of every human person.
As a Catholic institution, we welcome individuals of all beliefs and traditions who share our passion for scholarship, justice, truth and freedom, and we value the diversity their membership brings to our community.”
A beautiful sentiment, and the message that drew so many of us to become Jesuit scholars. But what does it mean to live by it?
Last week, during the unveiling of this university’s new Diversity Equity and Inclusion Narrative our President, Dr. Marc Nemec Ph.D., said “as a Jesuit Catholic University our discussion welcomes socialist, capitalist, distributive, libertarian, anti-racist and anti-anti racist perspectives.”
If President Nemec wants to preach “intellectual honesty” in the same breath, he has to own up to the fact that anti-anti-racist means racist. He openly claimed a willingness to accept the perspectives of racists into our community. In his statement to the University community regarding the issue President Nemec evokes Pope Francis and his sentiment that racism is a sin.
So what then, of anti-anti-racism? What penalty might one incur on their soul for the acceptance of such a position?
Scholarship, justice, truth and freedom. That’s what the Jesuit mission, and the Fairfield mission, is supposed to mean to us. Scholarship demands we acknowledge that history does not look kindly on those who fail to stand up to bigotry, in whatever form it may take. Justice demands that we work as a community to identify and combat the legacy of systemic racism and injustice wherever it may surface in our lives and communities.
Truth demands that we hold our President accountable for his words and the impact they have on our community, and not allow him to hide behind a double negative. Freedom demands that we work to build a university community in which diverse students feel safe, supported and free to be themselves, and that we reject those who seek to put others down. Scholarship, justice, truth and freedom. That’s what it means to be a Jesuit student.
President Nemec frequently reiterates the sentiment that the Jesuit mission requires the university to be neutral and impartial in order to foster debate.
But such a pursuit has its consequences. Impartiality turns quickly from a virtue to a vice when it requires us to turn a blind eye to the social issues we are called to solve, and the injustices faced by so many in our society.
The middle position between anti-racism and racism is showing indifference towards racism. This is not the lack of choosing a side. Desmond Tutu once said “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Neutrality means promotion of the status quo. It means support for existing structures of power and the legacies of descrimination that have granted them that power. Most importantly, it means refusing to defend those who need it most, those who we are most called upon to serve.
No truly devoted Jesuit could accept that choice.
As for fostering academic debate, there is no space for healthy and productive scholarship and discussion when one side does not respect the other.
Racism is fundamentally a position of disrespect. Racism assumes that that some people are less than others, and that they deserve the position of inequality that centuries of oppression have relegated them to. This is not an assumption that would be welcomed in any classroom I have ever been in. Good debate is a means for us to learn and grow, to strengthen our convictions or change our minds. There is no debate over whether or not racism needs to be eliminated, the only debate is over how we do it.
Fairfield University has always had a strong grounding in the Jesuit tradition. Our mission statement calls on us to work everyday to be better scholars and better individuals. We are called to serve others, to pursue truth and to ensure justice. We need to be putting this theory into action and taking stronger positions when it comes to questions of justice in our communities.
Our mission is a noble one, and we should never shy away from holding our leadership, and ourselves, responsible for its pursuit.