Tony Esolen Contra Mundum

There can be no more pretense of a culture around us that is Christian or that is even content with Christianity being in its midst.

Some students and faculty on Esolen’s campus were so outraged by his suggestion that “diversity” as they understand it is misguided and destructive that they have commenced a campaign to punish him, perhaps even to fire him. Now, Esolen is having to answer the very question he recently posed to his readers in the second essay.

 

Many readers will have heard of Anthony Esolen, the robustly orthodox Catholic literature professor at Providence College, the Dominican-run college in Rhode Island. Prof. Esolen is the author of a number of books, including an exquisite translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is one of the three translations I recommend to anyone who asks me which is the best to read. He also writes frequently for orthodox Christian magazines like Touchstone and Crisis.

A couple of essays he published in Crisis this autumn sparked a huge row on his campus. The first criticizes the politics of “diversity” as they play out within a Catholic academic setting. The second poses the question to faithful Catholics (and other Christians): What will you do when the persecution comes?

Naturally, some students and faculty on Esolen’s campus were so outraged by his suggestion that “diversity” as they understand it is misguided and destructive that they have commenced a campaign to punish him, perhaps even to fire him. Now, Esolen is having to answer the very question he recently posed to his readers in the second essay. Tony Esolen agreed to answer a few questions from me via e-mail. Our conversation is reproduced below.

Rod Dreher: What is happening to you at Providence College? Explain the controversy.

Tony Esolen: It’s a long story — that is, there is a two-year-long back-story that does not involve me, but that does involve five Catholic colleagues who have been treated disgracefully by their secular colleagues or have suffered under the inquests of the “Bias Response Protocol.” I wrote the two articles in Crisis Magazine, one of them in April and the other a few weeks ago, as alerts.

Someone at school then got hold of them and, before I knew it, I was in the middle of outrage, coming mainly from a group of students who I believe have been misled by radical professors who have adopted politics as their god, whether these professors are aware of it or not. The students accused me of racism, despite my explicit statements in the articles that I welcome people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and despite my appeal, at the end of one of the articles, that they and their secular professors should join us in that communion where there is neither Greek nor Jew, etc. They were angered by my suggestion, in one article, that there was something narcissistic in the common insistence that people should study THEMSELVES rather than people who lived long ago and in cultures far removed from ours by any ordinary criterion, and that there was something totalitarian in the impulse of the secular left, to attempt to subject our curriculum to the demands of a current political aim.

I spoke to one of the students, a friendly fellow whom I like very much, and explained to him that my quarrel was not with the students but rather with anti-Catholic professors and their attempts to hurt or to stifle my colleagues. It was a long and warm conversation, at the end of which I asked him to relay to his group that I was happy, even eager, to meet with them any time to talk about what it is like to be a minority student at Providence College. I also asked him to relay to our chief Diversity Officer my offer of a year ago, to start up a film series centered on themes of injustice and prejudice; one of the movies I specifically mentioned to him and to the Officer was the devastating One Potato Two Potato, about an interracial marriage. Since then, though, I have received NO phone calls and NO e-mails from any students; and yet word has spread around campus, possibly originating from the administration itself, that I have “blown off” the students, when exactly the reverse is true, and if anybody has been “blown off,” it has been me.

A week ago last Thursday I was tipped off by a student — not a member of the group in question — that there was going to be a protest on campus. That’s unheard of, at Providence College. About 60 students marched around, while a female student led them around, shouting slogans through a bullhorn. I think it was “What do we want? Inclusion! When do we want it? Now!” The noise could be heard all through the three-story building where my office is. I had thought they were going to come down the hall and knock on my door, but then they seem to have turned around and gone to the president’s office, where they demanded a response from him, and of course some of the students demanded that I be fired. In fact, the president had already met with those students the day before, and had heard that particular demand, though of course he said that I enjoyed academic freedom. It is likely that he knew of the demonstration beforehand, because the Vice President for Student Affairs actually took part in it. I should have guessed — because that morning somebody had written on the blackboard of my classroom, “Diversity is not a cult!”

The president then sent round to all the faculty, all the staff, all undergraduates, and all graduates the following letter:

Dear Members of the Providence College Community:

Yesterday I met with about 60 of our students who marched through campus and eventually came to Harkins Hall. Their primary source of complaint was the content of a pair of articles recently published by a member of our faculty, how it made them feel, and their frustration that there had been no response from the College or me. After dialoging with the students, I believe it is imperative for me to respond to their concerns.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education. It allows professors the freedom to teach, write, and lecture without any restraint except the truth as they see it. It also gives them the freedom to express their opinions as citizens so long as it is clear that they do not represent the views of the institution with which they are affiliated. This freedom obviously extends to espousing views critical of their own college or university.

So when one of our professors writes an article accusing Providence College of having “Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult,” he is protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. But it must be understood that he speaks only for himself. He certainly does not speak for me, my administration, and for many others at Providence College who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him.

Universities are places where ideas are supposed to be brought into conflict and questioned, so let us robustly debate the meaning of “diversity.” But we must also remember that words have an impact on those who hear or read them. When a professor questions the value of diversity, the impact on many students, faculty, and staff of color is to feel that their presence is not valued and that they are not welcome at Providence College. I have heard from many students about the pain that this causes. When student activists are described as “narcissists,” they understandably feel demeaned and dismissed. We need to be able to disagree with each other’s ideas without attaching labels to them or imputing motives that we cannot know.

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