Betsy DeVos
Credit: White House\flicker

Can we talk about racism at our colleges and universities?

I mean, really talk. Not gesture or pantomime, which too often passes for dialogue in this realm. Can we engage in a full and free exchange of ideas, where people actually say what they think and think what they say?

That’s the real question raised by the latest dust-up over racism in higher education, pitting the Department of Education against Princeton University. And thus far, unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Proclaiming the urgent need for discussion, our universities are effectively silencing it.

In response to a statement by president Christopher Eisgruber that acknowledged continued racism at Princeton, the DOE announced last month that it would initiate an investigation of the university. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars institutions from discriminating based on race if they take money from Uncle Sam. So if Princeton is as racist as it says, the DOE argued, perhaps it has also flouted federal law.

There’s good reason to believe the Education Department wasn’t acting entirely in good faith. Its sudden concern for black lives at Princeton drew happy cackles from conservatives, suggesting that the real motive here was to hoist liberals on their own anti-racist petards. When the right-wing New York Post congratulates Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for her “epic trolling” of Princeton, well, it’s fair to suspect that Betsy DeVos is trolling Princeton.

But there was also something disingenuous about Princeton’s response and the letter signed by 80 college and university leaders, who charged the DOE with threatening academic freedom. “It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” a Princeton spokesman said.

How can you grapple honestly with racism if you declare it before the discussion even starts? A letter signed by 350 faculty members last July flatly asserted that “anti-black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” President Eisgruber of Princeton followed up with his own letter in September, admitting “systemic racism” at the university and pledging to recruit more black professors.

Yet we really don’t know whether the small fraction of African-Americans on the faculty reflects discrimination on Princeton’s part. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard law professor and former Princeton trustee Randall Kennedy noted that Princeton has made expansive—and expensive—efforts to recruit black professors. The real problem lies in the high poverty rates and low educational opportunities of African-Americans in our society, Kennedy argued, which does not generate enough qualified black candidates.

Ironically, Kennedy’s article might help Princeton rebut the Department of Education’s probe of racism there. But it probably won’t generate frank debate at our universities about the subject, which has been placed out of bounds.

Everybody knows this by now. Like many faculty members, I’ve attended meetings where my own institution is denounced as racist because of its low percentage of minority professors. Surely there are many people in the audience who—like Kennedy—question this accusation. But they don’t want to make waves, so they sit on their hands.

Or consider the recent episode at the University of Southern California, where a business school professor was removed from his class for using a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur in English. An anonymous survey of 105 of his colleagues confirmed that many of them were self-censoring after the incident, fearing retribution from their employer. “I’m scared to death to teach in this environment,” one professor admitted. Another charged that USC “is willing to throw faculty under the bus in order [to] preserve the appearance of diversity and inclusion instead of opening up dialogues on both sides.”

If we wanted a real dialogue about racism, our faculty reading groups would assign African-Americans like Randall Kennedy—or John McWhorter, or Glenn Loury—alongside, say, Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates. We would engage critics of highly contested concepts such as microaggressions and safe spaces, instead of presenting these ideas as received wisdom. And we’d make it clear that racism on our campuses was a question, not a prima-facie presumption, and that everyone remained free to come to their own conclusions about it.

Let’s be clear: like many of our other leading institutions, Princeton was born in anti-black hatred and racism. Most notoriously, its first nine presidents owned African-American slaves. As a historian, I applaud every effort to examine that legacy and how it continues to affect us today. But the effort will be harmed if we are discouraged or prevented from speaking our minds. That’s a formula for cynicism, not anti-racism.

I don’t want Betsy DeVos—or any other government official—telling Princeton what it can and can’t say about racism. But I also don’t want our universities to squelch discussion of the subject, even as they proudly trumpet the virtues of honest debate. A debate with one right answer isn’t honest. It’s not even a debate.

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which was published last year by City of Light Press.