At the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which prides itself on its urban setting and diverse student body, an effort to craft a new mission and vision statement has sparked heated debate in recent weeks about the fundamental purpose of a university.
An early draft of the statement, which would commit the university to becoming “an anti-racist and health-promoting institution that honors and uplifts the cultural wealth of our students,” has drawn sharp criticism both on and off campus, even as some applaud the effort.
As of March 11, some 75 faculty members at the university had signed an open letter of opposition written by some colleagues from the College of Science and Mathematics, which called the draft statement “deeply flawed in content, direction, and representation.” The letter argues that “the fundamental role of the public university can neither be political nor ideological activism.” A growing number of supporters from other colleges have also signed the letter of opposition online. A Boston Globe column characterizing the draft as reeking of “woke indoctrination,” has added fuel to the conflict.
The controversy comes at a time when many colleges are grappling with critical questions about race, taking steps such as adding diversity and anti-bias training, reviewing classes and curricula with an eye toward identifying and reducing racial bias, and declaring that their institutions will strive to become anti-racist. Those steps have highlighted the inherent tensions that some see between committing to anti-racism and preserving academic freedom or intellectual diversity.
Adán Colón-Carmona , a biology professor who co-chaired the committee working on the mission and vision statement, said the university takes pride in being the most ethnically diverse public university in New England. According to the university, 59 percent of undergraduates are first-generation college students, and 62 percent identify as members of a minority group. Colón-Carmona said that to be able to say that the university strives to become anti-racist “makes a statement to students that … you’re welcome here and we’re going to work to get better at this and we value you.”
But critics say that the draft — which has not yet been presented to university leaders — goes too far.
“We want to further all the important goals and directions of our society but through what we are,” said a faculty member who signed the opposition letter. “We are a teaching and research institution, and through that, we try to advance all those causes.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that he feared potential repercussions. Several other faculty members who signed the letter declined to comment.
Aaron Terr, a senior program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took particular issue with this sentence: “We hold ourselves and each other accountable to ensure these values drive all decision-making in research, pedagogical innovations, resource allocation, and the development of policies and practices.” He said that the statement “raises serious concerns that the university is subordinating the First Amendment rights and academic freedoms of its faculty and students to the pursuit of an ideological agenda.”
Michael Poliakoff, president of American Council of Trustees and Alumni, applauded the faculty members who have registered their protest. He said the controversy brought to mind the 1967 Kalven Report, in which a committee from the University of Chicago articulated what the university’s role should be in political and social issues, concluding that “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom and inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures … and must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”
That statement was very influential. But college campuses are generally more racially diverse today than they were in 1967, and the idea that they should hold politics at arms length is under increasing pressure. “In academia, there is this notion that we are objective researchers, that we aren’t activists, we’re trying to be objective and produce new knowledge,” said Jonathan Vega Martinez, a Ph.D. student in sociology. “But that is a reasoning that is very steeped in whiteness.”
“People of color always need to justify their point of view as being objective, but white people never need to do that,” Martinez continued. “This notion … that we need to maintain this idea of objectivity so that we don’t contaminate our research — that’s how racism hides itself, that’s how racism becomes invisible.”
Similarly, Sami Sanghvi, a junior majoring in math and economics, said that she was shocked by the letter of opposition and that it made her look at her professors differently. “The fact that they think politics and research can be kept separate is disturbing and even hurtful,” Sanghvi said.
The university’s Graduate Employee Organization said the letter of opposition was “at best tone-deaf and, at worst, racist.”
“We do not agree with the presumption that situating anti-racism and wellness at the heart of the university’s mission will undermine the university’s role as an engine for free inquiry and knowledge creation,” the union said in a written statement. The statement concludes that it is crucial that the university “explicitly commits to anti-racism.”
Last fall university leaders asked a group of about 20 faculty, staff, administrators, and students to draft a new mission statement and vision for the university as part of a broader strategic plan. The group released a draft on February 9 after several open forums to gather comments from the university community, months of weekly meetings, and at least three iterations of written statements within the group.
Critics of the proposed new mission and vision statement have voiced their objections early in the process. According to a university spokesperson, the committee will continue to gather and consider people’s views and then submit a draft to the strategic planning committee for review and potentially more revisions. After that it would be open to additional feedback before being sent to the university cabinet, including the provost, for review, which would offer a final recommendation to the chancellor. Finally, the statement would be sent to the Board of Trustees for approval.