Messages from the President

Message from the President, May 29, 2020

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Message from the President, May 29, 2020

It can be especially disheartening and disturbing, in the midst of this pandemic that has now claimed over 100,000 American lives, to witness what seems to be an accelerating number of hate crimes and acts of violence stemming from racism.  National crises such as the one we are experiencing inevitably disclose the starkest inequities in our society—political, economic, sexual, and racial—which subsequently remind us of the deep divisions that not only persist but remain, in too many ways, foundational to our society.  In “The Broken Heart of American: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United State,” for instance, Walter Johnson, Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, explores the pernicious and constitutive connection between racism and economics that runs throughout the entirety of US history.  Johnson focuses on the city of St. Louis, which he sees as “the crucible of American history” and the “juncture of empire and anti-Blackness.”

The events currently unfolding in Minneapolis, sparked by outrage at the death of George Floyd  as recorded on Facebook Live by a bystander and circulated across the internet, is as shocking for its violence as it is for the recordings of the desperate pleas of compassion from Floyd himself as well as the bystanders on his behalf (at one point, an off-screen bystander says, “He is human, bro,” to the officer kneeling on his neck).  And its near-identical repetition of the death of another black man in 2014, Eric Garner, who pleaded with officers that he couldn’t breathe while in a chokehold, only underscores Johnson’s terrible allegory of America’s “broken heart.”

What happened to George Floyd is both tragic and horrific, but the magnitude of the violence of that incident is refracted in countless other encounters, ones that mercifully do not always end in tragedy, but are nonetheless triggered by racist anger and privilege.  The story of a white woman in Central Park, threatening to call the police and claim that she is (falsely) being attacked by a black man who simply asked her to leash her dog (and follows the city rules), again caught on video by the man himself who was undaunted by her threats and wisely did not stop filming, is but one example of many recent incidents.  Her direct threat of violence upon his body—“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she speaks with shocking perceived impunity—is a sorrowful reminder of how an apparent education and social privilege fails to overcome the latent legacy of America’s racism within so many individuals.

Near the beginning of this pandemic, I talked and wrote about how I thought it an absolute truth that, as individuals as well as an institution, we needed to approach this crisis from a position of an ethic of care.  As explained by its founding practitioner, Carol Gilligan, this is a set of values “grounded in voice and relationships, in the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect. An ethics of care directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others. Its logic is inductive, contextual, psychological, rather than deductive or mathematical.”  As I extrapolated, rather than function within a set of individualistic ethics (“do what you want as long as it doesn’t impact me”), an ethics of care not only focuses on the importance of happiness as an absolute value shared by *all* human beings, but one in which *all* human beings are responsible not just for our own happiness, but for one another’s.  In this time in which the usual rules no longer apply, we must be even more attentive to each other’s specific situation and a sympathetic understanding of possible outcomes for *all* individuals involved based upon our decisions and actions.  Because what our students and communities will remember is that we attempted to do the right thing in this time of crisis, and addressing the needs and interests of those involved and the networks of care that connect them.

I see Gilligan’s ethics of care as a vital alternate narrative and basis for core social values to begin the healing and redressing of the legacy of the “broken heart” of America as so powerfully delineated by Walter Johnson.  And we do indeed see images of such an ethic throughout social media, in our daily interactions with one another, in the selfless decisions made each and every day by health care professionals and others who strive to make this a safer world for all of us.  We see this in a Costco employee, for example, who calmly—and resolutely—responded to the derogatory and challenging taunts of a customer refusing to wear a mask and, in the end, who sheepishly simply left the store.  This brief exchange perfectly encapsulates this clash of ethos: the “individual rights” narrative (in which the freedom to wear “x” or carry “y” is first and foremost) in contradistinction to an ethics of care in which we must all be responsible for each other’s safety and protection.

Certainly, the practice of such an ethics cannot “cure” or magically eradicate the legacy of imperialism and racism that haunts so many interactions to this day.  And which the covid-19 pandemic has once again brought to the fore of our national consciousness.

But the role of institutions of higher education, now more than ever, must be to engage the faultlines made manifest by this emergency—to model, promulgate, and practice a counter-narrative that places value, first and foremost, in the dignity of all human life.  One that, as Carol Gilligan might say, does not look to help people simply adjust to a world of dangerous confrontation and explosive connection—America’s “heart” broken by the pernicious conjoining of racism and capitalism.  But, rather, one that brings into being a world of care and protection in which responsibility means doing what others are counting on us to do regardless of what we ourselves may want.

This is the responsibility of UMPI as a community and as individuals, one that we all share.  For just as it is never acceptable to tolerate racism and bigotry, nor is it acceptable to simply “like” a meme or a slogan and not reflect upon our values and ensure that our daily actions, no matter how consequential, live out this ethos.  This can be a significant challenge, for higher education itself is grounded in rules and principles (many of them decade or centuries old!), in which the focus is always on the autonomy (or lack) of the individual student.  An ethic of care emphasizes not only relationships and how our rules must be context dependent, but must also focus on compromise and accommodation.  And it is through care, of course, that inclusion, diversity, and equity are all made possible.

I cannot be more proud of the staff, faculty, and, most of all, the students of this great institution who practice and embody these virtues.  Who envision—and toil to make possible—a world that will see the end of a historical legacy that has influenced and determined so much of our behavior for far too long, in tragic travesties of justice as well as seemingly small, daily acts of abuse and disrespect. Ines Ngoges, Evan Zarkadas, Kendra Bear-Perley, Stacy Landry, Yvonne Hartridge, Alexandra Michaud, KJ Minter, Miranda Washinawatock, the entire remarkable teams of the Student Government Association and the Black Student Union, and so many more—these are the faces of hope and change in our world.