Profiles in Institutional Courage and Cowardice: Fordham and Stanford

Because of my age, rank, and other factors, I am one of the people who receives "headhunter" emails from search firms that have been hired to help law schools fill open deanships.  Like Professor Dorf, I am NOT interested in being a dean -- at all.  Such emails, however, do also seek the names of other people whom I might recommend for a decanal position, which gives me the opportunity to inflict a possible deanship on friends, acquaintances, and others.

In any event, I recently received one of those inquiries, in this case for the dean search at Fordham's law school.  I read through the description of the position, which has also been posted publicly, and I noted something that should have been unremarkable but that stood out in the current academic and political environment.  Although such advertisements are predictably filled with boilerplate and vague-yet-uplifting prose, the advertisement included these forthright statements:

Fordham Law’s accomplishments and recognitions reflect the strength of its momentum in pedagogy and curricular reform, scholarship, inclusion and diversity, community service, the pursuit of justice on behalf of the underrepresented and marginalized, and the strengthening of the rule of law both locally and on a global scale.

... Fordham Law and Fordham University are committed to making the pursuit of racial, economic, environmental and social justice an inextricable and interdependent part of its academic excellence.

The next Dean of Fordham Law will be an unflappable, humanistic, devoted, energetic, nimble, and approachable leader with a track record of distinguished accomplishments. This person will possess a demonstrated dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and a genuine understanding and appreciation of Fordham Law’s deeply rooted commitment to public service.

Again, that is the style of prose common to such documents, and there truly should be nothing in there that would strike a reader as being at all controversial.  Yet there are those words: "inclusion and diversity," "racial, economic, environmental, and social justice," and "diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging."  Cue the scary organ music.

It is probably obvious, but I think it is worth emphasizing that I have a heightened sensitivity to those words because I am (for now) a public employee in the great state of Florida, a place that is politically dominated by a governor who can neither define nor stop saying the word "woke."  That governor leads the state's Republican Party, and that party has prominently targeted both higher education and progressive social commitments, being especially nasty about situations where the two overlap. 

And whereas Virginia's governor, Glenn Youngkin, lied his way into office merely by jumping on the bandwagon against the fabricated menace of Critical Race Theory in the schools, Florida's Republicans have decided to make it illegal for its professors to talk about racial or other "controversial" issues.  One prominent part of that legislative onslaught was an explicit ban on having "diversity, equity, and inclusion" (DEI) administrators in state universities.  My law school was thus forced to eliminate that office, as were other units of the university in Gainesville and throughout the state.

Even so, the conservative movement's war against DEI and anything resembling "social justice" or environmental concerns is hardly limited to the third most populous state in the country.  Other states with safely gerrymandered and voter-suppressed Republican legislatures have been using the same playbook, in large degree modeled on what Florida has done -- which, to be clear, was not hatched in the minds of anyone in Tallahassee but in billionaire-funded conservative political boiler rooms.

With public higher education on the run in more than half of the states -- and, to be VERY clear, a future Republican US President and Congress would impose such limitations on public universities in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and beyond, federalism be damned -- an important question has loomed over academia: How will non-public universities respond?

No advertisement for a high-profile position like a dean would ever be finalized without the explicit approval of a university's top officers and board members, which means that Fordham and its law school as institutions are very much on board with all of the DEI, social justice, environmental, and other commitments noted in the position announcement.  Why are they so supportive?  Below, I will discuss Fordham itself and why it is not in fact surprising that the university would stake out this kind of public position.  I will then contrast their reaction with the choices made by another top non-public university that recently found itself having to make a choice about whether to bow to the ascendant anti-intellectual, reactionary right.  But unlike Fordham, Stanford caved.

Before getting there, however, it is worth thinking about Fordham and its intellectual tradition.  As I wrote recently, I have a unique personal history when it comes to religion.  Being the son of a Presbyterian minister, however, did not make me an expert on religious issues -- not even about the Presbyterian Church itself.  (I could not competently explain what a "presbyter" is, to be brutally honest about my own ignorance.)  And because I realized early in life that I am an atheist, I always had complicated-at-best feelings about organized religion.  There was a Roman Catholic parish in my hometown, but by the time I went off to college I had no stronger feelings about Catholics than I had about, say, Lutherans.

By pure happenstance, however, I entered college just when parliamentary debate was becoming a big deal in US colleges.  The nascent debating circuit was almost entirely based in the Northeast, and it was mostly the stomping ground of the Ivy League and similar colleges (Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Smith, Vassar, and so on).  To my surprise, a university called Fordham had one of the strongest debate teams in the country.  I was surprised not only because Fordham is not an Ivy-type school dominated by rich kids but because I simply had never heard of it.  And that in turn means that I did not know that it was a Catholic school.  In my insular little town in northwest Ohio, I had heard of Notre Dame and Georgetown (and the University of Detroit, simply because of proximity), but that was about it.  I doubt that I even knew that Boston College and Villanova -- which I would have heard about because of college sports -- were Catholic.  Yes, I was that ignorant.

Becoming friendly at weekly debate tournaments with the Fordham guys (only guys were on the debate team at that time, although the school is co-ed) was thus an education for me.  One of the their best debaters was just about to take his vows and enter the priesthood, but most of them were just good Catholic kids from the suburbs who excelled in high school and thus were able to get into a highly selective university.  But what made them stand out from nearly everyone else on the debate circuit was that they were extremely well educated in philosophy.  References to St. Thomas Aquinas were sprinkled throughout their speeches, and their ability to argue in a sophisticated way was impressive.

Why were they so unusually well educated in that way?  Again, until that time I knew nothing about the Catholic Church -- other, I suppose, than that they had a Pope and that we Protestants did not.  Even so, I did know that Father Robert Drinan had been elected to Congress on an anti-Vietnam War platform, and I knew that a lot of Catholic priests were committed to social justice, being especially concerned with poverty and other social ills.  My new friends from Fordham then explained how important and different the various orders of the Church were, in particular the Jesuits.

The Jesuits have always been the most progressive force in the Church (which is not to damn with faint praise, pun intended), and the universities that they founded -- obviously including Fordham -- have thus been especially notable for their commitments to addressing social injustice, including (as the advertisement noted above specified) a concern for "the underrepresented and marginalized."  Even so, because the Catholic Church in this country includes a large bloc of bishops who are committed right-wing culture warriors, not even all Jesuit universities (much less other types of Catholic universities) are allowed to be as progressive as one might expect.

And such political pressures within the Church are hardly new.  Drinan left Congress when the newly installed traditionalist John Paul II decreed that priests must not be involved in electoral politics, in part because Drinan favored legal abortion (even though he was morally opposed to it).  Unsurprisingly, Drinan was a Jesuit.  And even though the current Pope has (as I noted in my recent column) mocked the hardcore conservatives' obsession with "sins below the waist," there is no way to know whether that 86-year-old -- the first Jesuit ever to become Pope, by the by -- will be replaced by someone with similar views or instead by a new hardliner (along the lines of his predecessor, the ultra-reactionary Benedict XVI).

Given everything that we know about the Roman Catholic Church, it is impossible not to have at best mixed feelings.  Just in this century alone, the Church has been exposed for its failures in dealing with thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children over the span of decades.  Even so, I continue to think of the Jesuits as a force for good, and Fordham's stance is consistent with its traditions as a Jesuit university.  Similarly, Georgetown (also Jesuit) recently took a very difficult and public stand to atone for its involvement in human enslavement in its early years.

The point is that, although it is not a public university, Fordham (like all Catholic universities) is forced to navigate very difficult political seas.  It is not as if the university's leaders can say, "Whew!  We don't have to answer to the likes of a Ron DeSantis, so we can ignore the right's outrage machine."  They could have become cautious and tentative, at least by leaving out terms like "environmental justice," DEI, and so on from its announcement of a dean search for the law school.  But they chose not to be bullied or to self-censor.

What about Stanford?  Last month, I updated the story about a contrived situation at that university's law school in March of this year, when a hard-right Republican-appointed federal judge was heckled by Stanford students.  The administrator who successfully defused that situation is a black woman who was serving as the law school’s DEI officer.  When the American right's attack machine went into overdrive against that administrator, Stanford put her on leave and ultimately fired her.  The school's dean apologized to the judge (twice) and was in short order promoted to Provost of the university.

I concede that I cannot know what was going through the minds of the relevant decision makers at Stanford.  Maybe they looked at the evidence and concluded in good faith (but indefensibly) that the DEI person was in the wrong.  But based on what the now-former dean wrote and said at the time, that is extremely difficult to believe.  It seems much more likely than not that one of the leading universities in the world -- non-public, nonsectarian, and filthy rich -- decided that it cannot even risk standing up to one mouth-breathing bigot of a federal judge.

Why?  To preserve "access" to the federal judiciary, including prized clerkships for its students?  To avoid being called woke?  It turns out that when an institution stands for nothing other than protecting its most narrow interests, it stands for nothing.  Maybe a bit of Jesuit training from the folks at Fordham would do them (and the world) some good.