June 10, 2001
By KAREN W. ARENSON, The New York TImes
We live, it seems, in an age of contrition. Pope John Paul II has apologized for 2,000 years of errors by the Roman Catholic Church. President Bill Clinton went to Africa to apologize for America's role in enslaving Africans. Germany is paying reparations to Holocaust victims. And now come the universities.
In recent weeks, several universities have declared it the season for righting past wrongs. New York University honored the Bates Seven — former students it suspended 60 years ago as they protested the university's policy of not allowing black athletes to compete in certain sporting events. Brooklyn College bestowed an honorary degree on a civil rights lawyer whom college officials had once called unfit for public office. And the graduating class at Princeton University embraced a judge who said he was admitted to the school in 1936 and then turned away when officials discovered that he was black; the students made him an honorary member of their class.
"In a world like today, institutions have to take a stand," said the president of Brooklyn College, Christoph M. Kimmich, who proposed the honor for the civil rights lawyer, William L. Taylor. "If the president of this small 28- acre domain doesn't stand up for something, the institution will be lackluster and without purpose."
That sounds admirable, especially considering that universities have long anointed themselves as defenders of the truth. But some, who believe universities should do more, say these apologies are the easy way out because they deal with historic wrongs rather than current ones.
"It is easy to say, `This institution made a mistake 50 years ago,' " said David Nasaw, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "It is harder to say, `This institution needs to make a difficult moral decision at this moment.' "
Consider some high-profile issues on which college students have begged their universities to take a stand. The Vietnam War. Investments in South Africa. Or, more recently, paying better wages to janitors and other campus workers.
To many student protesters, the answers are obvious; to many college officials, they are not.
"With the hindsight of 60 years, sure you can figure things out," said Lynne Brown, the N.Y.U. vice president who helped coordinate the event to honor the suspended protesters. When an issue is current, she added, "It is hard to figure these things out."
But other college officials say that their institutions do have a special obligation to take a stand — or, at the very least, to grapple with topical issues, if only to set an example for those they are trying to educate.
"If colleges and universities are to be something more than places that provide basic training for the world of work and consumption, they have to concern themselves with larger moral and civic purposes," said Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University.
"The purpose of higher education is not just to train students to enter the labor market," Dr. Sandel said. "It is to shape citizens who can participate effectively in democratic life. That means that colleges and universities have to engage moral and civic questions as institutions, beyond the classroom."
Historically, American colleges and universities did engage deeply in moral discussions. Harvard, Yale and other early American colleges — some founded 300 or more years ago — were established by religious groups, in part to train people for the church. Moral themes were a cornerstone of their teaching, and college officials were regarded as arbiters of ethical issues, on campus and off.
In recent years, however, colleges have sometimes been portrayed as opportunists like everyone else: institutions that cheated on their accounting, charged unconscionably high prices, and paid more attention to professors' comfort than students' needs.
As for the pursuit of truth and justice, the record there is spotty, too. During the McCarthy era, for example, campuses like Harvard and City College dismissed professors who would not answer questions from government investigators about whether they or their colleagues were Communists.
And like other American institutions, many universities discriminated on the basis of race and religion, behavior that is illegal now. University presidents like Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton talked about keeping out Jewish students and blacks. "If colleges are to hold the moral center, it is essential that they correct their history and apologize," said Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia Teachers College.
While it is easy to condemn such past practices, however, some educators say it is dangerous — or virtually impossible — to offer answers to many of today's issues.
For all of those who wish to see universities provide more moral leadership, there are others who caution that they may lose their ability to pursue scholarship objectively — and their role as honest brokers of truth and information — if they do.
As Dr. Sandel said: "Universities are subject to competing pressures. On the one hand, it is important that colleges and universities avoid strictly partisan politics, because if they get involved, then they lack the detachment and independence that education requires. At the same time, they can't pretend to be neutral on moral and civic issues, because that would fail to offer students an example of what it means to engage in public life, and to take moral responsibility for one's choices and actions."
Princeton University's president, Harold T. Shapiro, also argues that universities are too complex and face too many constituencies for a president to be the moral arbiter.
In "Universities and Their Leadership," (Princeton University Press, 1998), a book he edited with William G. Bowen, Dr. Shapiro wrote that today's university president "does not choose or cannot afford to be the philosopher king (or queen) of his (or her) institution, let alone society at large."
"The new scale and scope of these institutions require, for good or ill, the careful balancing and blending of a wide range of `interests' rather than the striking of a particular moral or prophetic pose," he wrote.
Yet some campuses, including Princeton, are gingerly taking on some knotty issues of today, often pushed by activist students like the ones from half a century ago who are being honored today.
Prodded by students, some colleges and universities are trying to ensure that they do not buy sweatshirts and other goods made by employees working in inhumane conditions. And some are beginning to grapple with the issue of whether they ought to raise wages for janitors and others who work full time but still do not earn enough to live on.
After a student sit-in at the admissions office last year, Wesleyan University's president, Douglas J. Bennet, negotiated with students to develop a code of conduct for service contractors. It called for compensation of $10.20 per hour (including benefits), health care coverage and job protection. Wesleyan estimated that the agreement would probably cost it at least $250,000 a year, but in his commencement speech this year, Mr. Bennet commended the protesters.
Princeton, too, recently promised to raise wages for its lowest-paid employees, in response to a recommendation by a committee on university priorities that considered the issue after it was raised by campus protesters. After a 26-day protest at Harvard, during which students occupied the administration building, Harvard, too, has appointed a committee to study worker wages.
Another issue that some university presidents have taken a stand on in recent years is affirmative action. In the face of criticism by affirmative action opponents and some courts, they have argued that it is valuable for their campuses because it creates more diverse student bodies.
Do such moves signal a change of heart among university leaders?
Dr. Kimmich at Brooklyn College argues that the recognition of Mr. Taylor, the civil rights lawyer, was less a statement about the past than about the present.
"We're not here to apologize for history," he said. "Who are we to do so? We recognized Bill Taylor because he stands for things we value, like independence of thought and fighting for principles you believe in. He represents Brooklyn College as I think of it — and as I would like it to be."