Wesleyan University president insists ‘safe spaces’ promote ‘intellectual diversity’

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Former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman reacts to the new op-ed.

“The Assault on American Excellence” — a controversial new book by former Dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75 that criticizes diversity policies in higher education — has reignited debate over race, inclusion and free discourse on campus, years after racial protests surrounding the renaming of Calhoun College launched Yale into the national spotlight.

In his book, Kronman — who is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School — identifies “the boundless impulse for democratic equality” as one of the biggest threats on college campuses today. He also offers a searing criticism of University President Peter Salovey and his handling of the racial protests that erupted in 2015. Last month, the former dean also penned a Wall Street Journal opinion article, denouncing colleges’ emphasis on diversity of race, ethnicity and gender over diversity of thought.

“Diversity, as it is understood today, means … diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation,” Kronman said in the op-ed. “Diversity in this sense is not an academic value. Its origin and aspiration are political. The demand for ever-greater diversity in higher education is a political campaign masquerading as an educational ideal.”

Since the release of Kronman’s op-ed and book, administrators, faculty members and students have engaged in conversations about issues of diversity and free speech on campus. But Salovey has yet to respond to Kronman’s criticisms. In an email to the News, Salovey said that although he has not yet read Kronman’s book, he looks forward to doing so and values “public discourse on a topic that is so important to higher education and our society.”

In his book, Kronman criticized many of Salovey’s policy decisions, among them the replacing of the term “master of college” with “head of college” and the renaming of Calhoun College after pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper GRD ’34. He also rebuked Salovey’s lack of support for former Associate Master and Master of Silliman College, Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis, respectively. In 2015, students staged a string of protests in response to an email from Erika Christakis to Silliman College students criticizing an earlier statement from the University which asked students to avoid culturally offensive Halloween costumes.

Law professor and Davenport Head of College John Witt ’94 — who chaired the committee that formed the guidelines that led to Calhoun’s renaming — penned an opinion piece in the News on Monday defending his committee’s historical- and mission-driven work. He also criticized Kronman’s assessment of diversity on campus, calling his reasoning “breathtakingly disrespectful” and his definition of academic excellence a “dogged defense of white supremacy’s most glaring symbols.”

Kronman fired back in an op-ed published on Wednesday and argued that Calhoun’s complicated legacy is an important reminder of Yale’s controversial past. He called Witt’s criticisms “virtue-signaling and name-calling.”

“I have read professor Kronman’s and professor Witt’s op-eds, and I have been impressed by this intellectual conversation as it has unfolded,” Salovey said. “Yale is an exciting place to learn and teach precisely because our students and scholars engage with issues that matter — issues of importance to our campus, our democracy and our world.”

When asked to comment on criticisms of his book, Kronman declined to comment further, referring the News to his book.

In addition to Witt, many members of the University community have criticized Kronman for what they see as outdated views of diversity.

“Reading the book left me with a sense of sadness that someone who has been at Yale for so long as a student, faculty member, parent and administrative leader could develop such a cynical and distorted understanding of the intellectual and political commitments of Yale students,” professor of ethnicity, race and migration Daniel HoSang said. “The students I work with are far more analytically agile, sophisticated and open-minded in their approaches to new ideas and arguments than anything this book offers.”

Still, HoSang — who teaches the popular lecture “Race, Politics, and the Law” — said that he suspects that few members of the Yale community will be persuaded by Kronman’s arguments.

Daniel Colon-Ramos, an associate professor at Yale’s School of Medicine who identified himself as Hispanic, took issue with Kronman’s lack of scientific evidence and data behind his conclusions.

“I am a scientist. We seek truth through data rather than dialectic arguments,” Colon-Ramos said. “The data refute most of the arguments made by Anthony Kronman, in particular the false dichotomy he creates between excellence and diversity.”

Colon-Ramos cited research on diversity conducted by teams at Anand Engineering College and Kenyatta University’s School of Business which found that diversity is an organizational strength. He argued that Kronman’s reasoning followed the same trajectory of “the Earth is flat because the horizon looks like a line.”

“Anthony Kronman simultaneously argues the importance of dissenting opinions in the classroom while bemoaning dissenting opinions from diverse groups based on their experiences. In some twisted reasoning, the minority experience to him becomes the ‘tyranny of majority opinion’, and some dogmatic opinion becomes ‘truth,’” Ramos said.

According to public University figures, a record 51 percent of the class of 2023 identify themselves as members of a minority group.

For his part, Richard Bribiescas, deputy vice provost for faculty development and diversity, restressed Yale’s commitment to diversity and called attention to the “many inaccuracies” in Kronman’s commentary in a tweet last month.

“There is a common but misled perception both within and outside of the university that diversity and inclusion can only be achieved by compromising excellence,” Bribiescas wrote in an email to the News. “This is simply false. … In order to remain competitive, Yale needs to develop an inclusive pool of talent in order to leverage every opportunity to identify, recruit, and retain the best and brightest.”

Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’20 defended the camaraderie built by Yale’s commitment to diversity, citing unified support this year to increase university support for the Program in Ethnicity, Race and Migration.

“This collaboration was born out of the truest form of demanding (academic) diversity: calling to bolster academic opportunities in a field not historically sponsored at our university,” he said.

Bribiescas emphasized the “spirit of making the university stronger and more unified” behind community efforts to address a lack of diversity or inclusion at Yale and praised the academic benefits of racial and gender diversity.

“Based on a compelling and growing body of research on the value of diversity along various dimensions, including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, we recruit faculty and students based on the academic value of excellence and inclusion,” he said. “If we are inclusive and mindful of faculty and student diversity, academic diversity will evolve organically.”

This fall, Kronman will be coteaching an undergraduate seminar called “The American Imagination: From the Puritans to the Civil War” with professor Steven Smith.

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