Concerned reactions to the statement and responses from Department Chair

This summer, Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) posted a Statement on Confronting Racism onto its departmental homepage, asserting that it “strongly affirms that Black Lives Matter.” The statement raised concern among some students and alumni of the Program, who worried that it supports the Black Lives Matter organization, and that it uses the language and concepts of postmodern identity politics. Thomas Stapleford, PLS Department Chair, explained and justified the statement by affirming that “liberal education is fundamentally anti-racist.” 

The statement was first sent out to all current PLS students on June 19th, in an email entitled, “Statement in response to racist violence and injustice.” The statement itself lends support to “activists, including in our own South Bend and Notre Dame communities, protesting police brutality against Black lives.” It continues by claiming that “universities and the liberal arts tradition have too often been complicit in racism and have betrayed their own ideals, serving as means of systemic exclusion, silencing, and oppression.” The statement did not provide any evidence in support of this second claim.

The statement also outlined the general steps that the Program seeks to take in order to foster “a just and inclusive future for higher education.” These two considerations are: “Continuing our holistic re-evaluation of the curriculum, with diversity of voices as a central priority,” and, “Establishing an Inclusion Advisory Council comprised primarily of alumni falling outside the dominant demographics of Notre Dame students.”

PLS’s decision to release the statement surprised and concerned several students and alumni of the Program. Katherine Kersten, an active participant in PLS’s alumni programming, wrote a letter to the faculty and emeriti of PLS, stressing her concern that the statement “reflects the influence of the ideology of racial identity politics, which is antithetical to a truly liberal education … This ideology rejects the idea of truth as the liberal tradition understands it, embraces determinism, and explains life in terms of power dynamics.”

2019 graduate Soren Hansen also expressed disappointment with the statement: 

I’m a recent alumna of PLS, and loved the program for its serious students and scholars forming a community devoted to the pursuit of truth. As a graduate of this Catholic university I can of course affirm the necessity of justice and recognition of dignity for all races, and I agree that PLS ought to pursue these ends. However, when the faculty say that they must revise the curriculum to pursue diversity of voices as the top priority, the ends of education have changed, and the pursuit of truth and justice is no longer the mission. I am disappointed that the faculty have lost this purpose, and while I can affirm the priority of justice, PLS seems to be veering from the path.”

Part of the concern shared by some PLS students and alumni stems from the seeming endorsement of the Black Lives Matter organization, given that the statement’s first line used capital letters in reference to the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Dr. Stapleford responded to this concern by distinguishing between the Black Lives Matter organization and the phrase used as a more general slogan:

We were quite careful not to say that ‘PLS endorses the global organization Black Lives Matter’ but instead that PLS ‘strongly affirms that Black Lives Matter.’ This distinction between the organization and a slogan that has been adopted by a much broader social movement is both common and significant.”

Dr. Stapleford emphasized that the reason they decided to use capital letters when writing “Black Lives Matter” is because that is how the slogan has been most commonly presented in this year’s movements for racial justice, and not because the statement meant to in any way align itself with a particular political organization. He noted that prominent Catholics such as EWTN host Gloria Purvis have encouraged distinguishing between supporting “Black Lives Matter” as a broader movement, and endorsing the political organization by the same name. 

Other concerned members of the PLS community wondered why the Program does not take stances with regards to other prominent issues, such as abortion, economic policies, religious freedom, etc. In response to this, Dr. Stapleford argued that these issues—while important—are not related to liberal university education as directly as the question of racial justice. Specifically, he noted that the influence an academic program’s curriculum, structure, and culture has on matters of racial justice is simply more direct than its influence on other kinds of political matters. 

Dr. Stapleford expanded on PLS’s statement during his delivery of this year’s Opening Charge, an annual address given by a PLS faculty member on the value of liberal education. In his address, entitled “Liberal Education in Times of Crisis,” Dr. Stapleford argued that “racism has shaped our perception of intellectual history; it has shaped the canons of great books; and it has shaped the communities of learners who gather beneath the banner of liberal education…Those of us who are committed to liberal education must confront that legacy honestly and forthrightly.”

Later in the Opening Charge, Dr. Stapleford argued that “liberal education is fundamentally anti-racist,” pointing out that the texts of the liberal arts tradition represent a breadth of cultures and races, and emphasizing that liberal education “cultivates habits of thought and action that enable us to truly listen to others, that disabuse us of our unfounded assumptions, and that reveal the limits of our own perspective.” 

Freshman Vanessa Franco is considering joining PLS, but was disappointed by some of the points made in the Opening Charge about increasing racial diversity in the Program: “I don’t think that a program like PLS should do anything ‘special’ to attract students like myself who are considered ethnic minorities. It sends a message that minority students are different or somehow incapable of falling in love with the beauty and great works of the Western world. The program, by the simple fact of being what it is, should attract all kinds of students, regardless of race.”

Concerns such as Franco’s will have to be reassessed as the Program institutes new policies. While the Statement on Confronting Racism and Dr. Stapleford’s Opening Charge appear to mark a decisive moment in the history of the Program of Liberal Studies, the practical results of this moment—in areas such as curricular changes, student interest, or hiring policies—remain to be seen. 

Nicolas Abouchedid is the Rover’s editor-in-chief emeritus. He is currently taking a gap year from classes at Notre Dame, but will graduate in 2022 with degrees in the Program of Liberal Studies and in Mandarin Chinese. He is originally from, and hopes to one day return to, Caracas, Venezuela.