Institutional silence

John Davidian, Contributing Writer

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For what, and for whom, does University President John Bravman email the campus community? What role does a university president play in managing the disconnects that arise between written institutional values and daily campus happenings?

The University’s mission statement reads, in part, that “students develop intellectual maturity, personal conviction, and strength of character informed by a deep understanding of different cultures and diverse perspectives. Bucknell seeks to educate our students to serve the common good and to promote justice in ways sensitive to the moral and ethical dimensions of life.”

Responses to past events provide context. Bravman wrote, for example, to the campus community in April of 2015 to respond to a racist broadcast that aired on WVBU earlier that semester. “Everyone in our community should forcefully and consistently speak out against this hate,” he said, “and do whatever we can to support those who are targeted. Please do not be passive in these efforts.”

More recently, many of us heard Bravman speak at Take Back the Night in October. He conveyed his raw, honest anger that more students were not present to support their peers who are victim-survivors of sexual assault. We’ve also received heartfelt emails from him over the years following other hateful incidents on our campus and acts of racist and antisemitic violence around the world. But then Heather Mac Donald came to campus this fall, and she was met with a long, stoic silence from the second floor of Marts Hall. It’s a silence that begs serious questions.

Mac Donald wrote in City Journal recently that “a far greater percentage of black children must be raised by both their mother and their father, to ensure the socialization that prevents classrooms from turning into scenes of chaos and violence.” And last fall, in response to allegations of abuse against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Mac Donald wrote, again in City Journal, “Either women are too clueless to avoid patent danger, or the epidemic of sexual assault is a fiction. All evidence points to the latter conclusion.” This is just a sampling, but the racism in the former and the sexism and rape denial in the latter are hard to miss.

Bravman did not invite Mac Donald to our campus. The Bucknell Program for American Leadership and Citizenship (BPALC) did. BPALC’s faculty affiliates have the freedom to invite speakers of their choice. But what, if anything, does an appropriate institutional response look like when a group of faculty members bring in a speaker whose work so thoroughly undercuts the mission and values of a university?

There actually is precedent for administrative response to controversial speakers. In February 2019, Miko Peled, a far-left Israeli-American activist and critic of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, came to the University, to which Bravman wrote, “I have empathy for those who find his views to be deeply offensive and hurtful and who may experience them as an attack upon themselves and their very identity.” Yet when Mac Donald came to campus, our inboxes were graced with no such sentiment. This silence naturally invites speculation. When this left-wing speaker visited, Bravman felt the need to email the campus to distance himself personally from that speaker’s views. But when speakers from the far right have visited of late, as in the cases of Amy Wax in 2018 or Mac Donald in 2019, our president remained silent.

In that same February 2019 email, Bravman wrote, “Allowing a speaker on a college campus is not an endorsement of the positions held by that individual.” That’s true. The question of whether a speaker like Mac Donald ought to be invited is one that Bravman has answered forcefully on other occasions, too. He told students at Bucknell Student Government’s A Night with the Presidents event in October that he would not vet speakers who are to be invited to campus. But once funding is introduced, as it was in the case of Mac Donald, it does raise the prospect of tacit endorsement in the absence of a decisive statement to the contrary. Bravman’s response at A Night with the Presidents does little to address the deeper question about the potentiality of endorsement – implicit or otherwise – that financial support necessarily invokes. It’s a question that we as students never received an answer to.

Bravman wrote to the campus community at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, amidst a particularly palpable stretch of nationwide white supremacist organizing and racist violence, “We must recognize when hate comes in the guise of free speech. Let us, together, confront hate and discrimination of all forms. Let us also debate and embrace our differences and do so with integrity. Through these shared commitments, we will better ourselves, our Bucknell and the world beyond our campus.”

And then, just over two years later, Mac Donald visited our campus. For an hour and a half on a cold November night, this hateful, discriminatory person was given a platform to speak. And Bravman offered her and the BPALC faculty members two things: first, his office’s financial support, and second, his deafening silence.

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