The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Open Letter to President Johnnetta Cole (#2)

Any seeming criticism of blacks, no matter how true, reasoned, and well-intentioned, had been inhibited for years. I had nevertheless begun to wonder about the effects of educationists on minorities, and vice versa. […] Black educationists now had the same self-interest as white educationists, further inhibiting any free and open discussion of the effects of minorities on education and vice versa. To me, disentangling them appeared central to any educational reform.
            —Reginald G. Damerell, How Teachers Colleges Have Destroyed Education in America: Education’s Smoking Gun


The right to criticize. The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does not? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.
            —Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in the Senate who spoke first against McCarthy


First, I am neither angry or bitter, and certainly not jealous. I am simply disappointed by the incredible aversion of Bennett College professors with regards the intellectual debate and discussion of ideas different from their own. What hatred of diversity! My criticism in various op-eds has met with absolute silence… with one exception. Indeed, when I dared commit the sin of sins during one department meeting, that is, criticizing the department mission statement as entirely unoriginal, my colleagues assailed me with anger and insult, and even suggested I find another job. Well, I haven’t found another job. But rather unemployment than happy-face fascism!

This open letter was not planned, but rather compelled by what I witnessed at Charter Day Convocation, veritable shock to my intellectual sensibilities. After all, why opine to a family of seeming self-satisfied members who will not respond or listen to criticism? Though not really different from the other meetings you’ve held, it seemed a bit more Orwellian than usual. Having to sit through such meetings for me might be akin to a black person having to sit through a KKK gathering, mouth shut, or a Fundamentalist Christian through an Osama spiel, or a Jew through a Farrakhan rap, or simply a Bennett College professor forced to read one of my essays.

Clearly, by placing the importance of the institution above truth and its “free exposition,” Bennett College’s leadership and acquiescing professors have been transgressing the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure disseminated by the American Association of University Professors. "Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."

What chilled me most during Sunday’s meeting were the REPETITIONS and GLORIFICATIONS ad infinitum… besides the usual backslapping in excess. Professors ought be ashamed of themselves, sitting and a-men’ing periodically through such an intellectually vacuous séance. How can the latter possibly honor the college’s founders? How sad to see students, one by one, read the very same texts of repetition and glorification. Is that what their professors have been teaching? Is this really an institution of higher learning or is it rather a church thinly disguised awarding diplomas? This is the fundamental question that thinking professors need to discuss openly and vigorously.

Are you aware that your carefully cultivated image might be projecting BIG SISTER, as in Orwell’s Big Brother? Why is Bennett’s billboard the only billboard in town with the college president’s face covering it? The other college billboards in town depict pictures of students, not the chief administrators. Your face is constantly in the News & Record, which now refuses to publish my op-eds. Free Speech for Thee, but Not for Me… is an excellent book written by Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff. I strongly suggest it. When the community newspaper refuses the voice of a community member, we should all protest. Why therefore are you content with its policy of censorship? Shame on Mass Comm professors, especially those with evident News & Record connections, for remaining silent on this issue!

Your mixing and glorifying corporate leaders because Afro-American and inviting them to the college to speak will no doubt bring in money, but it will also lessen the mission of higher education, which is not self-esteem building or glorification, but TRUTH, REASON, and LOGIC. Why not invite black poet Wanda Coleman, who wrote a wonderfully critical essay on Maya Angelou and was banned from a black bookstore in L.A. for doing so? She’d give students a healthy dose of the latter, definitely not the ole feel-good discourse. Yes, the deal you and professors make is evidently Faustian… and on various fronts.
Well, I shall soon be gone… but certainly will not forget my experience here in this odd 1984-like ambiance of organ music and group speak. It has certainly reinforced my opinion that church and higher education, as in church and state, definitely do not belong together. You ought to assure that future professors who think as I do, who are apt to question, challenge and openly criticize (yes, I know there aren’t that many of us), are not hired to teach at Bennett College. Save yourself embarrassment and save them discomfort. How can atheist professors possibly teach at a place like this without going whacko? How can white male (or white female) professors possibly teach at a place like this without going whacko? Is the answer provided by former U. Mass. education Professor Damerell desirable? “I at last admitted to myself that I had recognized from the very beginning that the school, in its entirety, was unredeemed mindlessness. I had repressed that knowledge in order to be able to continue as a faculty member. In a word, I had repressed my intellect. Repressed knowledge strongly felt seeks expression as surely as the steam in a covered pot of boiling water seeks release. […] Repression of intellect can only result in naiveté. I was profoundly naïve as a faculty member during my first four years, notwithstanding occasional bouts of mental nausea. They occurred only when I was caught off guard by something more obviously mindless than usual. […] Everyone made me feel a part of the school’s “in” group, a flattering circumstance conducive to naiveté.”

Finally, you need to examine the questions raised here, rather than ignore them… as I suspect you shall do. In the absence of criticism, questioning and challenging, things will only get worse. No doubt, that’s how former president Gloria Scott was able to ascend and thrive. Unfortunately, as your “thought control” sets in more and more, it is not your grave that you will be digging, but rather those of Bennett College students… and the Nation.