Humanities Faculty Respond to Student Petition

By Anthony Passalacqua (ME ’18)

On the February 22, the students of Cooper Union brought a petition to the attention of the Humanities and Social Science (HSS) faculty. The students have, to word it bluntly, accused the HSS faculty of endemic racism. They have called for an increase in the diversity of the faculty, and for an increase in the geographic scope of the classes.

The faculty responded quickly to the petition, with Dean Germano releasing a statement on behalf of the faculty two days later, on the February 24. In the statement, Dean Germano stated that one of the ways to make “Cooper a stronger place, for students, faculty, staff, and alumni” would be to increase the number of “diverse faculty, who bring diverse backgrounds, new courses, and new ideas.”

He goes on to make clear that no kind of discrimination has ever been tolerated at the Cooper Union. He stressed that “classes must be safe and welcoming spaces for all students.” The issue of discriminatory comments, even of the micro-aggressive variety, is on the minds of our faculty.

However, Dean Germano’s campus-notice email was not a collective response from all HSS faculty. The Pioneer reached out to the other full-time HSS faculty individually for their thoughts on the student petition. Official responses were provided by both Professor Sonya Sayres and Professor Atina Grossman, while other faculty reacting
either unofficially or not at all, depending on their time constraints.

Professor Grossman’s response particularly speaks to the point that this goes above and beyond issues of just who is being hired. If the Cooper Union does not adjust to the new faculty in a way that lets us take full advantage of their strength, than it does not matter much who has been hired.

If the Cooper Union does not adjust to the new faculty in a way that lets us take full advantage of their strength, than it does not matter much who has been hired.

Professor Sayres’ first response: “what took you [students] so long” to  organize on this issue. She continued, saying that it is

inherently difficult to increase the diversity of the curriculum. Scholars who have invested years into learning, Greek or Latin for example, need to learn languages like Arabic and Chinese in order to continue to expand their understanding of their chosen areas of expertise. Further, changes in the curriculum also have to be able to survive in the long-term, because “if the faculty we hire like it here, then they will likely spend the next thirty years of their lives here.”

Professor Sayres gave an example from a number of years ago, when the HSS faculty “tried to do it from a globalist perspective,” that is, “to interrogate the Eurocentrism” of the curriculum and expand. The HSS faculty used a global perspective text for all four semesters of core HSS. While this worked for a short amount of time, “it always disappears” and the faculty go back to the way they were teaching. Scholars have been hyper-focused since they began their  careers in higher education, and that’s quite different to the demands of a curriculum that provides an expansive, “globalist perspective.”

A theme of the reactions has been some degree of shock. Many of the HSS professors are women who finished their formal education and earned their PhD’s during a time when it was rare for even a white woman to do so. Understandably, to be now accused of systematically keeping minority groups from being represented amongst the faculty comes as quite a surprise.

All of this said, the faculty does indeed seem committed to increasing diversity. The shortlisted candidates for the three full-time faculty positions are beginning their visits to campus this week, and all students will be invited to lunchtime talks by the candidates.

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