Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Letter to the Editor: The weapons of the weak

The arrests that happened a few weeks ago at the Presidential Inauguration were a failure of leadership of monumental proportions: it was not just the failure of the president, though he is the face of the college, but a failure of the College itself. We can shift blame to the ECPD and the Boston Police as inept or (in whispers) racist. Some of us can even blame the students, perhaps. But this incident has left the college upset and disturbed, and it reverberates (yet again) through the community, making us unable to teach and learn at the levels we should aspire to. Undoubtedly, we would all like to move on from the disturbing events of that day. But doing so without pausing to reflect will lead us to a greater failure in the days to come—an abyss of failure.

The past few weeks I have received no less than five emails from administrators and staff offering time to “listen.”  I considered availing myself of this face time, but decided this open letter to the community was a better way of channeling the heartbreak that Emerson causes repeatedly, to all of us who believe in the mission of higher education.

First, a brief word about myself. I am the daughter of two well-regarded scholars, one of whom was the vice chancellor of a large top-tier university, and the other, the creator of a humanities department and its chair for decades. I arrived at Emerson 17 years ago as a bright-eyed assistant professor because I believe in the mission of higher education and the humanities. I rose painfully through the ranks. Now, I teach in the Marlboro Institute as an anthropologist of religion, analyzing social movements and culture. 

From this vantage point I have concluded, sadly, that Emerson trafficks in a culture of neglect and disrespect. I am sure some will disagree. But I see this culture as investing everything we do from small to large, making for a dysfunctional institution. It prevents us from doing significant work such as raising alumni donations, and it exhausts faculty, staff, and students who feel the institution is, at best, hypocritical and, at worst, racist. And it is neglect and disrespect that makes us unable to protect the students when they stand (inconveniently to some, and illegally to others) for their values. But most of all, this culture makes for a poisonous distraction from our mission to educate and empower.

Part of this culture stems from the fact that officers in upper administration (except for our current interim provost, the assistant provost of Faculty Affairs, and the interim dean of the School of the Arts) rarely, if at all, enter the classroom. They have little understanding of what the heartbeat of the college feels like except anecdotally from a handful of people, creating an echo chamber of misconception. In other colleges, most administrators teach or have taught in the institution, and therefore understand the culture and respect what is necessary. But here at Emerson, administrators seem to be hired anew, and have little to no empathy for the expenditure of emotion and time that teaching and learning at Emerson involves. They ask repeatedly for input from faculty and students who are exhausted and overworked, since they have no other way of gauging the temperature of the institution. This leads to two unfortunate outcomes—a contempt for faculty in terms of their time, effort, and work; and a disregard for what students care about—until both boil over. This might be a reason why students (and faculty) do not feel heard or seen.

A second problem is that we run on few resources, and what we do have doesn’t seem to work very well. We might ask, for example, why none of the leadership team (six at my last count), none of the legal staff (three?), none of the DEI officers (four?), none at the Office of Internationalization (three?), or at Student Affairs (many), thought to make their way to the student protest or to the lockup until told to do so, if at all.  It was, as I understand it, faculty*, giving their unpaid time, who sat with the students and soothed their jangled nerves. I hope I am wrong in this. The question that follows and haunts me is: Why? Where are the members of the Board of Trustees? Are they in the know? What do they have to offer us to bind the wounds that this culture inflicts on us all?

 A third area of concern, pertinent to me and my work, was articulated beautifully by the students who gave testimony at the faculty meeting. Why does the College promote liberal arts as a centralizing mission and then proceed to treat it as an annoying add-on? This filters into the student culture—a constant disrespect. I often find students in my classrooms on sufferance, distracted, not seeing the liberal arts in any way connected to their mission as filmmakers, writers, marketers, and performing artists—a jaw-dropping failure—that is disheartening in the extreme. And there is no path forward, no trustworthy leader at the top to advocate, and no undergirding of the overall mission that affirms this value, despite endless petitions and conversations by the Dean of the liberal arts and liberal arts faculty. There seems to be no way to persuade the students of the value of the liberal arts, except through my and fellow faculty’s voices in the classroom.

But in the end, these are mere symptoms. We can argue that it is a broader culture of political polarization, of the university becoming the place of culture wars, or of the protests around the war, or of a crisis in the humanities, or of economics. None of these concerns are trivial. 

To me what is most concerning is that this College-wide culture of neglect and disrespect affects us all. For myself, as a faculty member, it teaches me to go along to get along—to check my ethics and commitments at the door; to brown-nose administrators in the hope of getting a few dollars for a conference, or time to do my research, or to care for those I love; to flatter staff since they hold the power of smoothing over inevitable problems; to give in reluctantly to some student’s requests for education “lite,” more entertainment than something hard won and worthy; and to turn against fellow faculty, seeing them as enemy combatants, not as brothers or sisters in arms. These are the weapons of the weak that, I have to remind myself every day, are the gateway to an utter corruption of what I believe in. And this reminder stops me in my tracks.

For me, it seems our culture normalizes resentment and contempt, weaponizing them against others in the community; pitting staff against faculty, administrators against the community, and students against one another. The enormous privilege of learning and of teaching, foreclosed for many in this world, is forgotten. Our culture makes us look tired, unapologetically hypocritical, resentful, unaware, uncaring and amoral, short-sightedly ready to exploit disaffection for our own small gain. It undercuts everything we do and should stand for. 

And it breaks my heart. 

(*Correction: It has since come to my attention that there were a few faculty and staff members there, all of their own volition and caring.)

Tulasi Srinivas is professor of Anthropology, Religion and Transnational Studies at the Marlboro Institute, Emerson College. She is an award-winning author/editor of four scholarly books, two on religion and wonder, and has been published and cited in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The South China Morning Post, among other outlets. A former advisor to the World Economic Forum, Tulasi is a cultural anthropologist with an expertise in religion.

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