Hood president, students learning new lessons

November 18, 1995|By GREGORY KANE

FREDERICK - The slight autumn chill didn't cool the enthusiasm of the student protesters at Hood College on Nov. 10 as they stood on the steps of the Tatem Arts Center. They gave spirited speeches, chanted slogans and left me glad that there are college students somewhere who still give a damn about a cause.

The particular cause here was - on the surface - the elimination of eight majors. Students had learned that the majors would be axed the previous Monday, and then only because of a leak, according to Natalie Bal, a junior editor of the student newspaper Hood Today.

Bal claims that part of the proud Hood tradition is student involvement in the decision-making process. Students were both uninformed and uninvolved in the decision to eliminate majors. That, Bal and her 25 to 30 co-protesters claimed, was not only deceitful, it was downright unHood-like.

Shirley Peterson, the new president of the predominantly women's college, said curriculum decisions are the prerogative of the faculty.

"I feel very badly that our students were unhappy," Peterson said. "But as I look back I think we did the process as well as we could do it." That process was essentially the same as other colleges use, which is precisely the protesters' point.

"We didn't come here to do things the way other schools do them," Bal said. "Hood's pride has always been that students are involved."

But it wasn't just slashing the majors or snubbing students that had the protesters directing their ire at Peterson. Several of them alluded to what, at Hood, is being called The Speech.

Peterson gave The Speech Oct. 16 at Union College in New York. She extolled the value of small colleges and a liberal arts education. Then she said she would "limit courses in and would ideally prohibit majors in identity politics."

Included in identity politics are women's studies, black or African-American studies or any course that focuses on one particular group. But the protesters were most upset when Peterson said toward the end of her speech that "dead white males can still teach us a lot." Some students charged the comment was racist.

"She may not be a racist," said junior Alicia Cruz, one of the leaders of the protest. "But some students are taking her comments that way."

Peterson has denied she's a racist, and I don't doubt her. This is a classic ideological clash, with a Republican college president - who used to work in the conservative administration of George Bush - heading a school where at least some of the students have feminist leanings. Besides, it wasn't Peterson who coined the phrase "dead white males." Credit for that goes to the left side of the political spectrum.

But isn't a women's college in one respect the pinnacle of identity politics? Sophomore Aisha Blanchard thought so. She's so disgusted with Peterson and Hood that she's out of there at semester's end.

"Why did she agree to be considered the president of a women's college if she doesn't agree with identity politics?" Blanchard asked.

Peterson, not unpredictably, disagreed.

"I don't think the two are related," she said. She came to Hood and took a substantial pay cut from a private law firm because she believes education can solve society's problems and she's had a lifelong dream of being president of a women's college. She went on to explain her Union College speech. Her comments about black and women's studies, she said, were in the context of what she would preserve in a liberal arts curriculum with limited resources.

"I would emphasize English, philosophy, lab science and mathematics," Peterson said. It's important to understand other cultures, she continued, but added that "it is not culture that binds our country together, but principles."

Those principles are the ideas of democracy, freedom and equality, Peterson believes. They were handed down through the writings of those "dead white males" - the ancient Greeks, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and others. (I'll have to disagree with her about Jefferson. His critics claim he wouldn't know a principle if it kissed him flush on the mouth.)

Like some of the protesters, she believes the ancient Greeks were "clearly wrong" in their views about women and slavery.

"But there is still much we can learn from them," she insisted. But on this quiet campus in the peaceful town of Frederick, it seems that for now the college president and her feisty student body are learning quite a bit from each other.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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