Liberal Education

Liberation Politics: Identity, Protest, and the Aims of Liberal Education

One of my favorite summer reads of 2017 was Jean Hanff Korelitz’s satirical novel The Devil and Webster.1 Korelitz’s protagonist is Webster College’s seventeenth president, Naomi Roth. The institution’s first female and first Jewish president, Roth is a feminist scholar and women’s studies professor, single parent, and former college activist and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. She is appointed to her position from the faculty after playing a critical leadership role in responding to a national media frenzy stemming from a student’s announcement that, after entering the college as Nell, he now identifies as Neil, a trans man, and has no intention of moving out of the women’s dormitory where he has been living. Her handling of the controversy prompts her fellow presidential search committee members to encourage Roth to step off the committee and become a candidate.

Six years into her presidency at the small, elite liberal arts college in Massachusetts—despite her authentic leadership, based on a demonstrated commitment to shared governance, freedom of expression, collaboration, cooperation, and transparency—Roth finds herself the target of a burgeoning protest. Indeed, her own daughter is among those who are demanding action and redress when a popular African American faculty member from the anthropology department, Nick Gall, is denied tenure. Omar Khayal, a charismatic student leader, is Professor Gall’s most ardent defender. Known for his courage and tenacity as a Palestinian refugee who lost his family to war and sought community at Webster, Omar becomes a symbol of the identity politics currently prevalent on college campuses—and in our nation, too, as signaled by the recent presidential campaign and the ongoing political discourse.

Korelitz’s central question is whether it is possible to affirm individual identities and at the same time exercise the moral imagination necessary to speak across differences, creating a community bound together by a common educational purpose and mission. One of Roth’s frustrations is that she reaches out to the protestors, who have formed an encampment on the campus green at a place called “the Stump,” and invites them to meet with her to discuss their grievances, only to find that they have no interest in dialogue. Their terms are unconditional and nonnegotiable, and they regard having to recount their concerns as a form of revictimization. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described this phenomenon: “Group victimization has become the global religion—from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran—and everybody gets to assert his or her victimization is worst and it’s the other people who are the elites.”2 Thus, Roth’s career as an activist supporting racial and social justice is inconsequential once she takes on the role of an administrator.

Yet, even if the protestors appeared at her doorstep, the president realizes that under the circumstances, she could never go beyond listening, other than to express compassion for their concerns and gratitude for their leadership. Because the tenure process is confidential, she is proscribed from revealing that Gall was denied tenure for violating principles of academic integrity, including through serial plagiarism. As a result, she must rely on the protestors to trust that she is acting in good faith and that her decision to uphold the tenure committee’s recommendation is not grounded in racism.

Through her protagonist, Korelitz highlights the increasing moral distress experienced by college presidents operating within institutional and organizational cultures that coerce them into behaving in ways that they believe are unethical, convinced that they have no choice. Under these circumstances, one would ask, How much individual injustice should be countenanced for the sake of long-term institutional reform? However, in this particular moral dilemma, another ethical principle is at play—namely, strong role differentiation. Strong role differentiation is the notion that the professional roles we play sometimes exempt us from otherwise binding moral responsibilities. Just as doctors and lawyers maintain patient and client confidentiality, Roth is convinced that her overriding moral responsibility is to uphold the sanctity of the tenure process. Of course, as a moral principle, strong role differentiation can be justified only if the institutions it serves are just. And the ultimate disconnect between Roth and her students is that this new generation of activists seeks to tear down the monolithic administrative structure of which she is a part, viewing it as a monument to white hegemonic forces.

As I was reveling in Korelitz’s complex and familiar depiction of the conundrums encountered by Roth, I began thinking about a controversy that arose last year at Seattle University when a dean recommended that students read Dick Gregory’s autobiography. In response to those who were offended by the book’s title, which consists of a racial slur, Gregory writes in Inside Higher Ed, “While I strongly support their right to air their grievances, I ask these students to ask themselves if the scale of their movement is appropriate for a curriculum discussion. Can students adequately connect a recommendation to read my autobiography with their larger curriculum issues?” He goes on to note, “I frequently speak on college campuses and explain that we were fighting for liberation, not education. A liberated mind requires a deeper historical and analytical understanding about the good, bad and ugly regarding America’s past, and its future.”3 In the aftermath of horrific violence resulting from white supremacists descending on Charlottesville, Virginia, and continuing disputes over the legitimacy of Confederate memorials, Gregory’s charge to focus on liberation as the goal of education takes on a new sense of urgency.

The articles in this issue of Liberal Education confront the challenge of fostering that deeper historical and analytical understanding essential to a liberal education. The authors highlight the many innovative ways in which faculty, with support from administrators, are integrating the curricular and cocurricular to create spaces in which vibrant, inclusive academic discourse is encouraged as the foundation for true liberation.


1. Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Devil and Webster (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017).

2. David Brooks, “In Praise of Equipoise,” New York Times, September 1, 2017.

3. Dick Gregory, “Language, Racism and a Protest,” Inside Higher Ed, May 26, 2016,

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