Letter to Tony Fels

Headshot for Clarence B. JonesClarence B. Jones is a diversity visiting professor.

Dear Professor Fels,

This semester I have taken a leave of absence to devote my time to writing my autobiography and memoirs.

On a recent visit to the campus, your letter about USF, its courses and faculty was brought to my attention.

You open your comments by saying “Everybody knows that the University of San Francisco is a left-wing school. Many students choose to come here because of the school’s overt commitment to social justice, while others negotiate their way through radical lectures and course assignments as best they can.”

Upon reading this I thought: I must be one of the few that did not know the USF that you describe. My principal “knowledge” about USF is, and what initially attracted me to it and still does, is that USF is a Catholic Jesuit University with educational and institutional values that I admire and support.

I am old enough to remember when several colleges, universities and their professors were broad brushed as being “left-wing” and employing professors who hosted “radical lectures”. The history of the organization and struggle of the Association of University Professors and the issue of tenure was tied to guaranteeing academic freedom of expression without the threat of denial or loss of tenure. During these earlier years, what you now say about USF could be construed as old fashioned “red baiting”.

I must say, I am absolutely astounded to read that USF has a  “Progressive” faculty” that “drive the process forward by hiring like-minded colleagues. Administrators, who are themselves ex-faculty members, embrace the politicized mission of the school.”

Then you say,  “To what degree parents and trustees, two other important stakeholders in the university, understand how left-leaning the school has become is a more open question. But at what point does the ideological commitment of a university undermine its primary goal of equipping its students with a solid, well-rounded education?  In my view that point has been reached”.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York used to say, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts”. The core of your criticism of USF, especially as exemplified by the curricular you describe in its History Department, is that USF has abandoned its commitment to the pursuit of academic excellence.

In your view, this is because the USF History Department has substituted the pursuit of excellence for a non-academic agenda inconsistent with the underlying objective historical facts of knowledge about one or more of the courses offered by the History Department. Wow! This is pretty devastating.

I am not in a position to comment on the many specific instances you recite about various courses in the History Department, which purportedly elevate or proselytize a “social justice” or  “political point of view” (my words not yours) and subordinate the factual historical relevant information needed by students to achieve knowledge excellence. My only frame of reference is Dean Marcelo Camperi of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences; the Dean Campari I have come to know is totally committed to academic excellence. Period! Whether one or more professors who teach a particular course in the USF history department implement this commitment I am not qualified to say.

There is a troubling implication in your comments that directly affects me. You wrote, “This past fall witnessed the launching of a new major at USF called Critical Diversity Studies. It is a thoroughly politicized major, for which the placement of the term “Critical” in its title indicates, as the major’s founding documents state, that it “is committed to interrogating and producing critical knowledge about power and inequality” and “seeks to explore and analyze how existing social, political, and economic conditions and relationships within and beyond U.S. borders shape local and global hierarchies, oppressions and activisms.”

Under this program I was invited to become USF’s First Diversity Visiting Professor. The course and the syllabus I wrote along with the weekly-required reading assignments is “From Slavery To Obama.”  It is an undergraduate adaptation here at USF of the course that the Liberal Arts Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University originally requested that I create and teach for students getting a Master Degree in Liberal Arts at Stanford.

I was trained and practiced for many years as a lawyer. Years ago I was a political advisor, personal lawyer and draft speechwriter for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this connection I have written and researched many, many appellate briefs and legal memoranda of law, and written many speeches.

In my 15-week course, my sole objective is the presentation of empirical data relating to the origination, development, operation and implementation of the institution of slavery and its consequential historical impact upon subsequent generations of the descendants of slaves and slaveholders. In my teaching I am committed only to the pursuit of learning excellence by the presentation of clinically indisputable objective empirical evidence about slavery.

The seminal reference book for my students is “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in The Ante-Bellum South” by Professor Kenneth Stampp. A term paper is required. I invite you to sit in on one or more of my classes when I resume teaching this Aug.-Sept. semester. The teaching of my course is unashamedly influenced by James W. Lowen’s book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” and my years of work, often, 24/7, with Dr. King. I respectfully submit that there is nothing pedagogically inconsistent with having a particular social or political point of view and teaching objective empirical historical data about critical issues and periods in the history of either our own or that of other countries. Nor does pursuit of “diversity studies” automatically diminish or undermine the pursuit of knowledge based on the presentation of historical data, and a professor’s own interpretation of the meaning, if any, of such information.

I believe your critical statements about USF are valuable and merit extensive consideration and reflection by USF faculty and administrators. If it would be helpful I would be pleased to assist in this endeavor if USF’s History Department believes it is important to do so.

Finally, my overall experience away from USF suggest to me that there is nothing inherently wrong with faculty at USF being politically active locally or nationally in response to the critical issues facing San Francisco and our nation. Thus, I disagree when you when you say that “faculty should be required to separate political activism from classroom teaching. USF can best pursue its mission of social justice through its many extracurricular activities, allowing teaching to be guided by the traditional search for truth and a commitment to presenting students with the full range of perspectives that bear on any given subject matter.”

There is nothing I have experienced over the years that persuades me one is a better teacher if they are detached and removed from those issues about which they teach. My observations and lessons learned over the course of 50 years is precisely the opposite.

Dr. Clarence B. Jones

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