In Wake of Anti-Semitism Debate, Oberlin Must Remain Inclusive

Booker C. Peek, Emeritus Associate Professor of Africana Studies

To the Editors:

Oberlin College is the institution that pioneered education for women and blacks in the 19th century and deserves to be forever renowned for those early footprints of justice. But it is a college today that seeks to deepen and broaden those footprints by its feats of translating into action its ideals about social justice, fairness and freedom for all.

With many admitted high school students and their families visiting us this weekend to get a closer look at what we represent, let’s remind them and ourselves that when we hear and read that others have been hurt — emotionally pained by either anti-Semitism, racism or bigotry — that we express our sorrow and extend our hands and hearts to them in unconditional support; that we never challenge them to prove they have been offended or scarred and that we condemn, with all the fiber we possess, hateful actions or intentions of any kind.

Unless the speeches or words are likely to put others in imminent danger, we in America, unlike those in many countries, do not generally imprison citizens for what they say or write. Though some colleges might dismiss or threaten to fire employees — even tenured ones — whose speeches, thoughts or words are repellent, absurd or hurtful, we resist the temptation to do so out of respect for First Amendment rights and academic freedom.

Those same two rights do give all others an open doorway to make their case to eviscerate, emasculate and explode those disgusting, shameful and corrosive words and speeches. First Amendment rights and academic freedom cannot, and should not, provide cover for anyone whose arguments wilt under withering scrutiny, examination and analysis. A sense of professionalism, decency and sensibility should temper one’s presentations or one is likely to be slowed by an awareness that what one stands for must and will be reviewed and responded to by those equally qualified to ensure that those of us not so qualified will benefit from the most robust and informed examination possible.

To our visitors, we can boast that no college is more open-minded to and protective of all diverse viewpoints extending from one end of the spectrum to the other. In an earth-scorching pursuit and search, faculty, students and others will expose lies, fallacies and conspiracies. All seek only the truth and full disclosure. Indeed, Oberlin was great in the 19th century and its pioneering spirit and passion for the truth is ablaze today. We can point to the many letters published in the Review and elsewhere since late February on the issue of anti-Semitism that highlight our staunch support of those affected by hurtful words and our respect for the First Amendment and academic freedom.

Booker C. Peek
Emeritus Associate Professor of Africana Studies