Wall Street Journal Opinion Editorial Sparks Debate at the University

Emily Cox Co News Editor

On March 29, 2019, Professors Colleen A. Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson published “A Mole Hunt for Diversity ‘Bias’ at Villanova” in the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Sheehan is a professor of Political Science and a co-director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at the University. The Ryan Center works to preserve “fundamental notions of liberty and republicanism both on campus and in the region,” as it honors Matthew J. Ryan, a graduate of the University who served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for over 40 years. Dr. James Matthew Wilson is a professor of Religion and Literature.  

Sheehan and Wilson wrote about the administration’s new “diversity and inclusion” questions that have been added to course and teaching evaluations. The two claim the new assessment of faculty sensitivity and bias will ultimately harm Villanova’s core mission of providing students with a liberal education. 

“The adoption of the new dogma of mandatory ‘diversity and inclusion’ places that entire undertaking in danger. As professors dedicated to liberal education, we consider it essential to challenge our students to subject their ideas as well as the predominant opinions of our time to critical examination—however difficult and uncomfortable this may be,” Sheehan and Wilson wrote. “We urge our own university as well as other liberal-arts institutions to reject such ideological policing and recommit themselves to the principles of liberal education.”

The pair is concerned about the larger implications of the new assessment of teachers’ social sensitivity. With records kept of faculty’s “insensitivity, injustice and bigotry,” Sheehan and Wilson’s argument rests on the case that the University’s “mole hunt for bias” undercuts their ability as professors to provide students with a liberal, well-rounded education. 

While Catholic teaching encourages philosophical reasoning, the two insist that new standards of sensitivity in the classroom would undermine the core values of the University by encouraging avoidance of anything “that might be deemed offensive or insensitive to the various social identities and political viewpoints” of students or faculty. 

On March 31, Professors Billie Murray and Bryan Crable, both from the Department of Communication, wrote a letter titled “Response to the Opinion Commentary by Colleen Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson, appearing in the Wall Street Journal on March 29, 2019.” They offered this response to the published opinion piece by Sheehan and Wilson to differentiate the pronoun ‘we.’ Murray and Crable claim the authors’ opinions “do not represent the views of all members of the Villanova community.”

The letter offers a response specifically directed to students as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Villanova’s mission to seek truth, unity and love in classrooms and the greater community. The pair ensures students that the educational environment at the University can exist free of any discrimination that detracts from the core of a liberal education that seeks to educate the “whole person.” 

Murray and Crable emphasize the importance of fostering environments that “take seriously the importance of diversity, equality and inclusion,” as it is essential to the educational experience of all students, faculty, staff, and administrators. They acknowledge Sheehan and Wilson’s concerns of “insensitivity, injustice, and bigotry,” Murray and Crable agree these should “absolutely be taken seriously and critically evaluated. A commitment to understanding, justice, and celebration of difference is not equal to “ideological policing.” It is equal to challenging the discriminatory practices that have no place in education or any work or learning environment.”

The two signed their response letter further affirming their own commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion that provide the basis for a Villanovan education, with a mission based in Catholic Social Teaching that encourages students to have the knowledge, skills, understanding and ethical values to respond to pressing issues of the modern world.

Students and parents received an email on Monday morning from Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. addressing the recently published article. He addressed the professors’ criticism of the Course and Teacher Survey that includes three questions related to cultural awareness and equitable treatment of students in the classroom. In his email, Donohue called attention to the Villanova community to understand “several inaccuracies” in Sheehan and Wilson’s opinion piece. “The questions are designed to enable our faculty to understand how their students perceive their interactions, so they can create an unbiased learning environment for students from diverse backgrounds, social identities and political beliefs,” Donohue wrote. [They] “are not used for evaluating faculty.” 

The schoolwide email reiterated the University’s commitment to “fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion for all students” and “in no way means that we are rejecting or silencing certain viewpoints, nor does it mean we are downplaying our Catholic identity and values.” Donohue concluded with a description of an Augustinian Catholic institution, one where community plays a central role in the identity of the school community. As an academic institution, Donohue explained the importance of faculty challenging students, but also teaching students to examine and learn about a wide variety of subjects, perspective and viewpoints in a safe environment. 

A link in the email directed the community to a more in-depth statement from both the University President and Provost. This detailed letter offers a more complete perspective from the University’s leadership.  Donohue and Patrick Maggitti, PhD reiterate the importance of Augustinian values and the Catholic Intellectual tradition that shape the learning environment on campus.

In response to The Wall Street Journal piece, the two addressed the misconception of the questions regarding social sensitivity.  “The opinion piece portrays this survey as part of a political litmus test, as an aggressive attempt to target faculty with particular views and as an effort opposed to Villanova’s historic Catholic identity and mission,” they wrote. “This is untrue. While for some this polarization may be tempting, it fails to offer the kind of perspective that is, and has always been, characteristic of a Villanova education, and the Villanova community as a whole.”

The two claimed, “We are greatly concerned that the op-ed fails to accurately or adequately characterize the nature of a liberal arts education, and especially such an education as it occurs here at Villanova. The authors suggest that a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is antithetical to a liberal arts education, and this is a position we firmly reject.”

Administration at the University is attempting to use this nationally published article as a way to address concerns on campus regarding political correctness and the value of it in the classroom. Rather than referring to the few evaluation questions as an area of debate regarding the bias of educators, Donohue and Maggitti hope the survey reinforces the University’s commitment to the school motto – Veritas, Unitas, Caritas. “Villanova University stands as a great educational institution because of our commitment to difference and the authentic community we create,” Donohue said.