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Santurri’s removal bodes ill for the future

As many of you may now be aware, Professor Edmund Santurri was removed from his position as director of the Institute for Freedom and Community earlier this Spring. The decision was sudden and came in spite of the fact that his contract had previously been extended through 2023. The College’s actions have now become national news, and the Institute Advisory Board (of which I am a member) has received a flurry of letters from scholars, alumni, and other concerned parties expressing their support for Professor Santurri and condemning his dismissal. I feel that I as well have a responsibility as a member of the Institute Advisory Board to speak out against what I believe to be a grave error on the part of the St. Olaf administration and to inform the St. Olaf student body of what has transpired.

The official reason given to me for Santurri’s dismissal was the need to ensure a smooth transition for St. Olaf’s next president, but I have good reason to believe that the decision was made primarily in response to the controversies surrounding certain speakers hosted by the Institute this semester, particularly the uproar which occurred as a response to the invitation of Peter Singer. 

I feel quite strongly that this decision indicates a serious failure on the part of the administration to live up to the college’s core values. Indeed, even the official story indicates a profoundly dismissive attitude towards the contributions and needs of faculty members. The idea that a professor who has given over 40 years of service to St. Olaf could have his life upended and his reputation damaged because doing so would make things slightly easier for an incoming president is simply galling.

As I have said, however, I do not believe that this is the real reason Professor Santurri was dismissed. The administration’s decision to respond to controversy by bowing to popular pressure is far more troubling than the already unpalatable official story. The mission of the Institute is ostensibly to “challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and  contending points of view.”

To my mind the dismissal of Professor Santurri is perhaps the easiest and least thoughtful answer to the problem of a discontented campus. Rather than undertaking the difficult and unpopular work of standing behind the Institute and cleaving closely to the values that it embodies, the St. Olaf administration has taken the path of least resistance and chosen to buy peace at the expense of principle.

 Published just 22 years ago, the college’s statement of Identity and Mission for the 21st Century proclaims boldly that “Freedom is, after all, the main goal of liberal education… We need to know our values and why we value them… We need to know how to evaluate the ideas that our pastors and peers proclaim, and how to make them our own — or not.” By affirming that those who would prefer that their values remain untested and unchallenged can, should they shout loudly enough, triumph over those who defend the free and open exchange of ideas, the college has demonstrated quite clearly that 22 years has seen a precipitous erosion of the principles that once formed the foundation of a St. Olaf liberal arts education. 

The statement continues, affirming that “a student’s vocation is to place themselves within this convocation of provocative voices,” a notion that seems to have fallen out of favor in the intervening years but one that nevertheless offers a powerful challenge to the simplistic understanding of higher education as purely transactional. I believe that as a student I have a responsibility to participate in our campus discourse in a thoughtful, respectful, and humble manner. It is incumbent upon me to learn what I can from my professors, peers, and those invited to speak on campus, no matter how profoundly I may disagree with what they have to say. If I assert that I have discovered some unassailable truth, and can thereby dismiss anything which conflicts with my worldview, I have gone seriously astray.

It is important at this point to be clear: Peter Singer is certainly a controversial speaker, but he is also a good candidate for the most famous and broadly influential living philosopher. His ideas have had a tremendous impact both within his discipline and upon the wider world. The arguments he puts forth, while at times shocking and deeply counterintuitive, are scrupulously reasoned and pose a lethal challenge to carelessly constructed beliefs. A campus which considers Singer beyond the pale is a campus which is far out of step with neigh-universal standards of academic rigor and merit.

None of this is to say that a speaker such as Singer should be received uncritically. Indeed, an essential element of putting oneself “within this convocation of provocative voices” is challenging, probing, and testing the positions of thinkers like Singer with all the resources at one’s disposal. Santurri himself has in fact criticized and challenged Singer both during their conversation and previously in print. The students who protested Singer’s event were thus well within their rights to argue vigorously against his positions. They were not, however, within their rights to demand, in the words of a widely circulated petition, that St. Olaf refuse to “welcome him or give him a platform to speak on.” Such a demand is a tacit assertion that students have the right to silence those conversations and ideas that make them uncomfortable, that they have both the capacity and the authority to judge that Singer’s arguments are meritless and thus need not be heard. The administration’s choice to respond to these grievances by dismissing Santurri is an implicit affirmation of these specious claims. 

As the statement of identity and mission concludes, “A liberal education, therefore, teaches us to think twice about everything”. In this spirit, I hope that College leadership will think twice about the profoundly misguided choice to dismiss Sanutrri. I urge the St. Olaf administration to reinstate his appointment and reaffirm the college’s commitment to the principles of free and open inquiry.

Perhaps it is the view of the administration that such values, and Santurri as their exemplar, are relics of the past which have outlived their usefulness. If so, then I fear that St. Olaf may have as well.

Max Bradley is from Columbia, MO.

His majors are political science and philosophy.


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