The Esolen Affair: Esteemed Providence College Professor Attacked Over ‘Diversity’
A respected professor, known for his orthodoxy and unflinching defense of a distinctly Catholic worldview, and his supporters say he has been isolated on campus in recent months.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For many years, professor Anthony Esolen has traveled across the United States and Canada, boosting Providence College whenever he speaks before church groups, men’s conferences, academic gatherings and other forums.
“And at all those places I have praised Providence College to the skies. I have been an ambassador for the college,” said Esolen, who teaches literature in the Development of Western Civilization program at Providence.
But the longtime respected professor, known for his orthodoxy and unflinching defense of a distinctly Catholic worldview, and his supporters say he has been isolated on campus in recent months by student activists and faculty members who have not taken kindly to his critiques on modern-day understandings of “diversity.”
“I’m a persona non grata,” said Esolen, who told the Register that he believes the college’s administration has hung him out to dry, including Dominican Father Brian Shanley, the president of Providence College.
“There has been disingenuity on the part of the administration,” Esolen said. “It’s very hard to walk around on that campus knowing there are people who will recognize you and think evil about you, and knowing that evil is completely unjustified.”
“Tony has been very marginalized,” said James Keating, a humanities professor at Providence who has been among Esolen’s most ardent defenders.
Father Shanley and Dominican Father Kenneth Sicard, the executive vice president and treasurer of Providence College, sent two campus-wide emails this fall commenting on two articles that Esolen wrote this year in Crisis magazine, where he criticized the college’s understanding of diversity as being rooted in secular political ideology and modern gender theory at odds with the college’s Catholic identity.
In one of the emails, titled “Dear Members of the Providence College Community,” Father Shanley affirmed academic freedom as “a bedrock principle of higher education.”
“So when one of our professors writes an article accusing Providence College of having ‘Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult,’ he is protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. But it must be understood that he speaks only for himself. He certainly does not speak for me, my administration, and for many others at Providence College who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him.”
The emails followed some unrest on campus that included a student protest march and meeting with Father Shanley and a faculty petition that castigated Esolen’s articles as containing “racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinist statements.”
“I find the whole thing disgusting,” Esolen said of the petition.
What Esolen Wrote
In the first Crisis article, Esolen questioned the kind of diversity student activists want, arguing that some students, when offered to be taught about John Milton, will say, “No, let us teach you about us.” Wrote Esolen, “Dear Narcissus, there is a great and beautiful world beyond that pool.”
Esolen told the Register that the Development of Western Civilization program — which he said Providence students are required to take for two years — introduces them to various writings from antiquity to the Renaissance, from ancient Greece to Golden Age Spain.
“I hear over and over that somehow this is not diverse, and that makes no sense to me,” Esolen said. “It’s as if to say a Viking is no different from Xerxes of Persia, that an ancient Greek like Plato is no different than Thomas Aquinas. You have to be really ignorant of history to think like that.”
In his second Crisis article — which carried the provocative headline about Providence College succumbing to a “totalitarian diversity cult,” a headline Esolen said he neither wrote nor approved — the professor critiqued the idea that embracing diversity includes affirming the self-declared homosexual identity of students or faculty. In the article, Esolen criticized the concept of “welcoming the alphabet soup of cheered-on sexual proclivities.”
“I said, ‘Wait a second. Are we a Catholic college or not?’” Esolen told the Register. “If we are a Catholic college, then we welcome everybody, but we don’t welcome the sin or the temptation to the sin.”
Steven Maurano, a spokesman for Providence College, told the Register that Father Shanley, in a campus-wide email, affirmed Esolen’s right to academic freedom and freedom of speech, though making it clear that Esolen does not speak for the college administration.
“That is a fact, as it would be for any other professor on campus who expressed his or her personal views in a published article,” Maurano said. “Lastly, the president suggested that we, the campus community, need to be more charitable to one another. All of this hardly qualifies as throwing Dr. Esolen ‘under the bus.’”
But Maurano said Esolen assumes the right of his own defense when he publishes articles like the ones in Crisis.
“His recently published articles characterized student activists as ‘narcissists’ and described LGBTQ students as ‘an alphabet soup of sexual proclivities,’” Maurano said. “We cannot be responsible for how people react to what he writes, nor should we defend him against any outcry as a result of those writings.”
On Nov. 2, Father Sicard, in his role as chairman of Providence College’s Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee (DIIC), wrote in his campus-wide email that the committee had discussed the “impact” that Esolen’s articles were having on campus, adding that many people found the tone of the articles to be “offensive and implicitly racist.”
“Several members of the DIIC agreed with this assessment,” Father Sicard wrote.
Esolen said neither college leader previously told him they would be sending their emails to the entire campus community.
“They were a complete shock to me,” Esolen said. “I was blindsided. The president didn’t speak to me, didn’t send me an email — no call on the phone; no communication whatsoever.”
Keating said nothing in Esolen’s writings can be construed as saying he does not value diversity or is not welcoming to students of various backgrounds. Keating criticized the administration for not seriously engaging Esolen’s arguments.
“They don’t give Tony the benefit of the doubt and talk to him,” Keating said. “He didn’t even know [the email] was coming. He received it like everybody else. That was a very bad business.”
The Esolen situation has raised widespread concerns about academic freedom and the right of Catholic scholars to ask tough questions and present arguments from a Catholic perspective without being unfairly attacked as bigots, racists or homophobes.
“What you’re seeing is a real freeze on Catholic speech,” Keating said.
Keating and several other faculty members defended Esolen in an op-ed published by the Providence Journal, writing that “the temptation to gang up on those who dissent from the majority is a grave threat to the building up of a community informed by the free exchange of ideas.” Keating told the Register that he and others addressed those same concerns during a recent faculty meeting but received a cool response from their peers.
“Ten years ago, the faculty would have given us a standing ovation,” Keating said. “But things have changed pretty radically.”
Catholic scholars elsewhere have noticed the situation at Providence College. Princeton University professor Robert George, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote on his Facebook page in early December that Providence College had brought shame on itself by its “shocking mistreatment of one of its most accomplished scholars and finest teachers.”
George, himself a faithful Catholic who writes from an orthodox perspective, contrasted Esolen’s treatment at Providence with Princeton hiring him, granting him tenure, installing him in one of its most celebrated endowed chairs and allowing him to create the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Wrote George, “If Princeton University — a secular institution the vast majority of whose faculty and administrators and many of whose students are ideologically on the left — can welcome the contributions of someone whose convictions are in line with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church (even when those teachings fly in the face of left-liberal orthodoxies) why can’t Providence College — a Catholic institution — welcome the contributions of an exceptional Catholic scholar such as Anthony Esolen?”
Letter of Support
Meanwhile, Notre Dame professors Francesca Aran Murphy and Patrick J. Deneen have written a letter to Father Shanley, calling upon him to reframe the discussion of diversity in such a way that Esolen’s individuality as a scholar is respected and honored.
“Professor Esolen’s attempt to open a dialogue about the meaning of diversity and of its place within a Catholic and Dominican college has been greeted with a formal defense of his academic freedom, but a deeper implicit repudiation of the legitimacy of the questions he has raised,” wrote Murphy and Deneen, who added that they found it “alarming” that Esolen had been treated “in a dismissive manner by the administration.”
The letter has been signed by more than 100 scholars and observers across the country, including Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School; R.R. Reno, editor of First Things; and Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
In an email to the Register, Murphy said she and Deneen wrote the letter as “the Esolen Affair” gathered pace and it appeared that Esolen’s job was on the line.
“To me, the whole issue is whether Providence College is going to support him in his outspoken and critical persona,” Murphy said. “Does it encourage a healthy climate of criticism and open discussion?”
Despite some published reports, Maurano said Esolen’s job is not in jeopardy.
“While a few students did suggest he should be fired, no member of the faculty ever called for such,” Maurano said. “Also, Father Shanley informed him person-to-person and in writing that he would not be fired over this issue.”
Maurano added that he had not seen the Notre Dame professors’ letter and could not comment specifically on its contents.
“However, I will say that it is wrong to imply that the college has not upheld and defended Dr. Esolen’s rights to openly raise questions,” Maurano said. “Again, I point you to the president’s message, where he says, ‘Universities are places where ideas are supposed to be brought into conflict and questioned, so let us robustly debate the meaning of ‘diversity.’”
The Diversity Committee
In 2008, at Father Shanley’s direction, Providence College created a diversity committee to recommend a plan that would focus and coordinate the college’s diversity initiatives and recommend a methodology that would allow the college to become more advanced in its approach to diversity, especially when compared with competitor schools.
Over the ensuing years, the administration’s efforts to increase the diversity of its student body has seen some gains. The Providence Journal reported that the college’s 2015-2016 student body was 15% of color, up from 5% in 2005, the year Father Shanley became president.
But according to local published reports, minority students and faculty at Providence have at times described being the victims of racially charged incidents on and around campus, such as being stopped by security officers and questioned about their activities.
In February, 50 students sat outside Father Shanley’s office for 13 hours until the college president agreed to make progress on a list of demands that included requiring cultural sensitivity training for faculty, staff and students and revising the “Western Civilization” curriculum to include more content from African, Asian, Native American and Latino civilizations.
Esolen wrote the first Crisis article a week after the student sit-in, telling the Register that he hoped the article would put pressure on Father Shanley not to give in to the students’ demands. Instead, Esolen believes the article antagonized the administration against him.
‘I Never Expected This’
Esolen said he had a recent two-hour meeting with Father Shanley, which he described as “unproductive.” Esolen said he brought up examples of other professors pressuring and shaming students for liberal political purposes, but said his arguments fell on deaf ears.
“I never expected this kind of treatment,” said Esolen, who added that he is grateful for his friends on campus and elsewhere who have stood up for him.
“They understand that this issue is tied up with the Catholic character of the college and the value of a liberal arts education and the integrity of our Western Civilization program,” Esolen said. “They understand that all these things are involved.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.