Last month, in an email to faculty and administrators in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities [CSCU] system, Terrence Cheng, the system president, condemned the recent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, by five policemen, and expressed his heartfelt condolences to his friends and family. He also exhorted his readers to “recommit to the cause of social justice.”
He did so despite the obvious fact that Nichols and the police who killed him were all black. For that reason there is nothing about the killing that implicated the white racism that advocates of social justice like President Cheng consider so pervasive as to justify their claim that America is “systemically racist.”
Two days later, the president issued another missive, to the same recipients, this time on the occasion of Black History Month, in which he claimed that it is “under attack, in some parts of our country, with states and governors attempting to rewrite, or even to erase, entire chapters of our past.”
But President Cheng provided no evidence to substantiate his accusation. Without it, one can only wonder whom specifically he had in mind. If, in fact, it was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been widely excoriated for supposedly attempting to erase from Florida students’ textbooks the entire history of African-Americans, the CSCU president is wrong. Passed by the Florida legislature and signed into law by the governor, the “Stop WOKE Act,” in Section 2(h), does not merely permit the teaching in Florida schools of “the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.” It requires it.
It is instructive in this context to compare President’s Cheng’s statement on the Nichols killing in Memphis, over a thousand miles from the president’s office in Hartford, to his reaction to the murder last October of two policemen, and the wounding of a third, in Bristol, Connecticut, a twenty-minute drive from Hartford in no traffic. The murderer and all three of his victims were white.
One would think that the killings of police in Bristol — so visible in newspapers and on local television, and so destructive of the institution that is the ultimate barrier to civilization’s descent into lawlessness and anarchy — would prompt a public statement.
But from President Cheng there was only silence.
Perhaps the reason is that when blacks are killed in America, irrespective of the race of the killers President Cheng considers systemic white racism the ultimate cause – but when whites are killed, their deaths are not even worth mentioning. In effect, their deaths never happened.
One hopes, of course, that this is not the case, and that President Cheng considers all lives valuable regardless of race. One hopes as well that he values the lives of police and recognizes how difficult and dangerous is the job they perform. But in light of his refusal to comment publicly on the Bristol murders, one has no way of knowing this.
Whether presidents of university systems should be expressing their political views on political issues in their official capacity is a question separate from the particular views President Cheng has expressed as CSCU president. On this larger question, this writer believes it to be a bad idea, though there may be extraordinary circumstances when a public statement is appropriate. But if university administrators at any level are to issue opinions on matters irrelevant as well as relevant to their responsibilities as educators, what they write and say should be evenhanded, factually accurate, and devoid of any appearance of racial animus.
On hopes that, in the future, President Cheng and everyone else in Connecticut possessing a comparable platform bear in mind such considerations when they speak publicly. Should they do so, their credibility and moral authority would be greatly enhanced.
Jay Bergman is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars.