Opinion: Did college leaders show moral leadership in responses to Chauvin verdict?

People march on Edgewood Avenue following the verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Like the rest of the country, Atlanta residents awaited the verdict Tuesday afternoon for Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd. At 5 p.m., the verdict was announced: Guilty. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
People march on Edgewood Avenue following the verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Like the rest of the country, Atlanta residents awaited the verdict Tuesday afternoon for Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd. At 5 p.m., the verdict was announced: Guilty. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Rhetoric professor says some colleges chose to be careful rather than courageous

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, draws on his area of study and scholarship to parse the statements by leaders of Georgia colleges after former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder of George Floyd.

Not all of them earn top grades for their responses. Boedy discusses what they didn’t say and compares their statements to those of private college leaders in Georgia.

Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

In January, I wrote about the Georgia colleges and universities that issued milquetoast statements about the Jan. 6 insurrection. I said our schools needed to be moral leaders.

I wondered then what would happen next time a statement was needed from educational leaders who couldn’t speak directly about the “big lie,” which fostered that deplorable event.

Enter Tuesday’s guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who murdered George Floyd.

Did these new statements pass the moral leadership test?

One would expect schools to address the immediate emotions of their students. Many mentioned months-long “pain and anxiety” in some (Kennesaw State) or “anger, frustration, confusion and even fear” in others (University of North Georgia). The University of Georgia’s statement listed campus resources faculty and students could enlist for help in dealing with emotions surrounding the verdict.

Matthew Boedy
Matthew Boedy

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Each statement pivoted in some manner to the roles the schools play in the work of racial unity and equity.

Some were direct about the racial elements of the Floyd case and the national conversation it started. Valdosta State’s president said the “death of George Floyd was a defining moment in the modern civil rights and social justice movements.”

Georgia Tech noted “too many Black people and other people of color are too often the targets of violence, hate, and racism.” The statement called for students and faculty to see the verdict as an opportunity to “recommit to the idea that we all share the same humanity with the same inalienable rights.” To that end, Tech announced in its statement the unveiling of a “memorial dedicated to remembering those who fought for racial justice in our city and our nation.”

Augusta University’s president described shared values knitting the school community together and “our collective responsibility.”

These are not controversial statements and are the least these schools could say.

But it is important to note public institutions avoided certain words their private counterparts didn’t.

Consider Agnes Scott’s statement: The Chauvin verdict is “a reaffirmation that Black lives do matter” and “amplifies the racial inequities that are part of our country’s past and present.”

This statement was the most direct attempt to contextualize the verdict. And of course it used the magic words of BLM.

Emory’s president also went further than his public counterparts in talking about the impact that inclusion, diversity, and equity play in the school. He wrote Emory in recent months has taken steps to “strengthen our commitment to social justice and build upon ongoing work to weave diversity, equity, and inclusion into the fabric of the institution.”

This is noticeably different from the Kennesaw State pledge the school remains “committed to the enactment of rhetoric and action that will result in a campus community dedicated to social and racial justice.”

Yes, a commitment to social justice like Emory, but not as buried in its DNA as Emory’s “fabric” metaphor. And no mention of BLM.

On that note, Valdosta State’s bold declaration of the impact of the Floyd verdict seemed to soften later when the president noted his hope “that today’s verdict is an important step toward ensuring that every life has value.” However you interpret the Valdosta State statement, you can’t ignore the common retort from (mainly white) political conservatives to BLM is “all lives matter.”

Word choice is important. And not merely for the verdict about moral leadership.

If you recall, some weeks ago a white Georgia state representative asked the public university system to report on courses that taught about white privilege. The answers from the state’s 26 institutions were mixed and deep in nuance, but one certainly could conclude from the responses that yes, indeed a race-based privilege was being considered in classrooms.

What one concluded from that about Georgia’s public education is one of our state’s Rorschach tests.

I cannot say if this request was on the minds of the presidents of our public colleges when they crafted these statements. But if they are any good at their job, they know the political dynamics not just of their student body and employees, but their donors and of course the state Legislature.

These statements used rhetoric many would agree with and some pledges went further than perhaps polls of our state might show to be mainstream. But there also was a clear difference between public and private voices and therefore public and private moral leadership.

I end on two examples that show different trajectories for moral leadership.

Consider the statement from Georgia State University that repeated justice and equality in some form many times and noted the “Chauvin decision reminds us we must continue to embrace the legacy and value of a nation where the rule of law is our foundation.”

But it also was the most abstract of all the statements I read.

What was offered could have been offered with a not guilty verdict. And that is not a compliment. The lone sentence about the legal responsibility for Floyd’s death stands apart from the philosophical context crafted for any outcome.

The statement as a whole offered no historical context beyond the United States’ “legacy,” no empathy for the emotions of its students or faculty, and no specific ways the school “advocates for equal opportunity, equal justice and equal rights.”

For a school that prides itself as being “among the most diverse colleges in the U.S.” and graduating “more African American students” than any other, its statement pales in comparison to other schools who are not as diverse and who offered empathy to their black students and faculty.

Interestingly, GSU didn’t pass the Jan. 6th test, either.

From one of the most diverse schools, I turn to one of the most non-diverse, the University of North Georgia, an overwhelmingly white school, where I work.

Its president wrote “in the past several months, many of us have taken the opportunity to become better educated about the experiences of our Black students, colleagues, alumni, and community members.”

While this echoes other statements about the national conversation begun in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, it brings to the forefront the need for and lack of that conversation at this school. I give UNG an A for its honesty.

But the statement also implies a privilege of ignorance cured only by an education that can only take place on a college campus where diversity is a goal of its administration. Situated in a town where white supremacy recently reared its head just yards from campus, UNG aims to be an institution pushing its community to deal with race. It’s an ongoing effort.

I wrote back in January that “democracy needs truth as much as it needs law.” Universities as institutions of democracy can and should praise the legal system and the rule of law in the Floyd verdict. They can and should offer empathy to minorities for the long history of failure of the system and its high-minded foundations.

But they also can and should tell the truth about themselves. That is moral leadership.

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