The debate over Grenell shows CMU's lack of moral strength

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I’ve been hesitant to write about the recent hiring of Richard Grenell when the furor over his hiring really is not, as The Post-Gazette put it, “a unique drama.” As our President put it in one of the numerous responses to the university community, this is an issue that many campuses have faced before. Far from being a unique issue, the hiring of Grenell is a petty squabble among professionals, some of whom act like spoiled, irascible children and others like the parents who continually accommodate their tantrums.

It’s a dispute between and about professionals and professionalism, one that pales in comparison to the number of existential issues ongoing in our country. Two hurricanes bear down on the Gulf Coast, and previous hurricane disaster mismanagement has led to thousands of deaths. Wildfires continue to rage in California and the American West, leading to deadly smog in Denver. White vigilantism has killed two in Kenosha, and it has led to nooses, hung to intimidate, and lynchings across the United States. With the pandemic response mismanaged at every level of government, the COVID-19 death toll is closing in on 200,000 dead.

And we’re still debating whether or not Richard Grenell should be hired? The man who has committed to an anti-mask policy when masks are shown to be one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus? The man who has continually dismissed protesters as violent, without recognizing that it’s the protesters who have been killed? The man who quips about “professional journalism” for cheap political points instead of focusing on the ongoing disasters? And we are still debating Grenell’s hiring!

The impotence shown by the deans and administrators in accepting this debate — as President Jahanian said, “I am confident that our community will be able to work through them civilly and with rigorous debate” — is galling. They have all chosen to go to bat for their professional values of academic freedom, but when multiple opportunities to demonstrate basic moral competency cross the plate, they choose to let them go by.

What exactly does it mean to you to hire Richard Grenell, President Jahanian? Provost Garrett? All the others involved in his hiring?

To me, it means that you chose to accept a debate of academic freedom and professionalism when Carnegie Mellon students are struggling to pay for food and rent. I’m sure it is quite the balancing act to run a university, especially one with such vast commitments to militant and police violence in the U.S., but is there not a shred of empathy for the students who go to your college who are dealing with these disasters? Surely, you all do have some capacity for empathy. You are all still human.

It just seems that your professional commitment to free speech is stronger than your moral commitments to your students. To prevent your students from going hungry, to prevent them from going homeless, to prevent them from losing their livelihoods and even their lives, takes a strong moral commitment. To accept the hiring of Grenell takes no strength, no commitment to foundational values like feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, and today, when millions could be evicted and lines extend miles at food banks, we have to act on our foundational values.

To President Jahanian, et al., stop acting like you have made a morally strong decision. Do something good.