Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., sat back in his brown leather chair with an earnest look on his face. As a government professor, Carnes regularly lectures on topics that could be deemed divisive, such as U.S. foreign policy and social welfare programs. The Jesuit professor opens the semester in his “Comparative Political Systems” class by warning students they will discuss politically charged topics — and by asking them to presume good intent in others, even during disagreement.
The classroom is a space for students to express a wide variety of political opinions, not to preach his own political leanings, according to Carnes.
“I hope at the end of the semester my students have no idea what my political leanings are,” Carnes said. “I want my students to think to themselves, ‘Oh, he said things about, for example, social justice that I might associate with the left, but he also made an argument for a side that I would cite as more conservative.’”
Yet not all professors park their political opinions at the door before entering the classroom.
Surrounded by a myriad of Semitic language books in his office, Ori Soltes, a theology professor in the Center for Jewish Civilization, told The Hoya that he frequently incorporates politically sensitive topics in his courses to stimulate effective dialogue among students.
In this week’s lecture for his “Unraveling the Middle East,” course, Soltes invited his students to disagree with him, push back and ask questions. Standing behind a wooden podium and gesturing at a chalkboard covered in names and dates, Soltes spent an hour and fifteen minutes demystifying complex terms to make the unclear clear.
“Sometimes I ask questions to prod at things, other times I wait for my students to ask me questions to foster dialogue,” Soltes said.
The choice to disclose political opinions in the classroom, in office hours or on personal social media accounts falls on Georgetown’s professors. While all faculty members agree on the importance of maintaining open dialogue in the classroom, they depart on how best to accomplish this goal. Without uniform university guidelines about where professors should draw the line on revealing their personal biases, some professors color their lectures with political commentary. Others prefer to remain neutral, leaving students unsure of where their teachers lie on the political spectrum.
Teaching Under Trump
Like most students, faculty members occupy both sides of the political spectrum. The extent to which professors choose to share their political beliefs in the classroom is up to their discretion. The university does not impose a formal policy or restriction on speech inside the classroom for professors, according to Carnes. The only guidelines that help professors navigate their rhetoric in classrooms is Georgetown’s free speech policy, which mandates that the University, “has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of deliberation and debate, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
With Jewish Civilization classes like “Moses to Muhammed,” Soltes deals with contentious subject areas like the theological implications of the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet Soltes believes his political opinions prompt lively debate among his students. In class, he does not limit himself, speaking freely and revealing his viewpoints about U.S. politics.
“I’m not going to not say something anti-Trump because I’m worried about how it might affect the opinion of one student,” Soltes said.
However, students who support President Donald Trump should not remain silent in his lectures. In the past, students with opposing political perspectives to Soltes have spoken up in class. These students are not penalized and are encouraged to contribute to class discourse, according to Soltes.
Due to similarities between Nazi Germany and the Trump administration, Trump’s actions can sometimes help understand the content in his Holocaust course, Soltes said.
“If it’s relevant to my course then I’m going to bring it up,” Soltes said. “There are too many parallels for me to not talk about it.”
Yet not all Georgetown professors are comfortable critiquing Trump in front of their students.
School of Foreign Service Professor Christine Fair, who teaches primarily Asian studies and security, said she avoids bringing politics — particularly U.S. politics — into her classroom.
“I am much more concerned about the sensitivities of those students who may be from the areas in South Asia that we are studying,” Fair said. “I don’t discuss Trump or the presidency in my classes because there is no need to, there is no place for that.”
Fair recently faced scrutiny from Georgetown students and alumni after she spoke out against Republican senators’ support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with a Sept. 22 tweet.
Government Professor Mark Rom also said personal opinions about the current U.S. administration should be kept aside.
“I have my personal opinions about President Trump’s immigration, tax, environmental and trade policies, and our students probably do too,” Rom wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I do not believe my opinions about these policies are relevant to the class.”
Fair Play: Political Plurality
The flexibility that professors enjoy can leave some feeling unsure about how to navigate sensitive political topics, worried they may offend certain students, Fair said.
Fair’s recent tweet sparked controversy due to its graphic imagery.
“Look at [this] chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps,” Fair wrote on her personal Twitter account. “Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.”
After the message — which Fair explained was intended to make readers uncomfortable, but not to provoke violence — Fair and university administrators decided she would take immediate research leave out of “an abundance of caution for the security of our community,” Dean Joel Hellman wrote in an Oct. 5 email to members of the School of Foreign Service community.
The existence of a “contra-power” caused her to take a forced sabbatical, Fair said.
“The university is under the impression that the professor has all the power, but that isn’t necessarily the case,” Fair said. People outside of the Georgetown community exert pressure on the school to take action against a member of the community, according to Fair.
While university President John J. DeGioia issued a statement Oct. 2 that condemned the “use of violent imagery,” he also reiterated the university’s commitment to protecting community members’ freedom of speech.
In the hopes of fostering dialogue, Fair aims to create a safe environment in her classroom by discouraging her students from using social media during lectures. With an active social media presence, Fair also dissuades her students from following her various personal accounts: She believes her political views are not relevant to her classes and prevent the classroom from serving as a space for open dialogue.
The Importance of Neutrality
A frequent professor of the government department’s “United States Political Systems” course, Rom deals with U.S. politics in his classroom on a daily basis.
Rom said he attempts to remain neutral, curtailing his opinions and analyzing politics from every angle.
“Some professors believe it is their responsibility to reveal their political, partisan and ideological preferences and commitments as a matter of honesty and openness,” Rom wrote. “I am not one of those professors.”
Maintaining political objectivity in the classroom is important so that students can develop their own political leanings and not feel pressured to appeal to their professor’s perspective, according to Rom.
“First, I don’t believe it is my job to train students to be Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. Those decisions are deeply personal matters, and I respect my students’ thoughtful consideration of them,” Rom wrote. “Second, students should know that their grades do not depend on their political views, and that they need neither curry favor by agreeing with mine nor fear retribution if they disagree.”
Certain situations require professors to adapt their limits. Carnes dedicated a significant portion of his lecture after Trump was elected in November 2016 to students airing their grievances, concerns and support for the election result in hopes of fostering productive dialogue.
Impartiality is Carnes’ end goal, but he admits it can be difficult in a class that discusses nationhood, identity and other political ideas.
“I just want to emphasize that I’m not perfect, but I try my best,” Carnes said.