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Commentary: A worrisome ‘a-wokening’ for insulted Wofford grads

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John Burbage (copy)

John Burbage

"Wofford absolutely must grow its endowment and rely on annual giving. … The future of the college depends on the generosity of alumni and friends.” So goes the pitch by Nayef H. Samhat, Wofford’s 11th president since the pricey, private liberal arts college was founded 166 years ago.

Wofford’s affable but headstrong leader arrived in 2013 from elite Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he was provost and taught international studies with a focus on creating a cooperative, democratic socio-economic world order. Samhat, 60, is a first-generation college graduate whose Palestinian grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to his hometown of Detroit. He enjoys bonding, especially with minority students, and has instituted a plethora of “woke” social justice programs on campus. He was roundly criticized after early on declaring Wofford a sanctuary campus in response to President Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim travelers and expressed surprise about conservatism among trustees and others.

Samhat says racial demographics are changing at warp speed in the South and warns Wofford must be more welcoming to remain viable — although 56 years ago it was among the first S.C. colleges to integrate, boasts a world class study-abroad program and is among the state’s leaders in minority enrollment at almost 10% of its 1,650 students.

Samhat has again received heavy fire from alumni since June, when his entire English faculty and new “assistant dean of diversity and inclusion” vilified the college following George Floyd’s outrageous killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, which sparked looting and riots.

The English Department declaration, which Samhat admits only privately is not the college’s official position, charges: “Wofford cannot achieve beneficial, equitable and inclusive relationships without acknowledging racial inequity is our immediate reality, not simply our historic past, and the college must facilitate healing on campus and elsewhere through real, measurable reparation and transformation beginning with identifying and addressing systemic, long-term and daily practices that perpetuate white supremacy.”

If that wasn’t insulting enough, the signers vowed to “reject efforts that seek to restore stability and maintain the status quo over seeking justice” on campus and elsewhere.

They further noted Wofford’s trademark Old Main edifice was built by enslaved people (no mention of others) and the annual cost to attend the college is more than double the income of a typical family in Spartanburg, where almost half the city’s minority children live below the federal poverty line. They allege with regret that Wofford’s new Greek village, senior apartments and tennis complex replaced a “vibrant, thriving community of color” (which went to pot a half-century ago when homeowners began selling out to slumlords).

“Words are power,” the English scholars declared, citing what they say are racist origins of the words “looting” and “rioting” and Wofford’s scourge of woke-defined “systemic” (inherent) racism instead of the more common “systematic” (acquired) variety. “Woke” — the past participle of “wake” — can be traced back to the 1940s among black Americans describing social and political awareness. It reemerged with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Meanwhile, 12 current and former woke-inspired students launched the Wofford Anti-Racism Coalition and demanded Samhat immediately rename dormitories honoring the college’s first three presidents — all slaveowners. No minority student wants to live in a dorm honoring such racially callous men, they said. The coalition has marched, started a “Black@Wofford” Instagram page, intimidated less enthused students and publicly cursed Samhat and wife, Prema, a native of India and U.S. citizen, for failure to get the dorm names changed to honor black graduates. The coalition has yet to demand renaming the entire college, founded in 1854 by wealthy slaveholder and Methodist minister Benjamin Wofford.

Alumni pleaded to no avail with Samhat to challenge his faculty’s “academic freedom” to propagandize and intimidate students while encouraging campus instability. Instead, he launched a trendy “Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI)” commission’s “intimate listening and learning process” with visionary findings for trustee consideration sometime next year. Skeptical alumni say it will hurt traditional recruiting while enhancing a systemic, Darth Vader-like vision for transforming students into what Samhat describes as “thought leaders equipped with the ability to adapt to today’s ever-changing, global world.”

To that end, Samhat recently welcomed to campus the writer Robin DiAngelo, who specializes in “critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies.” She authored the New York Times best-seller “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” and says her speaking fees range from pro bono to $25,000 a pop, 15% of which goes to charity.

Wofford, of course, is no charity — at least not yet — although, according to Samhat, its future depends on the generosity of alumni and friends, a growing number of whom vow to withhold more than a million dollars and rising in pledges and bequeathals until someone in authority lays the “woke” insults to a permanent rest.

Editor's note: Kenyon College was misspelled in the original version of this op-ed.

John M. Burbage, who earned his English degree at Wofford College, is a journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and on his farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at jburbage@postandcourier.com.

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