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Minding Progress

Updated: Sep 4

A conversation with Michele Moody-Adams

By Isaiah Bennett


A widely-renowned moral and political philosopher, and both the first woman and the first African-American to serve as Dean of Columbia College, Michele Moody-Adams sat down with Isaiah Bennett, CC ’20, to talk about education, identity, and progress.



BW: I was watching this lecture you gave on theory versus practice in philosophy, it was actually the course-wide lecture that you did for Contemporary Civilization in 2011. You brought up this quote from Wittgenstein: “The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas, and this is what makes him a philosopher.” Whether or not you agree completely with that idea, if you adopt it as some sort of constraint on what it means to be a philosopher I think you have to look at your career at Cornell and Columbia, and say that what you do as an administrator kind of requires you to step out of that perspective as a philosopher. Do you have any thoughts on the different frames of mind you’ve had to cultivate and switch between in those different roles?

Illustration by Jennifer Bi


MMA: Yeah, so part of the challenge for me in answering this question, and it’s a very good one, is that I actually think that Wittgenstein is right about many philosophers, but not about the ones whose work I value the most. The philosophers I have valued the most are people for whom their membership in particular communities actually helps to give rise to the questions they care about. So for political philosophers, it’s the people who in fact get their interest in justice coming out of the injustice they see in their own community. I know the other part of what Wittgenstein wants to say, which is that you have to step outside of the community in order to be objective and distanced and reflect on the norms and practices that shape the way society exists, but I don’t think that stepping outside just to be critical means that you stop being a member of the community. And he’s meaning to be provocative there, to suggest that philosophers often come up with theories that seem so alien to us, and that must be why, but I think the alienness is less that they’ve stopped being members of the community and more that they’ve forced us to challenge the ordinary things which we do every day in our communities, and that can feel alien. I think the best philosophers are very good at that, and in fact they have to step away, but the only reason you can understand them is because they’re speaking to you in terms that mean something from within the community. And it’s funny, as an administrator, I found that it was my experience and the tendencies I had as a philosopher to step away actually made me better able to understand what administrators did and said and cared about. There’s often the assumption that you become a “them,” and you’re no longer an “us,” And in fact the best, at least academic, administrators, are people who never stop caring about the things that the teachers care about, which is that you want to give your students a great education, you want to disseminate the best research in the best way possible and have it make a real contribution to life outside the university. That’s what the best administrators do. I’m not saying that I was one, I hope! But I actually found that some of my philosophical training actually made me better prepared. Some of the best college presidents and deans and so forth have actually been philosophers—they actually make up a pretty good percentage of the university administrators you find. Not all, but they make up a good percentage.

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BW: You yourself attended one of the most renowned women’s colleges in the U.S. [Wellesley College]; now you work in an institution which is arguably infamous for only at a very late point in history allowing women to attend the college. You’ve also spoken positively in the past about a right to single-sex education…


MMA: [laughs] Wow, you really did your homework! Yes, okay.


BW: It seems we look to cultivate a personal or a beneficial educational environment without slipping into stigmatizing segregation, do you think you’re capable defining a boundary there?


MMA: What I think is best is a range of educational opportunities for people who’ve had a kind of basis, a ground level, I’ll say, of immersion in education, for the sake of equality. When other kinds of values besides civic values are at stake as part of an education, there I think it’s critical to have other opportunity.


I must say, I push back against the idea that elementary schools should ever be single-sex. There are people who believe in them, and I confess, my daughter went to a high school that had single-sex education. I myself would not have wanted her to go to a single-sex elementary school, but I felt that it was good for high school, when it was something other than purely civic virtues that I thought were at stake. And it was known that there would be contexts in which, by the age of 12 or 13, the culture didn’t allow young women to think of their education as something that had the right to demand a lot of them intellectually.

It seemed to me there’s a whole set of values and virtues that come in that make it very important to have a range of options. I don’t think that we should ever go back to a time when every educational institution, particularly of higher learning, is single sex. I do not think that would be a good thing. But I think that as long as we have a world in which some people cannot presume in some educational context that they will get equal treatment, they may thrive more fully by having access to an educational setting where they’re, in some sense, the centerpiece. They’re the star. No one doubts their right to be there. No one tries to undermine their credibility as students.


I’m not saying that I don’t imagine a world in which we don’t need such schools, but I think still, even for for some people of color, particularly African Americans… I did not go to a historically black college, but I understand, even in 2018, there is culturally still enough pressure that makes some educational institutions less friendly than they could be, that there’s still a reason to support such institutions and to hold them out as one option among many.


BW: It seems to me like education is something which is at that the nexus between the personal and the public. Do you think this conversation could be applied to things that are more clearly personal and private? In regards to a ‘right to association’ in a society or club like the Boy Scouts of America? I mean, the Boy Scouts of America have in the past been criticized for not allowing gay and transgender members or leaders.


MMA: And I think… lately haven’t they allowed some young women to participate in the upper levels, like the Eagle Scouts? That might be incorrect factually [Editor’s Note: the organization decided in 2017 to allow women to join], but it’s certainly been debated. And again, I think these are voluntary associations. Education is, in some sense, less purely voluntary. It is something that’s critical to your capacity to develop into a responsible citizen. I have very mixed feelings about this. I think I know why we need and ought to leave room for, on the grounds of freedom of association, activities and institutions that celebrate some particular dimension of a person and bring people together on those grounds, but I am uncomfortable with institutions that need to define themselves in opposition to others by demeaning them. I have never been very active on this issue, you know, and so I have never thought very much about it… When the grounds of association are to exclude others on some discriminatory ground, and some ground that discriminates on the basis of considerations that are morally irrelevant, it seems to me that’s very different. You know, it’s one thing to say, “Let’s celebrate girls and let’s celebrate boys,” but it’s another thing to say, “Let’s celebrate them and exclude others from being part of our group, because we think they’re somehow inferior because of who they are.” That to me seems very different.


BW: I guess this is something that probably we, as the public, are in the middle trying to figure out, but do you think there’s a clear distinction between when you’re doing something because it’s beneficial to the population you’re defining, and when it’s demeaning to the other?


MMA: I don’t know that there’s a general principle that, from on high, allows us to say what an organization has to be willing to allow or who it has to be willing to allow. I do think it probably can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis, and unfortunately there just are some kinds of moral challenges, moral problems, with regard to which a general principle can be a blunt instrument, and one that is unlikely to allow you to appreciate the complexity of that particular context. So I wouldn’t want to make a general claim… I will make a general claim about not excluding people on grounds that are meant to be demeaning, but when the grounds are demeaning may be something you can determine only on a case-by-case basis.

I think religious organizations have a right to— you know, whether it’s Christian or Jewish or Islamic or Buddhist or whatever—have a right to expect you to sign onto certain tenets of the faith. That’s exclusionary, right? The question is, does that exclusion, that involves resistance to people based on tenets of the faith— which you might say had to be revealed also in conduct— where does your right to hold onto that commitment run into the possibility of being unacceptably discriminatory? Say you run a school, and the question is, who can we demand that you have a duty to hire as a teacher? It seems to me that is a very difficult question. I do wonder about people who are confident that they know what it means to live the tenets of faith out in a life that doesn’t look exactly like theirs. That’s my own belief, but I acknowledge I have a much more liberal understanding of what it is to have religious beliefs. But I think it does become a question that can only be solved on a case-by-case basis, not from on high. Again, if you’re Christian or if you’re Jewish or if you’re Buddhist or whatever, you have a right to say, “We expect you to teach these tenets of our faith,” but what is required for you to be able to do that? That may be something that we can determine only on a case-by-case basis.


BW: To bring things back to campus a little bit, and this is something that is definitely leaving the theoretical and going back to the practical, and something that you probably dealt with in your time as dean, do you have any thoughts on the value of exclusionary clubs on campus, like Greek life, that’s including fraternities and sororities, but also co-educational ‘literary societies’?


MMA: I always hope that all the activities that any group engages in are activities that are either just about having a good time without hurting anybody or about lifting people up, rather than about having a good time hurting people or damaging and demeaning people. And I think that those two problematic things, having a good time by hurting others or defining yourself by demeaning other people, it’s not just Greek societies that can be guilty of that, any group can. And I’ve known Greek organizations, male and female, where sometimes they do great things for other people. There are some contexts in which Greek societies have been more prone to the bad side, but that’s not true of all of them; and I guess I would want, in fairness, to let people show me their best side. I’ve always felt that.


It was more of a problem, the Greek issue, at other schools I’ve taught at. I taught and was an administrator at Indiana University at Bloomington and also Cornell, where there were larger undergraduate populations and more fraternities. And there were good, and there were not so good. And the not so good ones, again, this is true on every campus, the things they do that are not good are not because they are Greek organizations, but because they’ve let themselves see what it is to have a good time in the wrong way, or they’ve seen what it is to identify as a group, and they’ve seen it as too much about demeaning other people outside the group. Again, that doesn’t have to be a Greek society. Any kind of student group can be guilty of that, and people who are administrators and teachers and student affairs personnel, they need to be cautious and help and council people to bring the best out of themselves, whatever group they’re in.


BW: I think it’s funny that you talk about the good and harm that different societies bring to campus, and I think that broaches on a question of non-social societies and the good and harm they do on campus. I mean really recently, there’s—


MMA: Of what sort?


BW: In particular, I w as thinking most of political associations. Columbia University College Republicans, the Republican club on campus, has been accused of bringing harm to a portion of students in the student body, whereas the club members disagree and argue that what they’re doing is part of discourse, it contributes to an active academic community.


MMA: Right, so the free speech questions, Isaiah, are so complex, I’m not sure I’d want to try to answer them now so quickly. I mean, I have written about them in different dimensions and places, and even having done that, on any given campus, depending on what things have preceded, say, a particular lecture or a speech, there’s always something going on that you can’t see unless you’re on the ground, there, on that campus. You know which students are leaders in which groups, and why things come up in a particular way.

What can you say you contributed to this campus? If it’s only that you made a lot of people mad, is that really what you sacrificed and studied and worked hard to get here for? Is that what you want to leave as your legacy?”

But I would push back always in this one regard: I always believe that freedom of speech in a non-classroom context is a fundamental value to be respected. Is it an absolute value? I actually don’t think, on a campus, that we can afford to say that, because there may be times when people’s security and safety is endangered in unexpected ways by the presence of some voices on campus. But you can’t say in advance.


I guess I also want to say, I would sit down with students who want just to provoke, and I would say, “What is the ultimate value, you know, ten years from now, when you look back on what you contributed to your campus and you say, ‘Wow, I provoked people into fighting and beating each other,’ is that really what you would like to remember your four years in college for?” Even if the value of freedom of speech turns out to be on their side, as an educator, I would ask—and I’ve done this with students, not only as an administrator—“what do you want want to look back on, and what do you want to be proud of when you leave here? What can you say you contributed to this campus? If it’s only that you made a lot of people mad, is that really what you sacrificed and studied and worked hard to get here for? Is that what you want to leave as your legacy?” I would ask that. If they say “yes,” I might then just have to just back off and say, “Fine, but understand that that’s who we think you are, and that that’s what you were to Columbia.” And ten years from now, I believe students will be sorry that’s what they left. Maybe in the current political climate, where, for everybody, there’s been a general coarsening of political discourse … but I can’t believe that with age most people will look back and say, “Oh yeah, I’m really proud of that.” If they are, fine, but I would hope that nobody I care about would think that’s a legacy to leave to an institution of higher education.


BW: I mean, I think that some of the students might respond that what they’ve done on campus isn’t merely provocative, but that it’s genuinely starting a conversation. Perhaps it’s harder to defend with matters of race, but particularly with something like the value of unions in our society. Recently, a very anti-union speaker was invited to campus who was protested a lot and generated a lot of anger. Yet I think there are probably some members of CUCR who would argue that the discussion which they were having in that lecture hall was a legitimate one.


MMA: I must confess here… I became a little more removed from the campus day-to-day life than I normally am in the last year and a half. And I know for a lot of people that was a time when many of these things came to the floor in a way they hadn’t. And I know that the fallout from that continues even into this past academic year, but this Fall I was traveling… almost every week. So I didn’t follow it as much, and I followed it on other campuses, one in particular that happens to be a campus where a person in my family is residing [laughs]. It’s funny, I followed that one more than I followed it at Columbia.


I would like to see, with the passage of time and maybe the settling down politically of some issues, that maybe people could find some ways to stir debate without making everybody so angry, because anger sheds more heat, I think, than light. It’s not that people don’t have a right to provoke, but if your only means for getting discussion going is just provocation—I mean I feel there is socratic about this—that people don’t listen when they’re angry, and the first sentiments that come to the floor are protective rather than the kind that engage people in dialectic and conversation. And that is what will the campus forward, what will move the country forward too.


BW: I think there’s probably a degree to which this provocation in the name of discourse thing is something more of a recent phenomena, but I think it’s hard to argue that anger in politics, particularly in student politics, is something which hasn’t for a very long time been part of the campus dynamic. I mean, I don’t know if you’re familiar, but we’re almost at the 50th anniversary of the famous, or infamous depending on who you are, 1968 protests here at Columbia…

If what you want is sustainable change, it has to be change that doesn’t just shame the other, that doesn’t just humiliate them, and that doesn’t just make them feel afraid or angry.

MMA: Oh, of course I know! I sat for two years in the office that was at the center of some the early protests: the dean’s office. The dean, you know, was essentially held hostage [laughs]. So I know this. Also having come from an institution that continued for another year after, into 1969 at Cornell, those two years, 1968 and 1969, for a lot of people are critical years. But you know, even then, people needed to have understood something that I don’t think they understood: if you want sustainable change, if you want change that lasts—this is what Gandhi, Martin Luther King, I mean I could give you any number of other people… even Mandela in South Africa would say—it needs to be change that the people you want to get to change can ultimately see themselves signing onto. You need to be able to essentially affect reconciliation with them. And anger can be the beginning of understanding that something is wrong, but if what you want is sustainable change, it has to be change that doesn’t just shame the other, that doesn’t just humiliate them, and that doesn’t just make them feel afraid or angry. It has to be change that involves them in the possibility of political reconciliation. This is what all the great thinkers—as I said from Gandhi to King to Mandela—all the great recent political activists have understood.


And this idea of reconciliation, it comes from another pragmatist, in this case Josiah Royce, who talked about a “beloved community”, but it wasn’t about love, it was about a moral attitude towards the other that is both potentially critical of wrongdoing and respectful of the possibility of change. I would even add that Hannah Arendt said that one of the most politically productive attitudes in modern life— this is a woman who basically went through the beginnings of the Holocaust, it’s not like she’s childish, or pollyannaish in anyway—but she says forgiveness turns out to be one of the most important political sentiments that you can generate because it—this is her language in “The Human Condition”—“releases people from the predicament of irreversibility.” I love that phrase. She said, ‘you know there are some traditions that have developed the concept of forgiveness more,’ but she thinks its a human value that can make political life amendable and open to the possibility of reconciliation.


My worry is that, even in the ’60s, if it’s all about shaming or making people angry with no effort to try and open up for reconciliation, the change you create does not last. It may not last even with that [laughs]. But Mandela was one of the great architects of this attitude of reconciliation, it’s a shame that enough people who came after him did not understand the power of that idea in South Africa.


BW: Do you see that difference of opinion as being a difference in focus between the ultimate goal of creating change through the process of reconciliation, and what some activists would argue is a necessary action in the immediate moment? I think it’s difficult to say that people who felt that what the University was doing in 1968—and maybe even more recently in Manhattanville—that the situation of the person who was being victimized by these actions could be made better by reconciling themselves with someone like the administration.


MMA: I don’t mean reconciling to injustice. I never meant that—and you know Martin Luther King would never have said that. I mean I get this from people who believed that Martin Luther King, for instance, could only make non-violence work because in the background there were people waiting for a kind of explosive violence… that you needed the presence of the threat of violence in order to make non-violence feel like the appropriate way of addressing injustice. And I’m still not sure that that isn’t true. That means that I don’t believe that every urgent political issue can necessarily be resolved entirely by non-violence. But I think that the change that ends up being sustainable ends up being that change not that reconciles people to injustice, but that allows the person who’s perpetrated injustice to see how they might, if they are willing, live in a world in which they are reconciled with the people against whom they perpetrated the injustice in the first place. And that’s a very rigorous demand. I acknowledge that it is. But I think this what people like Bishop Tutu were trying to talk when they talked about the idea of forgiveness.


In Rwanda you had neighbors who had turned on one another in the… basically genocide in Rwanda, and those that were left had to figure out how they were going to live with each other in the same country. I don’t say that it’s easy, and I don’t say that demanding forgiveness of people is the way to go. But you need to open on a kind of political discourse that enables people—as in Northern Ireland, this was the peace process that Senator Mitchell helped create—that you need to open people’s minds to the possibility of a way of living that might involve—even people who have been the former perpetrators and the former recipients of injustice—potentially in a more just world, living together as neighbors.


Now there are some people, and I’m now saying this very openly, I think even Hannah Arendt might have said this, who are not willing to contemplate that kind of reconciliation. That’s what World War II was about. That’s what the Civil War was about. I don’t claim that every perpetrator of injustice is sufficiently open to the kind of reconciliation that I am talking about 30, 40, 50 years later, or that they are open to do doing it in the right way. I think reconstruction in the U.S. failed. And it was a failure because people who perpetrated injustice did not want this openness to genuinely moral reconciliation. I mean, I think it’s clear, and that’s why you had Jim Crow segregation. But the change that sticks, and the change that allows people not to go on just killing each other, I think, is the change that opens out onto not just angry “Here’s the injustice. You should be ashamed. Let’s humiliate you.” It opens out onto other possibilities. Does that make sense?

I think that there is something admirable about people who make it their aim not to get angry at that particular court case and undermine the rule of law at that time, but who ask, “what can we do in the future to make the procedures work better?

BW: I think that does make sense. And if we’re talking about dealing with injustice through political means, you talked earlier about how you think that whether what you’re doing is voting or just attending a town hall, or what you’re doing is really visible, more traditional activism, that what you’re doing is political. Do you think that there is something to be said for, or against, a campus community which is really notable for its vocal activism?


MMA: Interesting, so the more ordinary sense of activism? I think there’s a place for it. I mean, I think it’s one of the things that can be more rewarding about teaching about a place like Columbia, knowing that you have a lot of students who care about the world, who care about things like mass incarceration, and even undergraduates who end up getting involved in prison teaching programs. I think that’s wonderful, and I would never say that that kind of activism shouldn’t be given a kind of special place in our conceptual scheme, and that it shouldn’t be distinguished from the activism that I claim is the activism of the ordinary responsible citizen. But the other work that ordinary people do just matter…


Let me give you an example, an unexpected one, if there is a court case where we think that the legal procedures are imperfect, they produce an outcome that makes us upset; maybe we think that some act of police brutality should have been handled differently, or we think that the wrong that someone endured should have been recognized by a court. There are lots of ways to react to that, but I think that there is something admirable about people who make it their aim not to get angry at that particular court case and undermine the rule of law at that time, but who ask, “what can we do in the future to make the procedures work better? How can we ensure that rules of evidence or ways in which district attorneys work with police etcetera, don’t have to get in the way of justice in this case?”


For me that’s another kind of citizen activism that says, “Let’s reform our practices. Let’s reform our institutions. Let’s make the ordinary procedures work better. Let’s hold our legislators to higher standards than we do now. Let’s demand that they care as much about the rule of law as we think is necessary for our society to persist.” So yeah, it’s fun. I want to say that on a campus like Columbia’s, if you’re a student who isn’t active like that you can sometimes feel like people think you don’t matter [laughs]. I’ve had students come and say, “I’m not that kind of person [mimes crying]”. There’s got to be a place for that person too. But you know its a lot of fun seeing… It is, I know, very appealing to a certain kind of high school student that Columbia has this long-standing culture of supporting certain kinds of activism, but there should be room for the student who maybe isn’t an activist.

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