Editorial: Faculty on Deters’ appointment

This editorial was written by Associate Professors of Communication Wendy Maxian, Ashley Hinck and Leslie Rasmussen and Assistant Professor of Communication Andrew Zolides.

The University’s new strategic plan prioritizes “set(ting)the national collegiate standard for Ignatian Civic Engagement” for Xavier’s campus.

Senior leadership’s nonresponse to a student petition challenging Joe Deters’ “Justice in Residence” appointment, and the ensuing editorials in The Cincinnati Enquirer, and President Colleen Hanycz’s statements on the Enquirer’s That’s So Cincinnati podcast indicate that they are unserious about achieving that goal. 

After the appointment was announced, some students objected, began civically engaging and circulated a petition for their classmates and alumni’s consideration. At this moment, the petition has 760 signatures and was submitted to university leadership over a week ago.

Hanycz and senior leadership have yet to reciprocate students’ civic engagement. There has been no public response or discussion within the Xavier community.

The stakes are high. 

Disengagement with the students’ petition calls into question the strategic plan, Take It On, other civic engagement initiatives and the university’s Jesuit Catholic values and Ignatian gifts.  

Civic engagement asks community members to collectively participate in shaping their community’s values and to address issues of public concern.

One way to engage is through a petition. Indeed, the right to petition is fundamental to American free speech and is articulated in the First Amendment.

Civic engagement goes beyond voting to include questioning, challenging and holding those in power accountable, particularly those in public and elected positions.

Challenging the content of a public figure or official’s speech is civic engagement. It does not “cancel” that person but asks for accountability.

The students’ petition did all of this. By challenging Deters’ record as an elected Hamilton County prosecutor, they held him accountable for his public service.

The administration’s silence is disingenuous, especially at an institution of higher education that espouses using and teaching civic engagement.

The only public response from the university was a statement quoted in a March 14 article in the Enquirer, titled “‘Antithetical to our values.’ Justice Joe Deters’ residency at Xavier courts criticism.”

The statement noted that “higher education is a marketplace of ideas” and that, at Xavier, “we embrace difficult conversations and intellectual discomfort as part of our mission. It is through challenging conversations that we learn to better understand our own positions and engage with those who hold different views.”

Marketplaces are public exchanges. Ideas must be exchanged in public venues, like classrooms, official announcements, shared petitions and newspaper editorials. 

Yet, no public discussion has taken place on campus even after students, who through their petition, contributed their ideas to the marketplace, clearly articulated their concerns and began a challenging, uncomfortable conversation.

Further, Hanycz stated on the March 21 episode of That’s So Cincinnati that, “Universities must be marketplaces of ideas where we are forced to encounter ideas and views and perspectives that not only make us think but ideally make us uncomfortable.”  

And yet Hanycz and senior leadership have yet to truly “encounter” the ideas, views, and perspectives of the Xavier community, ignoring frequent requests for public discussion and deliberation. 

And this conversation was always going to be uncomfortable.

The newly appointed Ohio Supreme Court justice’s prosecutorial career is marked by controversies that run counter to Xavier’s stated mission and values.

He invoked racist dog whistles and victim blamed a sexual assault plaintiff whose case he tried.

His robust use of the death penalty was rebuked by a Jesuit superior and he has advocated for resurrecting firing squads.

When discussing Ohio’s bail reform Issue 1 in a press conference, he stated that “innocent until proven guilty” was “bullshit.” Deters is a controversial public figure in Cincinnati and now a controversial figure on the Ohio Supreme Court.

When university leadership approved Deters’ appointment, they brought the public official and his controversies into Xavier’s community and idea marketplace.

Especially given that Xavier’s marketplace embraces difficult conversations and intellectual discomfort as part of its mission and strategic plan, Hanycz and senior leadership should not only have expected pushback, but they should have welcomed it.

No one has joined the marketplace to publicly reply to students other than Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Megan Shanahan and University of Cincinnati English professor R.J. Boutelle. All have published editorials in the Enquirer.

Yost demanded that students engage but then characterized their petition as leading to the rise of authoritarianism.

Shanahan described students as “extremists” for engaging and asserting their First Amendment rights.

Boutelle, a UC professor, defended Xavier students, calling their rejection of Deters “substantive, moral and principled,” and “by definition, an exchange of ideas.”

The authors of this editorial have watched and waited for Hanycz and senior leadership to respond with openness, dialogue and civic commitment, as Xavier’s mission directs and as students have asked. They can wait no longer.

To date, neither Hanycz, senior leadership nor Deters have participated in the university’s public marketplace or in the difficult conversations that students and others want to have.

Students and Xavier were twice maligned in the press by public officials for their civic engagement. Hanycz and senior leadership did not defend students’ efforts in the marketplace from public attacks. 

Despite repeatedly defining Xavier as a community that encourages and teaches civic engagement, leadership has not engaged. 

Additionally, over the past few years, Xavier’s senior leadership established initiatives that provide guidelines for uncomfortable conversations in Xavier’s marketplace of ideas through Take It On and the 2021 President’s Cabinet Commitment to Fight against Racism.

Last year, Take It On also undertook the Ignatian Campus Speech Initiative. The result was the Principles of Free Speech and Expression, reaffirming Xavier’s commitments to “diversity, inclusion, equity” and Xavier’s “pedagogic responsibility to advance rational discourse.”

In the 2023 Cincinnati College Guide, Xavier’s advertorial promotes the notions that Xavier students and graduates “challenge convention” and are “bound by a code of community.”

What’s more, in 2020, The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. also issued a guide to Ignatian civic engagement. The conference provides several principles, including Pope Francis’ statement that “a good Catholic meddles in politics,” the Jesuit “approach to politics is rooted in closeness with those on the margins of society” and that “Ignatian civic engagement requires confronting systemic racism.”

Given that Xavier’s marketplace of ideas has clear guidelines encouraging difficult debate and uncomfortable conversations, university leadership’s unwillingness to partake in the discussion they have fostered and outlined is hypocritical.

Xavier’s clearly defined marketplace indicates that students are right to question Deters’ appointment.

Senior leadership can and should engage with students’ concerns.

At the very least, Hanycz and senior leadership should uphold their “pedagogic responsibility” by modeling civic disagreement and providing a dissenting response to the petition.

Hanycz and senior leadership can still join the conversation students started and that local and state public officials have continued.

Xavier’s leaders have an amazing opportunity to live the mission and to put their words into action.

Deters, too, should join the conversation. Answer students’ concerns. Explain his public comments. Debate the death penalty and firing squads.

Xavier students deserve the civic engagement they have been promised and for which they have asked.

This editorial has been endorsed by the following faculty (in alphabetical order):

● Michelle E. Brady, Chair and Professor of Philosophy

● Minerva Catral, Associate Professor of Mathematics

● Diane Ceo-DiFrancesco, Professor of Classics and Modern Languages

● Suparna Chatterjee, Associate Professor of History and Williams College of Business

● Blis DeVault, Professor of Communication

● Alexis Dianda, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

● Renea Frey, Associate Professor of English

● Jeffrey M. Gerding, Associate Professor of English

● Gabe Gottlieb, Faculty Committee Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy

● Bethany Henning, Besl Chair for Ethics/Religion and Society, Department of Philosophy

● Natalia Jackovkis, Associate Professor of Classics and Modern Languages

● Mich Nyawalo, Associate Professor of Race, Intersectionality, Gender, and Sociology

● Julia C. O’Hara, Associate Professor of History

● Niamh J. O’Leary, Associate Professor of English

● José María Mantero, Professor of Classics and Modern Languages

● Kristen Renzi, Chair of Race, Intersectionality, Gender, and Sociology and Associate Professor of English

● Juan Suárez Ontaneda, Assistant Professor of Classics and Modern Languages

● Jamie H. Trnka, Chair and Professor of Classics and Modern Languages

● Marita von Weissenberg, Associate Professor of History

● Amy C. Whipple, Chair and Associate Professor of History

● Jody L. Wyett, Chair and Professor of English