Pride or Prejudice?

There's been a lot of talk in recent weeks about "political correctness," particularly among our presidential candidates. Donald Trump doesn't have time for it. Ben Carson thinks it's "ruining our country." They and many others resent being criticized for intolerance and discrimination; they twist the term "political correctness" to denigrate critics and excuse their own behavior disparaging another's race, gender or nation or origin.

This has weighed on my mind recently as accusations of political correctness have played out on my own campus, Susquehanna University, over our nickname and mascot: the Crusaders.

The name, which first used by a Philadelphia sports writer in 1924, was a reference to Susquehanna Athletic Director Luther Grossman's "crusade" to bring integrity to intercollegiate athletics. After the campus adopted the usage, the symbols of a medieval crusader -- a Maltese cross, a knight and lance -- were associated with campus athletic teams. In the late 1980s, as part of our efforts to become a more welcoming and inclusive campus, we moved away from the medieval iconography and adopted the symbol of a flag. A desire for a campus mascot in the late 1990s led to the birth of "the Caped Crusader," a tiger in a cape. The need to replace that costume led students two years ago to consider other alternatives.

In the meantime, our campus has grown increasingly diverse. This fall we welcomed our largest and most diverse class; twenty-three percent of our 692 freshmen are non-white. As our students continued to struggle to identify a new iconography, our board of trustees believed now was the time for us to engage in a serious conversation about it.

For the past few weeks I've been on the road, gathering input on the Crusader nickname and mascot from students, faculty, staff and alumni. As you might guess, folks came down on both sides of the issue. Some felt that the Crusader nickname has negative connotations that are at odds with our university's commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. Others felt a loyalty to the tradition associated with Crusader.

Both those feelings are valid, but I bristle at the critics who have suggested that we are bowing to political correctness by even bringing this issue to debate. It seems it's easier than ever these days to rise up and rail against political correctness. Used as a justification, insult or outright dismissal, it prevents difficult issues from being treated with the complexity they deserve. To pride oneself -- as some of those presidential candidates do - on opposing "political correctness" is to stubbornly insist on the right to trivialize issues that may affect others' lives.

I'm wary of any suggestion that we limit the discussion of challenging, or even disturbing, ideas; topics that are disturbing or difficult often require the most discussion. Moreover, I can think of no better place for such debates and discussion than the college campus -- which operates with the very goal of opening students' minds to new ideas and new people. We want our students to leave here with the understanding that the appropriate response to ideas they oppose is not censorship or a pat dismissal, but a spirited debate on its merits.

I think our board of trustees -- and indeed everyone in our Susquehanna family who engaged in this process in such a thoughtful and respectful way -- is courageous. We need people who can listen to the views of others and to respect, not demonize, those who are different. We need to engage in serious questions and we need leaders -- on our campus, in our communities, and as a country -- to do this work.