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A Message to the SAIS Community from Dean Cohen

June 8, 2020

To the SAIS community,
As a result of recent conversations with faculty, students, and staff, I have decided to speak more forcefully and unguardedly than I have to this point about the issue of the day: race relations in America, particularly in the light of the murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans, and the wave of protest that has swept the nation.
Until now, I have not done so for a number of reasons, among them that it does not come naturally to someone of my age, background, temperament, and training. And some of the things I say may be displeasing. But those who have spoken with me, in groups and as individuals, have convinced me that sharing my deeper views on these injustices, and explaining how I understand them and believe we should react to them, is the right thing to do.
I abhor racism. I am appalled by the wanton killing of black Americans in recent years. I am profoundly grieved at the sorrow and pain that African-American friends and colleagues have shared with me in recent days.
Hate is not new to me. I graduated from a small parochial school in a class of twenty-six. Six years ago one of my classmates, a shy, gentle teacher, was hacked to death with three others while at prayer. That was the result of hate. Two years ago, one of my father-in-law’s friends took a bullet at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, because of hate. When my wife and I attend Sabbath services (pre-COVID) there is an armed guard present and an elaborate watch protocol in which I take part, because of hate. When my aunt passed away, my cousins discovered that she had kept, hidden but close, the yellow star she had worn in Bergen-Belsen. Hate had pinned that piece of cloth to her breast.
But I am also keenly aware that my experiences are, and forever will be, utterly different than those of black Americans. My grandparents came to this country seeking and finding freedom and opportunity. The ancestors of the vast majority of African-Americans came in shackles. Their view of America was the auction block, not the Statue of Liberty. My lived experience has overwhelmingly been one of hope and progress and liberty, and yet for many African-Americans that is far from the case.
Because my skin is white, I have not had to have “the talk” with my sons. I do not feel the same dread so many black men feel when pulled over by the police. I do not know racism in all of its many forms, from the most cruel and violent to the merely obtuse or even, in some cases, well-intentioned but still acutely painful. I do not have behind me four centuries of the lash and the noose in a country dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal, and that for so long failed even to approach that promise.
And now this moment, in which the murder of one black American, following a series of such wanton deaths, has triggered a wave of anger and revulsion.
My instinct is to use the awareness of this moment to affect SAIS, the institution that has been my home for three decades. In the weeks and months to come, I will be describing to you various concrete measures that the school will undertake. And I am also aware that when we speak of diversity and inclusion there are issues that extend beyond those specifically relevant to black America. But I wish to focus on those at this moment.
The staff of SAIS is, on the whole, quite diverse. Our student body has fewer African-Americans than we should, though not for want of resources or sustained effort by our admissions and recruitment officers. Our faculty, however, is a different story.
It is a more diverse faculty with respect to gender and ethnicity than it was when I first came here. But we have only one black term faculty member. We have no black Americans whatsoever among our tenure track and tenured faculty. We must correct this, and we will.
This past year, we have not engaged in any external faculty searches. We have made promotions and renewals, and in one case offered tenure to a faculty member who has been brought to the university through another division’s search process. This coming year, however, we will conduct our own searches. As that begins, I will ask our director of communications, Ms. Miji Bell, to serve as the search committees’ diversity adviser. We will initiate implicit bias training not only for committee members but for all faculty and senior leaders, beginning with all of us in the Dean’s office.
There will be much more, to include special events, dedicated forms of recruitment of African-American students, connections to our community, and work on building the pipeline of black faculty in international affairs. Again, you will hear more about this in the weeks and months ahead. I only ask now that you engage with the school in this enterprise as partners, not merely as spectators or critics, because that is the only way in which we will succeed.
Two further thoughts.
Please understand that I am acutely conscious of the difference between my role and responsibilities as a citizen and an individual, and my role as dean, the steward of this institution. Often, my personal views and my institutional responsibilities clash. Those who follow my writings, for example, know my opinion of the president of the United States. But if as dean I invite Vice President Biden to SAIS to deliver a foreign policy address connected with his candidacy for the presidency – and I will - I must also extend the same invitation to President Trump. And should he accept, I will extend to him the same courtesy and civility I do to his opponent, and ask that others do so as well. The point is that as dean, I must preserve the school’s political neutrality, whatever my personal feelings.
In the current setting, as in others, my first concerns are to protect the school’s educational and scholarly mission; to make it a welcoming and tolerant environment for all who come to it and for many points of view, and to defend academic freedom to the last. As a citizen, I can be outspoken in my views and fierce in my criticism; as a dean, I often cannot. I may draw this line differently than others would, but I know that to fulfill my responsibilities, the line must be drawn.
The other thought is that in our current mood of rage and grief – all the more so for African-American members of our community who may feel that nothing has changed – we must not succumb to despair. That way leads only to the pit of nihilism and endless violence. And it is unrealistic.
We have so far to go in curing the ills of systemic racism and bigotry. The work will not be complete in my lifetime, and quite possibly that of my children. But it is an injustice to the struggle of the civil-rights movement over many decades not to acknowledge the progress that has been made in so many areas, from economic achievement, to attitudes towards interracial marriage, to the numbers of black CEO’s, judges, generals, diplomats, mayors, governors, and yes, chiefs of police in today’s America, as compared with the America into which I was born.
Unqualified anger and despair would mean that pioneers like Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Dubois or the Tuskegee airmen failed. They did not. I refuse to dismiss the thrill that I felt when we elected our first black president, because of what it meant for the hope of America. I refuse to be indifferent to the promise and glowing leadership of Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, and CQ Brown, the incoming Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, both of whose searing words in recent days have brought tears to my eyes.
We should use anger as a source of energy to make things better, and we should heed Martin Luther King’s call not to “wallow in the valley of despair.” We should still hear the cry in his speech at the March on Washington that “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” I believe as he did that “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” and that it is incumbent upon all of us to strive to make that dream a reality.
These are my thoughts and my convictions. “It is not up to you to finish the work,” the ancient sages said, “but you are not free to refrain from it.” We have a great deal of work to do as a country and as an institution to live up to Dr. King’s dream. We can do better, we will do better, and I call upon you to join me in that part of the task that falls to all of us at SAIS.

signature of dean cohen
Eliot A. Cohen

Read Johns Hopkins University's message of solidarity against racism.