Columns, Opinions

Aman ’20: Former RNC Chair Michael Steele’s appointment as faculty fellow supports U. mission

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, September 13, 2018

The University recently announced that Michael Steele — former chair of the Republican National Committee, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and conservative political commentator — has been named a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. Steele will host a not-for-credit study group throughout the semester and will also co-host two public events focused on the midterm elections with current Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez ’83 P ’18. Reactions to this announcement have been mixed but mostly positive, if the 155 “likes” and 10 “angry reactions” on Facebook at press time are any indication. I, for one, am extremely excited for the learning opportunities this invitation presents.

Last spring, I wrote a column laying out criteria to determine the boundaries of acceptable discourse on campus. I argued that guest speakers should enhance our learning and should ultimately help us fulfill our mission of “serv(ing) the community, the nation and the world.” To fulfill this mission, students need to be exposed to a diverse array of opinions and perspectives in order to successfully engage with those we will encounter after graduation. In addition, I argued that the University was not bringing enough conservative perspectives to campus, limiting students’ education.

The appointment of Michael Steele as a faculty fellow clearly fulfills these goals. In my previous column, I argued that guest speakers should be able to “share personal experiences and new perspectives that we cannot readily find in the library, on the internet or from our professors.” As a former elected official and the leader of the RNC, Steele clearly meets this criterion.

Furthermore, the structure of Steele’s fellowship offers opportunities for in-depth study as well as more accessible public events. Having the former RNC chair and the current DNC chair on the same stage will hopefully spark thoughtful conversations and provide a positive example of engagement with opposing partisan affiliations.

Steele is not without critics — and he will probably be challenged for past commentary and policy advocacy. For example, some might take issue with Steele’s past condemnations of Barack Obama, including his assertion that the war in Afghanistan was one of “Obama’s choosing.” Yet unlike the traditional guest speaker format, the study group and co-hosted events offer significant opportunities for productive conversation and will likely limit false or hyperbolic rhetoric.

It is also worth noting that Steele is no longer a leading official in the Republican Party and does not have to indulge or accept rhetoric from the fringes of his party. That is, he can serve as an independent conservative voice on this campus. (This hasn’t always been the case: In 2009, as RNC chairman, Steele criticized conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, calling his rhetoric “incendiary” and “ugly,” but he almost immediately apologized when he faced intense backlash from Limbaugh and his supporters.) In fact, in recent months, Steele has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump. Earlier this year, during an appearance on MSNBC, he was asked if he thought Trump was racist. Steele responded, “At this point, the evidence is incontrovertible, it’s right there.”

While the University cannot realistically invite every potential guest speaker to be a faculty fellow, in the future, it should strive for this kind of deep engagement when it invites political personalities to campus. If Steele’s appointment is successful, his fellowship could be a model — on this campus and on others that have had more chaotic experiences with right-wing speakers — for inviting conservative figures to campus in a way that will be productive rather than simply divisive. If the goal of inviting guest speakers to campus is enhancing students’ education and introducing us to new ideas, the University should continue to focus on quality over quantity to create meaningful learning experiences for students.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.