Barnard professor Dennis Dalton's decision to join the now six-day-old student hunger strike has raised new questions about the legitimacy of the strikers' demands and the role of student-faculty cooperation on controversial issues. It is rare for a faculty member to show such solidarity with a student protest, a gesture that is particularly significant in a university frequently known for the distance between students and higher-ups. Dalton is one professor who has consistently bucked that trend, working with student clubs and activities like Columbia Men Against Violence and the Columbia Potluck House. While a professor's deciding to join the hunger strike is a bold move that will surely get the attention of the administration, teachers should look for sustainable ways to express their solidarity in the classroom and on an academic level.
Dalton has said he joined the strike because his own attempts to create a dialogue with the administration about his problems with the expansion of the breadth of the Core Curriculum have been rebuffed, and he too feels that immediate change is necessary. While he concedes that he does not agree with some of the language of the demands, he said he fully supports their content and implications. Professor Dalton is no stranger to non-violent forms of protest—he has done extensive research on Gandhi and long been an activist. Some argue that this makes Dalton's involvement less significant than that of a professor with no invested interest in activism.
However, other professors might not have the same freedom as Dalton does to express their thoughts on student protest. Due to their lack of job security, untenured professors and teaching assistants may feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions on the strike. As a staunch defender of academic freedom, the University should allow any professor the opportunity to voice his concerns about Columbia's curriculum and structure, with no fear of retribution.
As authority figures, professors should not be viewed as links between administrators and strikers, but they can reshape the University's academic landscape. Hunger striking is a powerful public statement, but many professors would do more good to contribute to the body of academic work around these issues. They can also do so by selecting course texts with global viewpoints or approaching traditional Core texts with an eye for asking students to think critically about race, ethnicity, and gender. Two years ago, one professor offered a viable suggestion for diversifying Contemporary Civilization's syllabus that incorporated works from all over the world. Although the Committee on the Core rejected his proposal, this is the type of contribution that academics, with their breadth and depth of knowledge, are ideally suited to make.