Leader of the purple world

On Barack Obama and Joseph Biden’s campaign Web site, visitors had the option to be “American Values Voters.” In addition to hosting an “American Values House Party,” self-proclaimed “American Values Voters” could buy T-shirts and hats to publicly broadcast their belief that, in voting for the Obama-Biden ticket, they were upholding American values. Like those values we celebrated this past Thursday or those values that Gary L. Bauer, president of “Our American Values” holds dear, those values that Joe and Barack represent were never clearly defined. Given that many of the merchandise items were made of wool, however, one could assume that they probably had to do with global warming. Or maybe they were just covert attempts at luring hockey moms to the Obama side.

Michelle Obama, in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, hinted at what in fact these values might be: listing the values she shares with her husband, and that her husband presumably shares with the American people, she declared, “that your word is your bond and what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” Obama and Biden’s platform on China offers some additional insight into what those parties, T-shirts and hats meant: under the heading “Advancing American Values,” the page points to inclusiveness (drawing China into the international system), directness (conducting candid dialogue) and liberty – or exceptionality, based on your perspective (pressing China to live up to human rights standards).

Recently, due to my Canadian passport, I have had few opportunities to reflect on values, leaders and how I can make the latter reflect the former: I did not participate in choosing the American president (though I, along with 77 percent of my countrymen, would have voted for Obama), and at home, democracy was subsumed by the formerly obsolete practice of prorogation. Now, however, I have the chance to make my political voice heard. Though there is no election (but a WSO blog), neither one nor two autobiographies (but Storytime), and sentiments toward the outgoing candidate are precisely the opposite of what they were toward Bush, Williams is selecting a new leader. The selection committee has asked us to offer input as to “the type of leader that can best carry Williams forward,” and so, since returning from the politically vacuous land that is my home, I have put my starved political appetite to work.

In thinking about the American Values Voters, I began to ponder whether presidents of universities must represent values in the same way that does the leader of the “Free World.” Whereas the “Free World” entails a normative stance, I am not sure that Williams implies any stance, except perhaps an academic one. While our mission statement speaks of civic virtues, my experience has largely been more about exposure than imposition. While professors endow us with the capacity to explore those civic virtues that we may already embrace or later adopt, they rarely foist them upon us uncompromisingly. Even when values assume obligatory status, the obligation is generally swamped by ambiguity (what is diversity? what is community?)

This brought me back to an article I recall reading after Larry Summers became Obama’s economic virtue incarnate. On the topic of Summers’ resignation from Harvard, Stanley Fish argued that, in an institution of higher learning, professors and presidents have disparate commitments to values: whereas the former are rewarded for disrupting complacency, the latter are rewarded for, in effect, maintaining it. According to this line of argument, it is okay for professors to challenge established values but not for presidents to do the same.

At the critique of Claiming Williams, a panelist questioned why a movement of such genuinely organic origins had evolved into such an organized function. In this case, it was a professor provoking, but it could have just as well been our president. Let us hope that his successor would do the same, confronting the prevailing wisdom on entrenched pedagogical, ideological and institutional values. Let us also hope that she invites us to her house for dinner, wears purple sweater vests and has a favorite gelato flavor. Then, I will wear a “Williams Values Voter” wool toque with pride.

Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario.