Thank You, Holden, for Being My Chancellor

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp

The email announcement from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp stating he intends to step down next June that I received on Monday caught me by surprise, and I’m still sad about it. Tuesday afternoon, I attended a special session of the faculty council, where hundreds of faculty members packed the auditorium to show their support for Chancellor Thorp and ask him to reconsider his decision.

Here is the text of the resolution hundreds of faculty voted unanimously to pass:

“The General Faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, convened in special session September 18, 2012, affirms its support for Chancellor Holden Thorp and respectfully requests that UNC President Thomas Ross decline to accept Chancellor Thorp’s announced resignation.  We believe that, despite the difficulties of the present moment, Holden Thorp remains the best person to lead our university through these challenging times.  With the university’s Faculty Executive Committee, the College of Arts and Sciences Council of Chairs, and other campus groups, we urge that President Ross, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, and the UNC Board of Governors continue to provide the support the chancellor needs to remain in office.”

After the faculty council meeting, I ran into one faculty member who works very closely with Thorp, and he too looked visibly sad. “I came today just because I wanted to thank Holden for all he has done,” I said. As soon as I got home, I sat down to write this blog just to say publicly, “Thank you, Holden, for being my Chancellor.”

To see a 2-minute video of what was discussed, and Holden’s comments the faculty, check out this video created by the UNC student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. If you look closely, I’m up in the top left corner with my arms crossed and wearing a coral colored shirt.

I first met Holden when I was a brand new faculty member at UNC. He was serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at that time, and on one of my first days of work I had a small lunch meeting with him and a few other new faculty. His humility was as striking as his genius. He seemed to care about the direction of the university as a whole and about the career of every single faculty member.

When he was elected Chancellor the following year, I rejoiced, knowing that same vision and genius would now be leading the entire university. I remember walking past him on campus one day  and saying, “Hi Holden!”, and he kindly replied, “Hi, Margarita.” He remembered my name. Not only had he been my Dean, he was now my Chancellor, and he remembered my name. Thank you, Holden, for calling me by my name, Margarita.

I’ve seen many wonderful things happen at UNC during Holden’s time here. I am particularly encouraged by the university’s commitment to sponsoring entrepreneurship across all disciplines, such as through the Carolina Entrepreneurship Initiative. I greatly appreciate the university’s strengthening committment to support engaged scholarship, such as through the Faculty Engaged Scholars Program.

Of late, however, most attention has gone to problems of academic integrity that are related to the unethical behavior of one faculty member and one administrator (now both gone from UNC). More attention recently went to the mis-use of university funds by two university employees for personal travel. And in both cases, the violations were in some way related to Carolina athletes or the promotion of the Carolina athletics program. I just hope that those serious problems do not overshadow Holden’s legacy and his many contributions to Carolina.

At the faculty council meeting, numerous faculty spoke highly of Holden. One faculty member in English remarked, “We have a Chancellor who is a chemist but who understands humanities!” Another faculty member pointed out that all of us, not just the Chancellor, need to contribute to the good governance of this school.

James Moeser

Then former Chancellor James Moeser took the microphone, and he explicitly directed his comment to the media. He graciously acknowledged all the hard work of the many Carolina faculty members in the room, and said that our faculty assembly–called with less than 24 hours notice–showed how committed UNC faculty really are to the Carolina way.

Former Chancellor Moeser couldn’t be more correct. And no one has taught me more about the Carolina way than Holden Thorp. Thank you, Holden, for being my Chancellor.


Peace in Your Hearts, Peace in Your Actions

As I read today about Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Lebanon in which, not surprisingly, he called for peace, I reflected on how his words point out a common theme in Christian thought which draws on Aristotle’s concept of the virtues. Human goods are not only interior dispositions, nor are they only exterior actions. Human goods must be the alignment of interior dispositions and exterior actions.

Is peace a state of mind or the heart? Or is peace a state of social relations? It is both. It must be both. Although it is clear that there is no peace if two parties are warring against each other, there also is no peace if one person hates another, even if he or she does not act on that hate.

So how does one build peace in a context that lacks peace? Not only by cultivating good feelings, but also by enacting peace. That was the main message of Pope Benedict’s homily in Beirut yesterday:

“In today’s second reading, Saint James tells us to what extent our walking in the footsteps of Jesus, if it is to be authentic, demands concrete actions. “I, by my works, will show you my faith” (Jas 2:18). It is an imperative task of the Church to serve and of Christians to be true servants in the image of Jesus. Service is a foundational element of the identity of Christ’s followers (cf. Jn 13:15-17). The vocation of the Church and of each Christian is to serve others, as the Lord himself did, freely and impartially. Consequently, in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary for building a fraternal society, for building fellowship! Dear brothers and sisters, I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity. This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will. I appeal to all of you to be peacemakers, wherever you find yourselves” (Pope Benedict XVI, Beirut, Lebannon, September 16th, 2012).

Just as the letter of St. James makes clear that followers of Jesus are required to show their faith through works, so peace will only come if people are peacemakers. The debate among some Christians about faith vs. works sets up a false opposition: there is no faith without works, and if works are not done with faith, they are not Christian action. Similarly, Benedict told all people of good will that there is is no peace without peacemakers; and peacemakers won’t make peace if people don’t have peace in their hearts.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Pope Benedict XVI ended the Mass with these words:

“May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence.”

This quote once again illustrates that peace, like any virtue, is in the heart and in the actions we undertake. May the words of the Pope inspire hope in a region of the world so much in need of peace in people’s hearts and in people’s actions.

Are Men and Women Really Different?

Does part of self-actualization or self-knowledge have to do with pondering, at least  every once in a while, whether men and women are really different?

My parents bent over backwards to give me all the same opportunities as my three older brothers. I can’t count how many times my dad told me, “You can do anything the boys can do.” I believed him then, and other than realizing the hard way (i.e., many childhood injuries from playing with boys) that I’ll never match men’s physical strength, I still believe now that I can do anything boys can do. As I’ve written before, my parents gave me the self-confidence where I thought of myself as Mighty M, my graduate school softball nickname.

As my responsibilities as a teacher, mentor and scholar grew, however, I began to wonder if I wasn’t missing something important by considering whether men and women are different psychologically. Talking about whether men and women are different can often be a delicate subject because it’s easy to stereotype or exaggerate the differences between the sexes. It’s also hard to talk about sex differences without implying a value judgement–such as that the masculine way of being is better than the feminine way of being, or vice-versa. Because of these pitfalls, for a long time, I put aside questions of differences between the sexes and  I tried to treat everyone the same.

However, as I’ve noted in a previous blog post on the dignity of women at work, I slowly realized that women colleagues and women graduate students seemed to suffer more from the social isolation inherent in so much academic work. Sex differences, I slowly realized, don’t stop at physical strength, sex differences can also be seen in our psychological makeup as men and women.

In terms of professions, I still believe what my parents told me: I can do any profession a man can do. As I’ve written about before on BW&G, Edith Stein’s writings on professional women have greatly inspired me to fight to keep my place in academic and to do my work as a woman–by which I mean acknowledging that part of my makeup as  woman makes me more nurturing and relational than most of my male colleagues. I see women’s ability to nurture as one strength we bring to the workplace and our interactions with students.

Recently, I got up the guts to tell a  male professor who has been one my mentors for nearly 8 years about my thoughts about men and women being different. I think that because sex differences are often used to keep women from getting ahead, I had encountered a lot of resistance–mostly from women–to talking about sex differences. At the same time, however, many other women were so excited to have this conversation, as they sensed they were different than men but didn’t know how to express it.

This male colleague told me, “You know, we have to get beyond the whole nature versus nurture debate about men and women. Clearly it’s both.” So clearly I’m not saying that all the differences we see between men and women are rooted in biology; nor am I saying that biology is destiny.

But I am saying that having an open discussion about differences between men and women will be productive. Why? First of all, acknowledging that I’m a woman, not a man, has helped me live my role as a professor. If, as I have realized over time, students expect me to be more understanding and compassionate than a man 30 years older than me, I can use that opportunity to nurture.

In my discussions with that same male colleague he said, “Gee, I want to be nurturing but I need to be around women so they can show me how!” This comment reflects a positive approach towards gender complementarity–men and women can and should learn from each other.

In my replies to Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic about professional women and families,  I reflected on what it might mean to have it all. Knowing what we want, knowing what will make us happy, I think, requires knowing something about our particular sex. In upcoming posts, I’ll explore this issue by reflecting on some readings and discussions I have had with other women in recent years.

For example, do men and women have particular strengths and weaknesses, or particular virtues and vices? Although I’ve noted that women often lack self-confidence in the workplace, they can also have incredible courage.

Do men and women have different communication styles? Men often engage in what Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen calls report-talk, whereas women tend to engage more often in rapport-talk. In other words, men’s communication tends towards relating facts whereas women more often express feelings in their conversations.

Speaking of conversations, I hope this conversation with my readers about whether men and women are really different is a helpful one. I realize not all of us will agree, but it’s often by expressing our differences and engaging with others who think differently that our own thinking can progress.

Why do Americans Celebrate Labor Day in September and Not May?

This post is part of a series on personhood.

When I first found out that Americans celebrated Labor in September while most of the rest of the world celebrated International Workers’ Day on May 1, I wondered: this just another case of the U.S. try to be different, even exceptional?

The simple answer is that the U.S. chooses not to celebrate Labor Day on May 1 because that is considered a socialist holiday, associated with strikes, rebellion, and in some minds, even Marxist revolution. That is not to say that people who celebrate labor in May are Marxist socialists and Americans who celebrate labor in September are not. Having spent many Mays and Septembers in different countries, the character of how labor is celebrated (at least now) seems remarkably similar–it’s another day off, a secular holiday, a time for vacation with family and friends. Here on BW&G, Amy Reynolds has written about the need to celebrate work and protect workers’ rights here in the US.

ref=dp_image_0.jpgI now understand that celebrating labor on different days is part of a long-standing debate about the meaning of human work and the rights of workers. As part of my renewed interest in the philosophy of personalism, which I have written about here at BW&G, I recently picked up a copy of a book written by Samuel Gregg, Director of Research for the Acton Institute, entitled Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojytla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching. When I picked up Gregg’s book, I was relieved to find that he condenses and synthesizes philosophy, anthropology and history into a very readable analysis of how Karol Wojytla and personalism have influenced the development of Catholic social doctrine.

Perhaps because I read the introduction to Gregg’s book on Labor Day 2012, Gregg’s argument that Wojytla’s personalist philosophy led him to draft the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) really caught my attention. Another Patheos writer, Kathy Schiffer, also dedicated her Labor Day post to reflecting on how the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum (published in 1891), still holds important lessons for the U.S. today.

When people think of Catholic social teaching the first thing that comes to their mind may be the call to charity or solidarity with the poor, as exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However, Gregg contends that for Wojytla/John Paul II, a proper understanding of human work is central to all Catholic social teaching.


So what does John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens say about human work? I walked over to my bookshelf and picked up a pile of encyclicals that my mother gave me more than a decade ago which had belonged to her father. My grandfather, Manuel Suarez Carreno, was an avid reader of Catholic social teaching and tried to put them into practice in his homeland of Cuba by promoting agrarian reform to help small farmers, among other things.

As I flipped through the pile of encyclicals with my grandfather’s signature on them and lines filled with his underlining, I got teary-eyed. For my grandfather, debates about the meaning of human work were not just abstract philosophical discussions. Debates about work and the organization of the economy tore about Cuba in the early 1960s, leading my grandfather and millions of other Cubans into exile. For the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, the socialist organization of the economy was the only way forward. Private property was abolished, and all work was organized under the central Communist party.

Wojytla/John Paul II certainly understood the socialist organization of labor, as he lived in Communist Poland.  One critique of work under socialism, perhaps most eloquently laid out by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, is that workers under socialism have little choice in what work they do. In Laborem Exercens, hence, John Paul II insists that a worker “is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say, a subject that decides about himself.”

Why is that assertion significant? For many, what is real about work is its objective dimension. Recall that for Karl Marx, the ultimate reality of the world is material. Through work, according to Marx, man produces himself because he produces something, an object. But for Wojytla/John Paul II, work doesn’t only produce something, or an object. Rather, in a very real way, work produces somebody, work produces the person himself or herself. 

How so? “As a person works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill a calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens) For Wojytla/John Paul II, the value of work is not in the market value of what is produced, rather, “the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not the objective one.”

However, Wojytla/John Paul II is not a pure idealist who thinks that the only reality is consciousness or spiritual. In other words, Wojytla/John Paul II is not saying that work has no objective value; he is saying that work has both an objective and a subjective value.

To further explain, Gregg writes, “John Paul’s development of Catholic social teaching is characterized by a deepening of its moral-anthropological dimension. The result is an increased focus upon man as a free and creative subject capable of self-realization as that which he ought to be”  (Gregg, Challenging the Modern World, p. 7).

Does all of this sound too abstract to apply to your life? One way reading Catholic social teaching has influenced me is by reminding me that I should think of the subject, the human person, I am interacting with at all times. In the US economy, much work is done in the service sector. Are those client-service interactions impersonal and dehumanizing? Sometimes, but they don’t have to be. If you recall that the the person working for you is a person, perhaps you can find a way to engage them in conversation. Yesterday, after a long conversation with a very helpful salesperson at Best Buy, I asked him “Are you Cuban from Miami?” I don’t know how intuition works, but in this case, I was right on. He replied, “Yes, I am! How did you know? You just made my day!” I told him that something about him reminded me of all my Cuban relatives and friends in Miami.

In this instance, as in many others, we can do our work, or be the recipients of someone else’s work, in a way that is human–by both engaging in the objective problem and by engaging the subjectivity of the person in front of us. Of course Labor Day or May Day exists to remind us that we also need to think about macro-economic policies affecting work, but let’s not forget the subjective value of work and the subjective value of every worker.  Try engaging the acting person at work; you might make someone’s day.