David Perry shines spotlight on college problems

Johnny Myers

jomyers@ursinus.edu

Colleges are often accused of being overly politically correct, but Dr. David Perry says that accusation is wrong. On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Perry gave a talk called “Colleges Have 99 Problems (But Political Correctness Ain’t One)” and on Thursday, Feb. 28, he gave a lunch called “Study Humanities and Save the World.” Perry is a journalist, activist, and undergraduate career advisor for history majors at the University of Minnesota.

Perry argued that there is nothing wrong with political correctness, and that colleges should be careful about giving platforms to hate speech. Perry also argued that we need to shift public attention to the real threats to higher education today. His list of “99 problems,” is in response to media sensationalism about political correctness on college campuses. Actual problems that Perry mentioned include student debt, homelessness, hunger, predatory loans, and the prestige economy, essentially the idea that one can do everything one is supposed to and there will still not be work available.

Perry was introduced by Dr. Susanna Throop, Associate Professor and Department Chair of History at Ursinus. Throop stated that the topic “engages the controversy and encourages us to think beyond the boundaries of the controversy as is currently framed, and to ask what truly threatens higher education communities across the country.” Perry’s background as a professor at Dominican University, a small liberal arts college, as well as working in administration for the University of Minnesota, “has given him a truly unique perspective on not only higher education, but on the way that higher education is depicted and discussed in the media,” Throop said.

Matthew Seeburger ’22 attended the talk. He found the speaker interesting, and said that he values “[his] freedom of speech as much as my personal health.”

“I was pleased to hear that there would be some sort of discussion regarding how one of my most important values is handled on college campuses,” Seeburger said. “I can now consider free speech much less prominent a problem on college campuses. While I do disagree with his claim that freedom of speech is not a problem at all, I realize that there are numerous other problems that should take precedence over free speech, like student hunger/homelessness and tuition prices.”

Other issues that Seeburger learned about that face college students, including high tuition costs and clinically diagnosed anxiety and depression, were important conversation points for Perry.

Seeburger was not the only one who found the talk insightful, as it was a sentiment shared by senior, Joe Makuc. “I liked David M. Perry’s talk. I appreciated his commitment to accessibility in presentation, including spoken descriptions of his slide’s contents. He convincingly demonstrated that outcry about “political correctness” focuses on outlying incidents, and that this outcry is connected to an erasure of pervasive structural problems in academia (including censorship of student newspapers and chilling speech against students and faculty),” Makuc said.

Makuc also believes that the talk raised critical issues that affect all colleges. “I agree with Perry’s assertion that colleges are facing a vast swath of pervasive structural problems. If colleges represent junctions for student and faculty knowledge production, then colleges must first become more accessible to students and faculty, challenging academic paywalls, welcoming people regardless of background, and most importantly, giving students and faculty the resources they need to comfortably learn and think (whether those resources be food, shelter, fair wages, or accommodations)” Makuc said.

Perry also led a lunch discussion with students about how he came to his current career path, his work as a journalist, and how he sees those jobs working with his activism. Makuc found the lunch as enlightening as the talk. “I thought the luncheon was very thought provoking and engaging. I appreciated Perry’s candid thoughts on his own career path, and I appreciated his advice for balancing public representation for organizations with representation of oneself in activism” Makuc said. On February 28, Perry led a workshop for faculty and staff titled “Accessibility is a Conversation: Getting Beyond the Accommodation Letter.” Perry claims that an accommodation letter should be the “beginning of a conversation between professor and student” as opposed to “the end of the matter.” The workshop aims to “learn how to initiate and sustain this kind of conversation with students, and why doing so has the potential to positively transform the classroom for everyone, including ourselves.” The talk was co-sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs, Disability Services, and the Arts & Lectures Committee, as well as a number of academic departments.