Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
It's been a rough year. Donald Trump has vilified immigrants, soiled the world order and scorned the sciences. The planet waits to see if an early-morning Twitter spat could cause the leader of the free world to, quite literally, go nuclear. Meanwhile, in College Park, nooses and racist posters have littered our campus. And, just days after being commissioned, Lt. Richard Collins was murdered on our campus in what appears to be an act of hate.
I'm going to talk about University of Maryland President Wallace Loh in this column, but first, I want to state two assumptions. One: In tough times, people look for leadership. When faced with tragedy, folks want wise, competent and moral leaders to help them repair the damage. Two: Leadership and communication are inseparable. Without precise communication, leaders cannot convey goals or inspire action.
Loh's communication is inadequate to the leadership we need. Throughout the 2016-17 school year, students fell into a rhythm. Something bad would happen and, within days, our phones would buzz. It was Loh, condemning Trump's travel ban, voicing support for the sciences or responding to ProtectUMD's 64 demands. After scrolling through a few hundred words of well-crafted prose, our eyes would glaze over. Because, other than a vague endorsement or censure, Loh's messages never said much.
These letters read like the work of a politician desperate to avoid making a gaffe. The foundation of good communication is, well, saying something of substance. Far too often, Loh fails to do so. The way in which Loh writes about values embodies his failure to communicate.
Loh regularly writes about values. In a letter following the death of Collins, he wrote, "We can be stronger and smarter than those who would divide us and subvert the values that undergird our University and our democracy." After Trump's election, he declared, "The divisive election is over, but the mission and core values of our University remain unchanged." In his letter responding to ProtectUMD's demands, he explained, "The University of Maryland must remain true to its core values, all of them."
Leaders should talk about values. But when Loh does so, he often fails to name them. He assumes that most students know what he means when he cites Maryland's "core values." On a liberal and inclusive campus, most people are on the same page. Right?
Loh assumes a consensus that doesn't exist. Americans and students at this university aren't united by devotion to cosmopolitan ideals, and the gap in American politics is far wider than an Obama v. Romney election would suggest. When a member of a white nationalist Facebook group is charged in the stabbing of a black visitor on our campus, it is untenable to assume everyone shares Loh's values. In fact, it's dangerous.
To be fair, Loh occasionally names values. For example, he recently announced a "Pledge of Respect and Unity," for which students must affirm their commitment to "human dignity, diversity, inclusion and academic freedom."
That's not enough. A word like "inclusion" is a blank canvas, on which anyone can apply their personal meaning. What if, for example, this university were considering whether to hire a professor like Charles Murray, who has stellar academic credentials but has been accused of bigotry. Some would argue that the university should be inclusive to unpopular perspectives; others would counter that the hiring of a professor like Murray would make this university less inclusive to marginalized students. The word "inclusion," standing alone, fails to explain what our values and priorities really are.
What does Loh envision when he calls for "inclusion," "diversity," or "human dignity." Without a definition, our "values" become mere buzzwords. Before describing our campus ideals, Loh should ask himself Justin Bieber's timeless question: What do you mean?
I hope this doesn't come off as a nitpicky critique of Loh's writing. It's a critique of his leadership. When he makes an argument in a public letter, Loh defines the character of this university. When his arguments are unsubstantial or imprecise, Maryland's cultural identity suffers. Especially in a tumultuous time, we need clear-headed leadership. We need help understanding who we are and what we stand for.
After Collins's death, Loh appears committed to reflection and action. That's admirable. During this period of self-examination and cultural correction, Loh needs to name, define and defend this university's foundational values. He must explain what it means to respect people of other cultures. He needs to describe why respect is better than incivility and insularity. If he doesn't, our campus will be fragmented, hateful and lost. This is a time for leaders to make fundamental arguments about the character and purpose of their communities. Loh has the opportunity and responsibility to lead. We need him to step up.
Max Foley-Keene is a sophomore government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.