Graphic by Ashley Mowreader
Racist, smear campaign, shameful, a commitment to Pepperdine’s values, embarrassing, uncharacteristic. Community members used all of these phrases to describe the School of Public Policy’s petition against The New York Times’ The 1619 Project and School of Public Policy Dean Pete Peterson’s email.
Students, staff, faculty and alumni shared a range of reactions to the petition, the email and the Graphic’s coverage of the event, both in support of and against Peterson and the School of Public Policy.
President Jim Gash addressed the controversy in the Oct. 21 President’s Briefing and gave the University’s statement on the subject.
“Although the university does not provide specific comments on personnel actions, I want to assure the Pepperdine community that appropriate administrative action is being taken in this instance, consistent with the University policy, in accordance with our highest values of accountability, and grace,” Gash said.
Responses From Pepperdine Faculty and Staff
The Pepperdine University Diversity Council published a letter to administration Oct. 18 in disapproval of Peterson’s email and his Sept. 3 radio appearance on The Eric Metaxas Radio Show.
The UDC is a group of staff, faculty and students from across Pepperdine’s five schools who work with administration to create a more diverse atmosphere at Pepperdine, according to the UDC webpage.
In the letter, the UDC asks senior administration to disavow Peterson’s email statement and the sentiment behind the message “in clear, public and resolute language.”
“That one of the senior leaders of our institution could harbor beliefs of this nature underscores that diversity is frequently a decorative statement but not yet a fully realized institutional value at Pepperdine,” wrote the University Diversity Council.
The council also requested the relationship end between Pepperdine and Active Engagement — the third-party conservative political fundraising campaign manager who sent the email.
Seaver College’s Fine Arts Department also shared a statement with the Graphic denouncing Peterson’s email and radio appearance, clarifying the department’s view as separate from Peterson’s.
The department echoed the sentiment of the UDC’s letter, pushing administration to denounce the campaign and confirm SPP’s relationship with Active Engagement will not continue. The statement’s signers also share a commitment to celebrating and amplifying the voices of artists and scholars of color.
“We acknowledge that we have only begun the work necessary to call ourselves anti-racist, and we will continue to work toward this goal in all we do, including engaging BIPOC artists in our productions, exhibitions, lectures, concerts and classrooms,” according to the Fine Arts statement. “Far from indoctrinating our students, we deem this work essential to our mission of preparing all of our students to lead lives of purpose, service and leadership.”
Both the UDC and the Fine Arts Department shared their support of diversity-focused curriculum such as The 1619 Project and acknowledging minority perspectives throughout history.
“Curriculum that fails to acknowledge and engage with the realities and impacts of slavery and racism cannot produce students who are truly prepared to lead this world with the purpose, resolve and compassion that the battle against prejudice demands,” wrote the University Diversity Council.
Seaver Faculty Historians shared a statement with the Graphic as well, echoing the organization’s support for Black community members and disputed claims in the petition against The 1619 Project.
“Historians disagree on portions of The 1619 Project, but it represents a voice in the national wrestling with slavery and its legacy,” Seaver Faculty Historians wrote. “Historical perspectives should be analyzed and engaged, not censored.”
The faculty also denounced the petitions’ call to defund schools that teach The 1619 Project, stating defunding schools does not advance students’ understanding of history.
The Pepperdine Chapter of the American Association of University Professors also raised concerns about Peterson’s message, specifically in how it impacts the University’s vision to create a more diverse and inclusive space for all.
Pepperdine is in the midst of searching for the University’s first Chief Diversity Officer as well as considering adding a cultural competency General Education requirement for Seaver undergraduates. According to pepAAUP, Peterson’s email and petition undercut the University’s progress.
In an Oct. 19 letter to President Jim Gash, pepAAUP shared concerns that Peterson’s message suppressed the notion of critical thought in education, which directly contradicts the mission of AAUP and Pepperdine, according to the pepAAUP statement.
“Although Provost Marrs stated that Pepperdine University’s association with the campaign referenced above has been terminated, we have not, however, heard of steps the University is taking, if any to reassure students and the multicultural community of Pepperdine University that our institution is committed to diversity, inclusion and equity,” according to pepAAUP’s statement.
The Seaver Faculty Senate released a letter addressing concerns from staff, particularly faculty of color, in response to Peterson’s messages. The Senate reiterated its statement on racial injustice from this summer and condemned Peterson’s email and petition.
“We are particularly distressed that many in our Seaver community feel physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually unsafe because of this,” according to the Seaver Faculty Senate statement. “Although we know that members of the Seaver faculty have diverse opinions and perspectives about the nature and appropriateness of the statements from Dean Peterson, we cannot remain silent when members of our community are suffering. We express grave concern about Dean Peterson’s recent email and do not believe that its message advances the Christian mission of the University.”
Responses From Pepperdine Alumni
Four Pepperdine graduates started a Change.org petition Oct. 15 titled Alumni for firing of Pepperdine Dean Pete Peterson. The petition is addressed to Gash and other Pepperdine leadership. As of Oct. 21, 1,174 individuals signed the petition.
Jared Price, a 2017 Seaver graduate, was one of the four authors of the petition. Price wrote in an email to the Graphic the petition was circulated via social media channels and viewed more than 9,500 times.
The Pepperdine alumni petition, which expressed support for firing School of Public Policy Dean Pete Peterson, has reached over 900 signatures as of Oct. 19. Peterson sent an email Oct. 12 to Conservative News against The New York Times’ The 1619 Project, which was met by criticism by some in the Pepperdine community. Photo courtesy of Change.org
“The words and actions of Dean Peterson negates this very foundation [of academic excellence] and threatens the University’s academic reputation,” according to the Alumni for firing of Dean Peterson petition. “Academic institutions at their core advance knowledge and promote the innovation of ideas. Such should not be limited by a single dean’s political motivations.”
The petition also cites the University Policy Manual Section 6.6: Political Activity, which outlines employees’ responsibility regarding engagement in political activity and the upholding of Pepperdine’s position as a non-profit entity.
“To help ensure the University abides by its legal obligations, employees should not present their political views in a way that a reasonable and prudent observer would be likely to think that they are speaking on behalf of the institution,” according to the manual.
Anonymous Pepperdine alumni also created a counter-petition Oct. 18 defending Peterson titled Pepperdine community against the firing of Pepperdine Dean Pete Peterson. The petition has 64 signatures as of Oct. 21.
A counterpetition to the Oct. 16 alumni petition, against the firing of School of Public Policy Dean Pete Peterson, has over 50 signatures as of Oct. 19. The counterpetition condemned The 1619 Project’s unreliability, and supporters left encouraging comments for Peterson, sharing his sentiments toward The 1619 Project. Photo by Ashley Mowreader
“We are faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other friends of Pepperdine University who are deeply disappointed and horrified at the actions that some of our alumni have taken to demand the unjustified removal of Pete Peterson, Dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy,” according to the counter-petition against The 1619 Project.
This petition notes the prevalence of systemic racism in the U.S. and the need for racial recognition, but signers oppose The 1619 Project and commend Peterson for his criticism of the related curriculum in schools.
“We stand firmly behind Dean Peterson’s rebuke of The 1619 Project and vehemently condemn the actions of many of our alumni petitioning to force Pepperdine to fire Dean Peterson,” according to the counterpetition in support of Peterson. “Such a petition does not represent the view of all alumni (despite being worded as if that was the case), nor does it support efforts towards racial reconciliation. That petition represents the worst of today’s cancel culture, ignores the facts of the case, and further silences the voices of Black colleagues who do not buy into The 1619 Project.”
Signers of the counterpetition asked Pepperdine leadership to denounce the actions of Active Engagement in using the Pepperdine trademark “without permission,” to issue a statement in support of Peterson’s right to hold views contrary to The 1619 Project and to denounce attempts to “participate in a ‘cancel culture’ that silences minority viewpoints,” according to the Change.org webpage hosting the counterpetition in support of Peterson.
“As a community, we stand together against the petition issued for Dean Peterson’s removal and call for action from the University’s leadership to defend both the freedom of speech and recognize the problems with the T619 Project in propagating systematic racism in our country,” according to the counterpetition in support of Peterson.
Responses From Pepperdine Students
Sara Garfinkle, a class of 2022 School of Public Policy student, created a letter in support of Peterson on Oct. 15 titled In Support of Dean Pete.
“We, a group of students at the School of Public Policy, are concerned with the vehement response to Dean Peterson’s advocacy of the National Petition in Support of True American History, and we write to you in his support,” according to the letter In Support of Dean Pete. “On October 12, Dean Peterson’s advocacy of that petition was made public in a Conservative News mass email. The petition decries the ‘1619 Project’ and encourages unbiased, truthful history education.Dean Peterson has been accused of racism for advocating such education. This shameful accusation is unfounded.”
The letter continues to list how the School of Public Policy promotes Pepperdine’s values of purpose, service and leadership in creating future policymakers. Signatories, though they may not agree with Peterson’s political values, agreed he is committed to Pepperdine’s values and his cultivation of a culture of intellectual diversity, according to the letter.
Garfinkle declined to be interviewed but gave an email statement.
“31 School of Public Policy students signed a letter in appreciation of Dean Peterson’s character and his participation in the civic conversation about education,” Garfinkle wrote Oct. 16. “Dean Peterson models Pepperdine’s values and I am honored to study at the School he leads.”
Robert Jordan, Master of Public Policy student, said in an Oct. 18 interview his cohort was shocked at the accusations toward the School of Public Policy and Peterson on social media. While Jordan doesn’t know Peterson personally due to the nature of remote instruction, the characteristics attributed to Peterson online caught him off guard.
“I understand political differences — we can talk through it, hear each others’ sides — and I think that’s what bothered me the most is how it was so one-sided,” Jordan said.
Jordan said he and some members of his cohort have drafted an email to Peterson in hopes of receiving more clarity on the email and the petition. Due to the language of Peterson’s message, it is hard to draw conclusions about Peterson and his beliefs as well as the lack of response from Peterson and University administration, Jordan said.
“We also haven’t heard anything from him or anything from the school to students because then we could be your biggest advocates if we understand what you mean,” Jordan said. “But now it’s a lot of drawing conclusions about what he meant.”
Six Seaver student groups co-wrote a letter to the Pepperdine community condemning Peterson’s actions. The groups — Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; Black Student Association; Crossroads Gender and Sexuality Alliance; First Generation College Students Club; Indigenous People’s Club and the Student Government Association Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council — all represent various minority groups on campus.
The letter, shared Oct. 19 on social media and with the Graphic, addresses past interactions with Peterson in various Pepperdine-hosted contexts, including Presidential Action Advisory Team (PAAT) meetings and the Jericho Challenge, which took place in September.
“On multiple occasions, colleagues engaged with Dean Peterson about the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion by hiring the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and implementing social justice GE courses,” according to the Seaver student groups’ letter. “But as seen through Dean Peterson’s recent ‘Far left Indoctrinating’ petition, even after all of these dialogues, Dean Peterson failed to grasp the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion in curriculum at Pepperdine and in daily life.”
In the letter, the groups also described the hurt Peterson has caused to Black students in his Oct. 12 email and petition. Peterson’s statement, according to the groups’ letter ,feels like an attempt to suppress history and the lived experiences of the Black community in the U.S.
“The same students this University claims to care for are exhausted — tired of having to continually fight for our collective dignity at the very institution we attend,” according to the Seaver student group letter. “We are tired of repeatedly feeling forced to speak up and address this institution’s leaders’ outlandish actions.”
The groups demanded Pepperdine administration publicly denounces Peterson’s “heinous actions,” provides an apology to students and gives serious thought to Peterson’s position as Dean of the School of Public Policy, according to the Seaver student group letter.
Other community members shared statements with the Pepperdine community, featured here:
Melanated Muckracker: 3. Failure to Live Up to Ideals Part 2: Pepperdine and Students of Color
SPP Dean Responds to the Controversy: ‘Completely Unbecoming of SPP, of Pepperdine and of Me’: SPP Dean Responds to the Controversy Caused by His Email and Petition
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