Marist College has been criticized for agreeing to play a basketball game at Duke University as part of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament in November. Some have suggested that we and other colleges should boycott North Carolina because of a controversial law enacted last spring requiring people to use only those public restrooms designated for the sex on their birth certificates. My own strong opinion is that this law was motivated by animosity toward LGBT people, is discriminatory, and should be repealed as soon as possible. However, I do not believe that colleges and universities should engage in boycotts in situations like this.
Marist agreed in 2014 to play in the Naismith Tournament. After the so-called bathroom bill was enacted, New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, banned all nonessential state travel to North Carolina to protest the law. As a result, the University at Albany (a public institution) could no longer play its scheduled first-round game at Duke. The tournament rescheduled Albany to play at Penn State University and moved Marist from its original game to be Duke’s opponent. We did not seek this game, but after careful consideration, we accepted the new schedule.
Among its other provisions, the North Carolina law (1) forces transgender people using bathrooms in government buildings to use the bathroom matching the gender on their birth certificate, and (2) prohibits cities in North Carolina from enacting local laws providing more legal protection based on gender or sexual orientation than exists under state law. It has been widely criticized and some individuals and organizations have taken actions to protest the law. For example, Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert planned for North Carolina, and the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star game from Charlotte.
Whether a broad economic boycott is the appropriate response to laws like this is a complicated question. In the 1950s and 1960s, leaders of the civil-rights movement did not urge a boycott of Southern states; they called for engagement and protest. A number of LGBT activists have urged a similar approach to North Carolina. In another historic struggle, leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa disagreed about whether a boycott or constructive engagement would best contribute to the dismantling of apartheid.
Even if an economic boycott is the appropriate political response to a particular situation, it does not necessarily follow that colleges should participate. There are both philosophical and practical reasons why they should not. The core purpose of a university is to foster learning, critical thinking, debate, and engagement, not to be a direct political actor. How could one even decide in which cases a boycott would reflect the will of a diverse college community? Whose views among students, staff, faculty, alumni, and trustees would be given primacy?
Which countries around the world should be boycotted for the most extreme forms of anti-LGBT bias or other objectionable policies? Which other issues of social justice should lead us to boycott various states? Another issue that is very close to my heart is the racially discriminatory nature of many criminal-justice laws and practices around the country. Should we boycott every state with such laws? The list of such questions is endless.
There is a consensus within the academic community about these principles, which is why few, if any, colleges (other than the public institutions ordered to do so by their governors) have canceled any of the thousands of sporting events, artistic performances, cultural events, academic exchanges, student recruiting visits, and alumni events collectively scheduled in North Carolina each year. Marist and I would not hesitate to act first or alone if it were the right thing to do, but I simply do not believe that a boycott is the appropriate tactic for an academic institution.
Another argument that some have made is that, while a blanket boycott would not make sense, Marist should not have agreed to play in this particular game after the University at Albany withdrew because of Governor Cuomo’s order. I understand that point of view, and consider it a closer call than a blanket boycott. Ultimately, however, I believe that rejecting the tournament’s revised schedule would still amount to our engaging in a boycott of North Carolina, which we should not do.
Individuals, of course, can and should express their own views and take personal action as they see fit; that is the essence of a free society. As a longtime Bruce Springsteen fan, I admire the Boss for taking a stand on this issue. As a small statement of my own, I have made personal donations to the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina to support their important work for LGBT rights. Some of us may also make some other visible sign of opposition to the law on November 11, the date of our game with Duke.
I am very sorry that our participation in this basketball game leads some to doubt Marist’s and my commitment to LGBT rights, which I consider to be one of the most important human and civil-rights issues of our era. Like many other colleges, Marist has made great strides in recent years in supporting LGBT students and making our campus a welcoming and safe place. We have expanded support for LGBT groups on campus and in our local community. In June, representatives of the college participated in the New York City Pride parade, marching proudly behind the Marist banner for the first time. We can and will do more.
Our opposition to boycotting North Carolina should not be read as a lack of commitment to LGBT rights. To the contrary, the existence of laws like this one shows that much work remains to be done — and Marist will continue to participate in that urgent task.
David Yellen is president of Marist College.