Providence College and Dr. Anthony Esolen: An Alumnus Speaks Out

Imagine going to Oxford in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s, and never hearing that C. S. Lewis taught there. That is what it is like for Dr. Esolen at Providence College.

Many are appalled by the treatment of Dr. Anthony Esolen at Rhode Island’s Providence College. And rightly so. But the unfortunate truth is that these events only confirm what I as a Providence College alumnus have known for over a decade: Dr. Esolen is a living example of Christ’s words that “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.”

As is by now widely reported, Dr. Esolen has been publicly vilified by some students, faculty, and even the administration at PC for racism, sexism, and every other kind of prejudice, which his accusers claim to find in two articles criticizing Providence College  for its obsession with diversity. Of course, the articles show nothing of the kind, as can be seen by any fair-minded person who reads them. But, to understand why Dr. Esolen wrote the articles, it is important to see them in the context of some alarming developments at the college over the last two years.

Things really began to heat up last February, however. A group of students “occupied” the office of Providence College’s president, Fr. Brian Shanley, and brought a list of demands for the elimination of “racism and anti-blackness” at the college. And Fr. Shanley simply gave in to them, thereby setting a dangerous precedent for how the college responds to politically-motivated protests. 

The result was a Strategic Plan for Diversity that includes some rather Orwellian measures to ensure political correctness in the classroom. The Development of Western Civilization program—a hallmark of the school for decades—is currently being investigated for racial and cultural prejudice, while a new Bias Response Protocol has been set up to investigate students’ allegations of such prejudice in individual professors.

Nor has the college been idle in putting this protocol to use.  Already, a professor has been brought before the “Bias Response Team” on charges of sexual harassment.  His crime? Sending former students an e-mail in which he offered to send them pamphlets on the Rosary, Confession, and Theology of the Body at his own expense—and only if the students requested it.  Another professor was so upset by her ordeal with the Bias Response Team that she had to take a medical leave of absence, and is considering an early retirement.

Seen in the context of such events, the admittedly provocative headline for one of Dr. Esolen’s pieces—“My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult”—begins to seem more like a cool assessment of the facts.  The title was actually chosen by the piece’s editor, but, as Dr. Esolen notes in a recent interview, it seems “the editor saw more than I did,” as shown by what happened next.

On Oct. 21, 60 to 70 students marched through PC’s campus to the Office of the President, demanding a condemnation of Dr. Esolen’s articles (with some of the students even insisting that he be fired). Fr. Shanley responded with a campus-wide e-mail stating that, while Dr. Esolen “is protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech,” he “speaks only for himself.”  Moreover, Fr. Shanley commented that “when a professor questions the value of diversity, the impact on many students, faculty, and staff of color is to feel that their presence is not valued and that they are not welcome at Providence College.”  Hence, Fr. Shanley concluded, “at the same time that we value freedom in the pursuit of truth, let us value even more our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another.”

Shortly after sending this e-mail, Fr. Shanley held a meeting with the faculty, most of whom spent a solid hour excoriating Dr. Esolen (who was not present).  This meeting was followed by an online petition from PC faculty denouncing “racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinist statements” in Dr. Esolen’s articles. Then, early in November, the college’s executive vice president sent out another campus-wide e-mail on behalf of the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee, which announced that some of its members “agreed” with the evaluation of Dr. Esolen’s articles as “offensive and implicitly racist.”

Consider the preposterous level of irony.  A professor writes two articles arguing that the campaign for “diversity” is in fact a thinly disguised attempt to ensure conformity to a liberal social agenda.  Students and faculty then denounce the professor for every form of bigotry, and demand his termination for even daring to question their views on diversity, thereby confirming the professor’s thesis.  To which the administration replies, not by coming to the defense of the lone professor against the mob, but by joining in the attack, implicitly criticizing the professor’s lack of charity and accusing him of racism.

Such treatment would be perverse no matter who was on the receiving end of it. But what makes the absurdity of the situation truly legendary is that Dr. Anthony Esolen is one of the most brilliant scholars and professors to ever teach at Providence College.

One need only consider Dr. Esolen’s list of publications to recognize him as a world-class intellect: his famous verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, his other verse translations of Lucretius and Torquato Tasso, and his running commentary on the new translation of the Mass for Magnificat—along with more than ten other best-selling books and over 500 articles in both scholarly and popular journals (see, for instance, the enormous archives of his articles for Crisis and Touchstone).  No one else at the college even comes close to such a remarkable level of productivity, which Dr. Esolen managed to keep up while still teaching a full course load.

It is no exaggeration to say that I would not have gone to Providence College if it hadn’t been for Dr. Esolen. At the end of my first visit to the college, I was leaning toward going elsewhere because my tour of the campus had not gone well: among other bad signs, the two students leading me around kept repeating “you don’t have to be Catholic to go here,” even after I had told them that I was Catholic.  But my father knew of Dr. Esolen from his Dante translation, and asked to meet with him so that we could get his view on whether Providence College was worth attending.  Dr. Esolen readily agreed and told me that, if I chose my professors carefully, I could get a better education at Providence College than Esolen himself had gotten at Princeton.  It was largely on the strength of that recommendation that I enrolled in the class of 2008.  And Esolen was right—thanks to a careful choice of courses, I indeed received an excellent education, for which I will always be grateful to Providence College.

During my time there, however, I soon discovered that most of the people at Providence College have no appreciation of what makes the school worth attending. The majority of both the faculty and students were at best apathetic toward the school’s Catholic identity and at worst contemptuous of it.  Even Campus Ministry, the spiritual center of the college, showed a remarkable obtuseness, best exemplified by its steadfast refusal to allow the student pro-life group to pray in front of abortion clinics. When a few of us did so on our own and without any official connection to Providence College, the administration itself tried to dissuade us—a scandal that has haunted me ever since.

But there was no better example of PC’s inability to recognize its real treasures than the way it completely ignored Dr. Esolen.  Not once during all my time at the school did I hear Dr. Esolen praised or even mentioned by the administration, even as his list of best-selling publications continued to expand.  As a result, mentioning Dr. Esolen’s name at Providence College was usually met with a blank stare, and occasionally a dismissive remark from more liberal students.  The only exceptions were people who actually knew Dr. Esolen personally or had taken one of his courses, and they of course spoke favorably of him.

Imagine going to Oxford in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s, and never hearing that C. S. Lewis taught there.  That is what it is like for Dr. Esolen at Providence College. 

The silence surrounding Dr. Esolen’s name at Providence could not have contrasted more sharply with the universal renown that he seemed to enjoy when I went off-campus. Not only did it appear that every devout Catholic I knew had heard of Dr. Esolen, but for many of them he was the only reason they had ever heard of Providence College. Indeed, when I tell people where I went to college, they usually ask me, “Did you get to take one of Anthony Esolen’s courses?”  And I will always be proud to reply, “Yes, three times.”

While I had many other good professors at Providence College, I doubt they will be offended when I say that Dr. Esolen was the best teacher I ever had.  There may be others with as much mastery of their fields, or as much enthusiasm for their material, or as much talent for communicating that knowledge and excitement to their students, but I doubt that any of them manage to possess all of these qualities to the degree that Dr. Esolen does.

There was nothing quite like a lecture by Dr. Esolen. He would recite long stretches of poetry from memory, make jokes about passages with the students, and even act out scenes from the plays we studied, using dead-on impressions of New England dialects for the characters’ voices. And it was a rare class in which Dr. Esolen did not reveal some beautiful insight regarding God and the universe in the literature we read, as explained with his own profound common sense.

In the classes on Shakespeare I took with him, each play that we covered was my favorite as long as we were studying it.  And of course, his colloquium on Dante was a magical experience, by itself reason enough to attend Providence College.  I still vividly remember how it ended: basking in the sun on a lawn near the chapel, as Dr. Esolen read the last lines of the Paradiso.

In all justice, Esolen should have won the Accinno Teaching Award at Providence College the first year it was established, or at least once in the fourteen years since then. But, despite being nominated almost every one of those years by students like myself, he never won it, and no doubt never will. A friend and colleague of Dr. Esolen’s informed him years ago that he should never even bother applying for it, such was the disdain that members of the selection committee had for him. Again, a revelation that only confirms what I have long suspected.

Marvelous though he is as a professor, Dr. Esolen’s best quality is actually his enormous generosity of heart.  Despite his incredibly busy schedule of teaching, writing, and speaking, he still set aside time for meeting with his unofficial men’s group, whose purpose was to aid and encourage the college’s male students in becoming good Catholic men. As a guest at his home, I witnessed firsthand the touching devotion that he has for his family, and for his autistic son in particular.

Brilliant, orthodox, and kind, Anthony Esolen is everything one could hope for in a Catholic lay professor.

And this is the man that has been accused of racism and a lack of charity.

Words cannot express how disappointed I am in my alma mater, and especially in its president.  Fr. Shanley’s inauguration during my sophomore year actually inspired me to write two articles in the student newspaper expressing my hope for the future of the school, especially after he banned the disgusting and anti-Catholic Vagina Monologues from the college within his first few months as president.  Despite massive protest from students, faculty, and even his administration, Fr. Shanley did not back down, but instead patiently and clearly explained his decision.  If only he had shown such courage and eloquence this time around, instead of throwing Dr. Esolen to the wolves.

Nevertheless, it is not Anthony Esolen that I’m worried about. If he is forced to leave Providence College, whether due to firing or a hostile environment, I have no doubt that he will find scores of job offers from places more discerning of his value.

But I do worry about Providence College if it loses Esolen in this manner. By driving away a man of such incredible faith and learning, Providence College will have proven itself a school that is hostile to orthodox Catholics, and therefore worth neither attending nor supporting.  There is hope for its redemption since there are still many good faculty there; moreover, the great number of devout young men who have joined the Eastern Province Dominicans in recent years may well revive the school’s Catholic identity when they begin running it. Of course, by then it may be too late.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Michael J. Rubin 1 Article
Dr. Michael J. Rubin holds a master's and a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington.