Approximately 1,500 miles off of the South African coast and 2,090 miles from South America, deep in the South Atlantic, is a tiny island community called Tristan da Cunha. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1509, the island was charted and inhabited over the next few centuries, peaking during the 19th century as a resupply station for ships sailing across the Atlantic.
Today, Tristan da Cunha has a population of less than 300 and holds the distinction of being the most remote inhabited island in the world. I discovered it over winter break while searching for places I would like to work after graduation, a remnant desire after watching the show “Lost.” Curious of their immigration policies, I found the following on their government website:
“Tristan da Cunha is a small island with just one village and limited resources. Immigration is necessarily tightly controlled, and there are few expatriate job opportunities…. Immigration to Tristan is not possible unless you already have a family connection with the island. Even then, there are certain restrictions on residency. It is not possible to buy real estate or property on the islands.”
A smile crept across my face as I realized what I had inadvertently discovered. I, a white American male, was now on the outside, looking in, of a restrictive immigration policy. Somehow, some way, I was determined to access some or all those privileges to get a foot in the door by finding a crack in their immigration policy.
Much to my dismay, Tristan da Cunha’s immigration policy is as rock solid as the island itself. There are environmental concerns, like the island can only support so many inhabitants; economic concerns, which are related to the environment, like the fact that there are only so many fish and other resources that can be sustainably pulled out of the surrounding waters to maintain the economy; and social concerns, because with security and emergency services at least a week away, the island needs to have a cohesive society. Stealing, for example, is deterred within the society because people feel a deep connection with each other, not because there is an army of police to arrest perpetrators. The immigration policy even withstands the strongest test: if Tristan da Cunha, with its executive authority vested in the Queen of England, has an ethical obligation to admit refugees. (They don’t.)
While I had to abandon any hope of becoming a Tristanite, the island did become an important way to think about abstract immigration ideas more concretely. Directly comparing a tiny island to a large and wealthy nation like the United States is a fool’s errand, but I do believe there are similarities between Tristan da Cunha and Wesleyan. Like the island, Wesleyan University, at least in the short term, only has so much living space and institutional capacity, which limits admissions. Student tuition, plus the endowment, federal grants, and other sources of income establish a maximum number of professors and staff, which limits hiring.
Who Wesleyan admits to its student body, which professors are awarded tenure, and which administrators are hired can be converted into a quasi-immigration policy that has come under debate after President Michael Roth publicized an “affirmative action” plan to admit or hire conservative students, staff, and professors on campus. The use of the term “affirmative action” was mostly a peacocking tactic by President Roth to attract media attention, but it is a term that has cut two ways. Liberals take offense at the appropriation of the term with respect to its racial connotations, and I view it as an admission that the school actively discriminates against conservatives.
There is a glaring difference between Tristan da Cunha, a government entity, and Wesleyan, a private one. But I do believe Wesleyan’s institutions loosely map onto the structure of the federal government. The Wesleyan Student Assembly is the House of Representatives; the faculty is the Senate; President Roth and South College is the executive; North College the bureaucracy; and The Argus is the fourth estate. These entities, combined with alumni and parents, create the society of Wesleyan that has its own unique culture, separated from the rest of the country, with a fair amount of sovereignty to set immigration policy.
Based on first and secondhand accounts, the proposed change in Wesleyan’s “immigration policy” by President Roth has come under criticism. Arguments range from appeals to culture like “keep Wesleyan Wesleyan”; to a standpoint of safety and security like “conservatives are dangerous and their ideas are violent”; to a lack of need like “conservatives can go to Liberty University or Brigham Young.” These are not hypothetical arguments, they are real statements made by members of the Wesleyan community. Yet, leaving aside this pseudo-nationalistic rhetoric, which is only a small and biased sampling of the Wesleyan community, the one that rings loudest to me is an appeal to culture. The environmental and economic limitations on Wesleyan only dictate the maximum number of students, staff, and faculty on campus, but not its ideological or identity-based makeup (such as race, religion, sex, and more).
Does Wesleyan have a Tristan da Cunha rock-solid argument for refusing to hire conservative professors on tenure tracks, vetting the student body to ensure it is heavily liberal, and hiring staff that will “keep Wesleyan Wesleyan”? Or does the University fall short? This is not my decision to make, nor do I wish to proselytize my own views. But I do want to add a note about the implications of what Wesleyan decides to do.
If Wesleyan decides to “keep Wesleyan Wesleyan” through excluding conservative minds, on what moral, ethical, or philosophical grounds is this school able to preach inclusivity to outsiders of other communities in America?
Bryan Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018. Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.