In the battle against toxic partisanship in the United States, the Supreme Court hasn’t always been a shining light. That’s what made Tuesday so interesting.

Yesterday, a justice known for pro-business leanings struck a blow for worker rights. In fact, the whole court did, ruling unanimously that workers designated “contractors” had the right to bring a class-action suit – essentially giving them a key right of full employees. What was most surprising, perhaps, was how Justice Neil Gorsuch ruled.

His judicial principles are built on understanding the original intent of laws when they were passed and upholding that original intent. In this case, using six dictionaries from 1925, he concluded that the law’s original wording ran counter to his traditional partisan framework. Then he ruled according to his principle. It wasn’t about making sure his side won.

By many measures, the United States Supreme Court has paralleled and even intensified partisan divisions, with justices increasingly ruling along predictable partisan lines in the most high-profile cases. This isn’t entirely their own doing, as presidents have looked for reliably partisan judges, and the Senate – and voters – have gone along.

The trend both inside and outside the court and by all sides in recent years has been to shape principles to fit partisan preconceptions. Tuesday’s ruling was a welcome reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Our five stories today include a look at the world’s evolving moral compass in Africa, new thinking about what diversity is, and a unique attempt to change the outlook among Native American communities.

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1. Behind LA teachers strike, a ‘battle for the soul’ of public education

At the heart of a teachers strike in Los Angeles is a clash over what public education is actually supposed to do: provide equal opportunity or aim for more-equal outcomes, too.

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Sara Castro, whose two children attend Los Angeles United School District schools, makes her views known outside La Fayette Park Primary Center Jan. 15 in Los Angeles. Teachers in the LAUSD walked picket lines again as administrators urged them to return to classrooms and their union to return to the bargaining table.

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The ongoing strike organized by United Teachers Los Angeles has seen more than 30,000 teachers walk off the job in the country’s second-largest school district. The union has called for higher teacher salaries, smaller classes, and more support staff, but the standoff also reflects a broader struggle over the privatization of public schools. Some 120,000 students in Los Angeles, or 1 in 5, attend charter schools, which are privately operated and receive $550 million a year from the district. Analysts regard the walkout as a potential bellwether for teachers unions elsewhere. “If it’s successful, other unions could again see strikes as a viable tactic for generating more momentum for the public school system as a whole,” says Bradley Marianno, an expert on teacher unions. Austin Beutner, the district’s superintendent, has rejected the union’s framing of the strike as a referendum on charter schools. But following last year’s Red for Ed campaign, which involved teachers in several predominantly Republican states staging protests and winning concessions from lawmakers, the UTLA strike could influence the country’s education debate. Says John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, “The union leaders in L.A. have been buoyed by the Red For Ed movement, but they view this as much more than a labor dispute.”


Behind LA teachers strike, a ‘battle for the soul’ of public education

More than 30,000 public school teachers in Los Angeles began a strike Monday that marked the first time they had walked off the job since 1989. One year after that last strike, Michele Levin started teaching in the country’s second-largest school district. Over the decades, she has watched class sizes swell, resources dwindle, and the frustration of her colleagues reach a crescendo.

“There’s always tension between management and the teachers,” says Ms. Levin, who teaches health and science at Daniel Webster Middle School on the city’s west side. The school lacks a full-time librarian or nurse, and she has spent $1,500 of her own money to buy notebooks, pencils, and other supplies for students. “But at this point, the district’s actions feel like an attack on the institution of public education. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”

Her criticism echoes the broader concern of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), who beyond practical demands for higher salaries, smaller classes, and more support staff, want to slow the effort to privatize operation of public schools – or stop it outright.

Union and district representatives offer competing visions of the purpose of public education in the US: one a more traditional version that nurtures all students, the other embracing more experimentation in search of better models of teaching, with the school serving as a laboratory. Above that is an ideological question that extends beyond California: Is the purpose of education to provide an equality of opportunity or to aim for an equality of outcomes?

For their part, district officials say that it’s simply not possible to pay for all the teachers’ demands. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has sought to allay the concerns of teachers while advocating for providing students and parents with a choice of schools. In a TV interview last week, he noted that if “it’s the flexibility of charter schools that’s allowing them to excel, let’s bring that flexibility into the traditional school classroom.”

In a district with 600,000 students – 80 percent of whom live at or below the poverty line – the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) asserts that the expansion of charter schools poses an existential threat to students and teachers alike. The union’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, emphasized that point at a press conference Sunday when he declared, “We’re in a battle for the soul of public education.”

Since 2006, the number of charter schools in Los Angeles has jumped by more than 150 percent to 277, the most of any district nationwide. Some 120,000 students, or 1 in 5, attend charter schools, which are privately operated but receive public tax dollars – in this case, $550 million a year from LAUSD.

Two years ago, charter-school advocacy groups backed by billionaire donors – including Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, and the Walton Family Foundation, a nonprofit created by Walmart’s founders – spent $15 million to elect a pro-charter majority to the Los Angeles Board of Education.

The district’s recent history and sheer size make the standoff a potential bellwether for teachers unions elsewhere. Similar strikes loom in Denver; Oakland, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; and other cities amid a growing push by education reformers to privatize the operation of public schools.

“The UTLA strike could have a big impact,” says Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an expert on teachers unions. “If it’s successful, other unions could again see strikes as a viable tactic for generating more momentum for the public school system as a whole. People are watching.”

More than a labor dispute

Teachers in Los Angeles took to the picket lines this week after more than a year of failed negotiations between union and district leaders over a new contract. The UTLA has called on the district to tap a $1.9 billion surplus to increase teacher salaries and hire more school librarians, nurses, and psychologists.

The union has rejected counteroffers from LAUSD officials, who insist that dipping into the reserve fund could prove ruinous for the district in light of dire budget projections.

The walkout in Los Angeles follows last year’s Red for Ed campaign that saw teachers in several predominantly Republican states, from Oklahoma to West Virginia, stage protests over low pay and education funding cuts that trace to the Great Recession. Their efforts won concessions from state lawmakers and, perhaps as important, boosted public support for teachers across the country.

Despite its blue-state status and pro-teacher climate, California, by one measure, ranks in the bottom 10 among all states in per-pupil spending for K-12 public schools. In that sense, UTLA’s demand for more state funding mirrors the Red for Ed crusade. But analysts suggest that the union’s fight against charter schools distinguishes its cause and could portend a shift in the national education debate.

“The union leaders in L.A. have been buoyed by the Red For Ed movement, but they view this as much more than a labor dispute,” says John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“In light of financial and enrollment pressures that have been partly brought on by the growth of charter schools, they see a chance to make the case that what students and parents need are more robust public schools.”

School funding in Los Angeles depends on student enrollment, and the soaring number of children attending charter schools has drawn money away from traditional public schools. Union leaders claim that the reduced funding has impeded traditional public schools from hiring more teachers, resulting in larger class sizes.

David and Shirley Ashe’s daughter attends eighth grade at Marina Del Rey Middle School. She complains to them that her learning suffers as teachers struggle to control disruptive students in classes with 30 to 40 children.

The Ashes say teachers at the school and other parents confirm the problems. The couple have hired an education coach at a cost of $400 a month to meet with their daughter twice a week to supplement her classwork and prepare her for high school and college.

“For us, the overwhelming issue is class size,” says Mr. Ashe, a web project manager. He and his wife support the strike. From their perspective, the district has nurtured charter schools at the expense of schools like Marina Del Rey. “It’s a disservice to students, it’s a disservice to teachers, and it’s a disservice to parents,” he says. “There’s a lot of frustration.”

Patch of common ground

The Los Angeles school board selected Mr. Beutner to serve as LAUSD superintendent last year after he gained the support of the panel’s pro-charter majority. A former investment banker and deputy mayor of the city, Beutner, who lacked professional experience in school administration before taking the position, has dismissed as “baseless” the union’s framing of the strike as a referendum on charter schools.

Beutner and Mr. Caputo-Pearl, the union president, agree that an increase in state funding would ease the district’s dilemma. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took office earlier this month, unveiled a proposed state budget last week that included a record $80.7 billion for K-12 and community college education. Another $3 billion for teacher pensions would reduce the fiscal burden on districts across California.

Yet even with the district and UTLA finding a patch of common ground on state funding, the chances of the two sides bridging their ideological rift appears small, according to Pedro Noguera, director of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools.

“The disagreement over charter schools is still going to be there after the strike,” he says. “That’s something that will continue to be an issue because there isn’t a long-term solution to the district’s financial difficulties.”

Only about a quarter of the district’s students attended class Monday, and district officials estimated that the low turnout for a single day cost LAUSD about $15 million in future state funding. The mounting tab could intensify pressure on the union to settle if public opinion begins to sour.

“There is always concern about whether the public and parents will support a strike of teachers, especially when parents depend on the schools to care for their children while they are at work,” says Lois Weiner, a professor at New Jersey City University and an independent researcher on teachers unions.

For Ms. Levin, who has taught middle school in Los Angeles for almost 30 years, the support of parents and students during the first days of the strike has reaffirmed her conviction that LAUSD has lost its way.

“I’ve never thought about leaving teaching,” she says. “But I have thought about leaving this district because it feels like our superintendent and our school board don’t like public schools and don’t like teachers. They’re abandoning us and they’re abandoning our students.”


2. For Turkey’s strongman Erdoğan, trouble seeing eye to eye with Trump

Analysts often stress the need for consistency in foreign policy. But why is that important? A view from Turkey gives a taste of what can happen when consistency is absent.


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For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, getting President Trump to agree to pull US troops out of Syria was the culmination of months of maneuvering to improve Turkey’s ties with Washington. The apparent deal was concluded by phone, in a manner suited to Mr. Erdoğan, one authoritative leader to another. He was jubilant: “Right now, Turkey’s power in foreign policy is an epic being written by destiny,” he said days later. “And it is being written with the world’s giants.” But then the deal fell through, with the US slowing the withdrawal and demanding protection for Syria’s Kurds. Erdoğan became angry, and Trump threatening. What happened? “Erdoğan made the mistake of thinking he can handle all of the Syria file with Mr. Trump personally,” says Turkey expert Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, while Trump had a limited grasp of what he had given away. “You have the problem of a leader who wants to be the prime interlocutor – Trump – but isn’t at all clear on the facts that he is negotiating.” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş. “It’s malpractice on all counts, diplomatically and politically.”


For Turkey’s strongman Erdoğan, trouble seeing eye to eye with Trump

It was a jubilant moment of victory for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In a mid-December telephone call, he appeared to persuade President Trump to upend years of American policy in Syria by stepping away from US-backed Kurdish militias that Turkey calls terrorists and handing the reins to America’s NATO ally.

“You know what? It’s yours,” Mr. Trump reportedly said of Syria. “I’m leaving.”

For Turkey’s leader, the diplomatic achievement was the culmination of months of maneuvering to improve ties with Washington, which have cycled between bad and worse since the Obama years.

It was also a deal cut in a manner suited to Mr. Erdoğan and other heads of state in the region: one authoritative leader to another.

“Right now, Turkey’s power in foreign policy is an epic being written by destiny. And it is being written with the world’s giants,” Erdoğan said days later in a speech.

But the jubilation was short-lived for Erdoğan and turned to surprise and finally anger. Top US officials repeatedly rolled back Trump’s promises to Erdoğan – and finally Trump himself tweeted a warning on Jan. 12 that he would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

The tone of the president’s tweet did not play well on the streets of Istanbul this week. “Trump sent another aggressive comment,” says a young Turkish entrepreneur, who requested anonymity. “His style is very toxic,” he adds, shaking his head in disbelief.

Turkey immediately warned the United States, in turn, not to make a “fatal mistake” and that it “will not be intimidated by any threats.”

But eyes rolled among Turks tired of years of roller-coaster politics, as the prospect of another bruising economic battle began to loom.

It was US sanctions imposed in August, after all, when Turkey refused to release an American evangelical pastor charged with trying to topple the state, that precipitated a sharp fall in Turkey’s currency.

“Don’t make fun of us,” one Istanbul coffee shop owner says half-jokingly when noting how a friend was tightening his belt a notch. The joke was about being hungry, but with far broader connotations about forces beyond Turkish control.

A Syria policy in flux

The diplomatic brawl is the latest case study of the challenge of doing business with a mercurial White House, where every objective appears to be a constantly moving target.

Turkey has watched top US officials move the goalposts on Syria policy from the commander-in-chief’s apparent promise of an unconditional and speedy withdrawal. Not only has the timeline for the removal of the 2,200 US troops been extended, but conditions have been imposed on any Turkish military move into northern Syria: to not attack the US-allied Syrian Kurdish militia that has been fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledges the MP's of his ruling Justice and Development Party after delivering a speech in parliament in Ankara, Jan. 15, 2019.

“It’s an uncharted era in foreign policy, because you don’t know who you have to deal with in Washington in order to advance your own national security objectives,” says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a think tank in Istanbul.

“Before it was clear. The answer may have been yes or no, but at least you got an answer, and … were pretty confident that it reflected the administration point of view,” says Mr. Ülgen. “These are really extreme reversals that make it difficult to construct sound policy.”

One result is that Turkey – and other nations, by extension – can’t be sure that US “messaging is credible, if you have a president who within days changes his position, and members of the administration [then] try to undermine the president’s position,” says Ülgen.

Diplomatic ‘malpractice’

Another lesson is that doing a deal with the boss may not mean that you’ve actually done a deal, even though that is how Turkey’s president and most regional leaders have long operated.

Trump has expressed personal admiration for Erdoğan in the past and has approved of other authoritarian chiefs from Cairo and Manila to Riyadh and Moscow. Trump likewise has sought to exude a manner from the Oval Office telling would-be deal-makers that his decision is all that matters.

“Erdoğan made the mistake of thinking he can handle all of the Syria file with Trump personally, and his personal relationship with him,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert in Istanbul with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

That bet appeared to pay off, until it became clear that Trump had a limited grasp of what he had given away to Erdoğan, she says. “You have the problem of a leader who wants to be the prime interlocutor – Trump – but isn’t at all clear on the facts that he is negotiating,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş. “It’s malpractice on all counts, diplomatically and politically.”

So a conversation that was likely designed to appease Turkey and smooth the relationship led instead to another clash, she says.

“It is these cyclical crises that are marking the relationship, in part because there are volatile leaders involved,” says Aydıntaşbaş. “Erdoğan himself is a mercurial man; there is no doubt about it. He has a volcanic anger. But Trump is not only mercurial [and] has a volcanic anger, but he is also blowing hot and cold. He makes Erdoğan look like a steady hand.”

Dispute over Syrian Kurds

A key source of bilateral friction is Turkey’s opposition to US military support in northern Syria for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia with organic ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That Turkish group is on the US terrorist list and has waged a battle against the Turkish state for decades.

Turkey fears that US weapons given to the YPG to fight ISIS will also bolster the PKK and that Turkish forces will be waging war on their southern border against the YPG once the Americans leave and ISIS is contained.

Turkey claims the YPG, PKK, ISIS, and Al Qaeda are all “terrorists” in equal measure, and analysts here say the capitulation by Trump during the December telephone call was taken by Erdoğan to mean that Turkish armed forces would be able to take them on or, at the very least, push them back beyond a buffer zone.

After Erdoğan vowed in a speech that the PKK and ISIS would be “wiped out” in the coming months, one online reader commented on the Habertürk website: “This is what MANLINESS looks like, Thank you, CHIEF.” 

But then Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said that conditions were attached, that the US needed guarantees that Turkey would not attack the YPG. During a visit to Ankara last week, he was snubbed by Erdoğan, who said he would never agree to such conditions.

Damage control

In a first step at damage control, Trump and Erdoğan spoke by phone again Monday and held a “very positive conversation,” Erdoğan told ruling party lawmakers on Tuesday. But he noted his surprise, too, that striking a deal with Trump was not enough.

“Our hope increased with the departure of certain names in the [Trump] administration who did not look warmly at the positive trend in US-Turkey relations with regards to Syria,” said Erdoğan.

He added that there had been “cracks here and there, but we did not place much importance on it, because we know our real interlocutor was Mr. Trump.”

Erdoğan’s aides made the point more sharply, with adviser Yasin Aktay saying the US had been “a highly unreliable partner.”

“The problems and misunderstandings between the US and Turkey are results of the confusion and cacophony between the actors at different levels of the US administration and institutions,” Mr. Aktay told Al Jazeera. “Washington fights one terrorist group, Daesh [ISIS], while backing another one, the YPG. Such inconsistencies in US policies decrease the country’s reputation as a global power.”

That assessment is far from the heady days when Trump was first elected in 2016, when the Turkish leadership hoped Erdoğan and Trump would find a useful chemistry together, with glue perhaps provided by Trump’s then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose public lobbying benefited the Turkish government.

Of all the clashes since, one low point came in August, when Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey for not releasing the evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, held for two years and charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish state.

Erdoğan countered with tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other US goods, and Mr. Brunson was finally released in October, prompting a new chumminess between Trump and Erdoğan.

The Khashoggi affair

Also in October, the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul was seen here not just as a way to weaken Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), analysts say, but also to win points with Trump by playing it in such a way that the crown prince and his friendship with Trump would not be irreversibly crippled.

“The Turkish strategy was certainly to weaken MBS, but even more than that to earn political credits in Washington by insinuating to Trump that Turkey is allowing a freedom of action – and not pressuring Trump in a way that would be inimical to his relationship with MBS,” says analyst Ülgen.

It was a fine line, and therefore “quite an achievement on the Turkish side.”

But if Trump had overstepped in his promises to Erdoğan, the way to fix it “is not with this very belligerent Twitter diplomacy, essentially targeting a fellow NATO country with economic devastation,” says Ülgen. “That is unheard of.”


3. Sudan protests test West’s friendlier ties with a longtime foe

Sudan’s strongman has supported efforts to curb terrorism and migration. He now confronts widespread protests, and the West faces a familiar moral dilemma: Should it welcome an end to his regime?


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When Sudanese protesters first took to the streets last month, many of their concerns – the rising cost of bread, for example – were concrete. But over the past few weeks, the demonstrations have spiraled into a mass movement calling for the resignation of Omar al-Bashir, whose heavy-handed regime has been in place for nearly 30 years. Mr. Bashir is wanted for war crimes in Darfur and has, in the past, provided safe haven for terrorists – putting him far from Western governments’ good graces. But Sudan sits in a kind of buffer zone between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East and has become a partner in the European Union’s bid to decrease irregular migration. It has also stepped up counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, which lifted most of its two-decade sanctions against Sudan in 2017. So as protests and a violent crackdown continue, Western countries wrestling with how to respond find themselves in a contradictory position: unable to openly support the repressive regime, but largely uninterested in calling for its dismissal, either.


Sudan protests test West’s friendlier ties with a longtime foe

As a massive antigovernment protest movement mushroomed in Sudan over the last three weeks, from a distance it appeared obvious which side Western powers were on.

“We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest,” read a Jan. 8 statement by the United States, Britain, Norway, and Canada condemning the regime’s violent crackdown on demonstrators, which has so far killed more than 40 protestors according to Amnesty International. “We urge the Government of Sudan to … allow the Sudanese people to exercise their constitutional rights to peacefully express their political, economic and social views freely.”

Sudan’s beleaguered President Omar al-Bashir, meanwhile, made clear that he felt foreign powers had helped stoke the unrest – which started over economic concerns – through sanctions and other measures. “They besieged us economically to make Sudan kneel down,” he angrily told a rally of supporters last week.

But behind both these statements sits a complicated reality. Mr. Bashir is wanted for war crimes in the Darfur region and has, in the past, provided safe haven for known jihadists. But if his nearly 30-year regime topples – as those marching against him hope – the US and Europe will also lose a government that has enthusiastically supported their counterterrorism efforts in the region and helped them staunch the flow of irregular migrants into Europe.

That puts Western governments in a deeply contradictory position: unable to openly support Bashir’s deeply oppressive regime, but largely uninterested in calling for its dismissal, either.

“Western governments have, for a long time, had this very paradoxical relationship with Sudan, where it is simultaneously a pariah and a de facto ally,” says Willow Berridge, a lecturer in history at Newcastle University in England who studies Sudanese politics.

And that means that how Western countries respond may depend in part on how much pressure their citizens put on them.

The US government “might begin paying more attention [to the protests] if more people start dying, or if there’s more political fuss around it,” says Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute and Sudanese political analyst. “For now, it’s not a big story in the US, and most Americans aren’t really aware of what’s going on.”

Growing cooperation

The knotty relationship between Sudan and its Western allies is, in many ways, not unique. From Ethiopia to Chad to Niger to Rwanda, Western governments have often prioritized stability over democracy on the African continent, particularly if the country in question is seen as strategically important. And Sudan, which sits in a kind of buffer zone between Africa and both Europe and the Middle East, is especially valuable.

But Sudan’s relationship with the West is also a particularly fraught one. This is the country, after all, that once harbored Osama bin Laden, and more recently put down a rebellion in the western region of Darfur with a campaign widely described as genocide. For two decades, the country was the subject of intensive US sanctions, and it remains on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” When President Trump announced a travel ban for individuals coming from several Muslim-majority countries to the United States in early 2017, Sudan was on the list.

At the same time, however, Sudan has become an important counterterrorism partner for the United States. There is a large CIA office in Khartoum, and US officials have noted Sudan’s role intercepting suspected terrorists along its border with Libya. In late 2017, finishing a process begun under President Barack Obama, the Trump administration lifted most of the economic and political sanctions in place against Sudan, citing its progress fighting terrorism and protecting human rights. It also removed Sudan from the travel ban.

Meanwhile, for the European Union, Sudan has been an ideal place to staunch the flow of irregular migrants crossing the Sahara toward the Mediterranean. In 2014, leaders of European and African countries met to develop the “Khartoum process” for “preventing and fighting migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings” in the corridors between Africa and Europe. Since then, the EU has spent millions on surveillance equipment and the training of Sudanese border guards – which critics of the Bashir regime note could also be used to monitor Sudanese citizens.

Washington and Brussels “would lose an ally if Bashir comes down,” says Mr. el-Gizouli, the analyst. “That’s why there isn’t much appetite for regime change in the West right now.”

'Uncharted waters'

The demands of Sudanese protesters, however, may eventually become difficult for the West to ignore.

Since protests began in the eastern city of Atbara in mid-December over the rising cost of basic commodities, they have spiraled into a largely leaderless mass movement that is now calling for Bashir’s resignation. The demonstrations now include everyone from day laborers in the country’s impoverished peripheries and Darfuri activists to professors, activists, and opposition politicians in the capital.

In some ways, observers note, the protestors have reason for optimism. Twice in Sudanese history – first in 1964 and then again in 1985 – mass movements have brought down a sitting Sudanese head of state.

But there are crucial differences this time around. In previous eras, for instance, the government began to crack when low-level members of the army refused to violently put down protests. This time, more than 800 people have been arrested and more than three dozen people killed, and security forces, so far, show few signs of an about-face.

Bashir, meanwhile, has a lot to lose if he is toppled. Wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, he could also face charges at home if a new regime takes over, given his three-decade track record of violently heavy-handed rule.

“The stakes are too high for a smooth transition,” el-Gizouli says. At the same time, he notes, the protests show no signs of abating.

“This is uncharted waters for the Sudan. We have no precedent for what happens next.”


4. Debating an evolving definition of ‘diversity’ on campus

Colleges have long defined diversity demographically. But lawsuits are leading some colleges to reconsider what diversity really is, including valuing a diversity of thought, too.

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Rowers on the Charles River pass the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. In the wake of the Harvard admissions trial alleging bias against Asian-Americans, colleges are finding that there is no easy blueprint for establishing diversity. Like the country itself, they are working to find the best way to evolve.

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The recent and ongoing trial involving Harvard University brought diversity considerations at colleges into the spotlight. The Harvard case focuses narrowly on race and procedural questions about how the Ivy League school values Asian-American applicants versus others during admissions reviews. But what’s really on the table is the dicey matter of how diversity gets measured – and what exactly it is. Campuses are struggling to find meaningful diversity amid the constraints that are increasingly on the admissions process, some of which are of their own making. James Nondorf, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago, is one who wants to see more diverse diversity. He argues for considering the jobs of students’ parents, for example. “It is a different experience if your parents are teachers versus police officers versus midlevel people working at a corporation,” he says. “The incomes might be the same, but the kind of life you lead and the discussions at the dinner table” bring distinct perspectives to campus.


Debating an evolving definition of ‘diversity’ on campus

“Diversity” was top of mind when Angel Carter was applying to schools.

Raised in an African-American enclave in Atlanta, she says, “I would have loved to go to an HBCU,” the acronym for historically black colleges and universities. But college should stretch you, she felt, so Ms. Carter chose Tulane, where the student body is 75 percent white.

“I hadn’t had many interactions with white people,” says Carter, now a senior majoring in anthropology and cell biology. “I wanted to work on that: How do I code switch? How do I approach situations with people who do not look like me?”

Research backs up what Carter perceived – that exposure to people with different voices and experiences yields better learning. It’s also a fashionable mantra in admissions offices across the country. It’s bragged about, even marketed.

But as admissions officers judge the means and merits of applicants for the class of 2023, what should they look for? Diversity matters – intensely and arguably more than ever before – but in the wake of the Harvard admissions trial alleging bias against Asian-Americans, there is no trusty blueprint. Like the country itself, college campuses are laboring to find the best way to evolve.

“It just feels like we are in some kind of storm,” says Joyce Smith, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. “The political landscape is truly affecting our work, our priorities and our consideration for what diversity in admissions has meant in the past and what it will mean in the future.”

Now, when colleges talk about “diversity,” they are as confused as anyone about what it means. Yes, it is about representing all the usual demographic categories. But it’s also about harder-to-pin-down qualities. Matthew Proto, dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, says “we are not actually looking for the perfect student, but the student who brings a certain diversity of thought.”

The quest to concoct a splendid campus mix has become maddeningly slippery. The Harvard case (with a final hearing scheduled for mid-February) focuses narrowly on race and procedural questions about how Harvard assesses Asian-American applicants versus others during admissions reviews. But what’s really on the table is the dicey matter of how diversity gets measured – and, even now, what exactly it is.

Adelaide Basco
Angel Carter, a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans, leads the Green Wave Ambassadors, the tour guide group for the admissions office.

Contemplating new practices

Which is more distinguishing: test scores or what you represent? Should a student’s race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, political views, obstacles overcome – their “distance traveled,” in admissions-speak – all be treated as potential forms of merit? How can admissions officers, asks Ms. Smith, “be fair when you have all these competing and logical arguments for a place at the table, a place on campus, a voice being recognized and heard?”

A complicating factor this admissions season, she says, is that campuses are worrying that unhappy applicants could trigger “some level of scrutiny or legal challenge for how they admit students.” Some 40 years of case law have set rules for the use of race in admissions, but at colleges across the country, leaders wonder whether they need new practices if not new rules.

“It’s hard to argue that race and ethnicity is not important, but it is not the only form of diversity,” says Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University in New York. Colleges, he says, require “people of different viewpoints: religious diversity, urban, rural, economic, public school, private school.”

Mr. Krislov was vice president and general counsel at the University of Michigan in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled in Gratz v. Bollinger that automatically awarding underrepresented minorities 20 points in admissions (out of 100 needed) was unconstitutional, because it “ensures that the diversity contributions of applicants cannot be individually assessed.” Racial bonus points, in other words, overwhelmed the larger goal of picking applicants based on individual qualities and accomplishments.

Yet admissions is always about more than the individual’s record. It matters, says Krislov, “how the person fits in relative to others.” What do they bring that is unique, yet enhances a community? A challenge specific to Harvard, says Julie Park, associate professor at the University of Maryland College of Education and author of “Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data,” is that many Asian-Americans are raised such that “applying to Harvard, it’s in the Kool-Aid.”

That culturally embedded value, she says, means that Asian-Americans are “more likely to throw their hat in the ring whether they feel they are competitive or not.” It creates an applicant pool that is broader for Asian-American than for whites. 

It can also produce “an underlying sense that a lot of these kids look similar on paper,” says Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer of Collegewise, a large private college counseling company, who has worked in admissions at the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Mr. Ponnusamy, who graduated from the University of Chicago, says many Indian-American and Southeast Asian-American students like himself “played a lot of tennis, a lot of us played chess and a lot of us were No. 1 or 2 in our class.”

That sameness presents an admissions challenge. Ponnusamy has seen strong candidates (over his career, he has reviewed some 7,500 admissions files) sticking within familiar boundaries. Rather than presenting themselves as eager to take risks and wrestle with new ideas, many students seemed to “just want to go to a great school, get a great job, and have a nice life.”

Copying a formula for success is “where Asian kids get jammed up,” he says. Yet, such achievement takes tremendous effort, frustrating those who push themselves to check the right boxes only to find admissions more of a crapshoot than expected.

The search for meaningful diversity

Colleges have created a troubled and contradictory cycle. They tout “holistic” review yet boast about incoming students’ high test scores and aggressively try to increase applications so that they reject more, which lowers acceptance rates, increases their perceived “selectivity,” and moves them up in the rankings. But the greater number of applications (also spurred by the elimination of supplemental essays and application fees, spun as “increasing access”) makes holistic review tougher. 

As a result, says Smith, “we don’t have that kind of time any more in admissions offices to give that slow, careful, thoughtful consideration to an application.” And college coaching of applicants means “we are all questioning who is writing the essays.” Admissions officers also have doubts about “the authenticity of the letter of recommendation,” she says, and skepticism about the value of standardized tests; they struggle to parse transcripts from unknown schools. “All of our traditional tools,” says Smith, “have to be reconsidered.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alicia Pickett, (l.), associate director of admissions and career services talks with UNC students Yi Ting and Ashley Lee during a professional networking event on campus at the University of North Carolina in 2016, in Chapel Hill.

In this environment, campuses are trying to grasp – and in some cases redefine – what kind of diversity is actually meaningful. James Nondorf, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago, is one who wants to see more diverse diversity.

His approach? Look differently – for example, by considering the jobs of students’ parents. “It is a different experience if your parents are teachers versus police officers versus midlevel people working at a corporation,” he says. “The incomes might be the same, but the kind of life you lead and the discussions at the dinner table” bring distinct perspectives to campus. “Whatever those applications bring you, you should embrace. If you have lots of kids from Iowa or way more Hispanic or way more kids from London,” he says. “I just let it go.”

He says the University of Chicago also seeks varied political beliefs, enabled by the school’s outspoken stance in support of free speech. “Kids write about it,” says Mr. Nondorf, and offer views from “part of the country or a part of the world you might not have heard if you didn’t meet that person.” The quirky application unearths students “who are incredibly witty and funny,” bringing those qualities to campus. 

That works for the University of Chicago. But most schools do not have their pick of applicants. Tulane, for example, is years away from Chicago’s nuance. Before Satyajit Dattagupta became dean of admission in 2016, “race was not considered,” he says. Now, “our No. 1 focus is racial diversity.”

In the past, students of color were admitted but often not awarded enough financial aid to come. Mr. Dattagupta shifted some merit aid to need-based financial aid and has aggressively recruited low-income students, even flying some students to the New Orleans campus to visit.

But it’s a balance. Merit aid attracts students whose test scores can boost the school’s academic profile. But offering money doesn’t always work. “We can’t admit someone and assume they will come,” he says. “We are not Harvard.”

Of course, Harvard can make choices most cannot. Yet, diversity draws. “It is a huge part of the quality of the environment” and critical to being competitive, says Michael Fitts, the president of Tulane.

Campus racial diversity is “a work in progress,” says Carter, the Tulane senior who is often the only person of color in her classes.

Nonetheless, she became an admissions tour guide as soon as she enrolled. She is now president of the Green Wave Ambassadors. “I want to represent this school,” she says, “in a way that other students of color can understand that there is a place for them.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that white students, in contrast to Asian-Americans, apply to Harvard only if they are "very qualified," which was not the implication intended. The word "many" has also been added to the sentence about Asian-Americans being raised to apply to Harvard. 

This story about college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 


5. For young Native Americans, running is a lesson in their own history

Too often, Native American youth are besieged by messages about their troubles and challenges. But one program is finding success in focusing on the community's pride and potential.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Elementary school students from the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, N.M., play running games with Dustin Martin (center) as part of after-school activities. Wings of America is a New Mexico-based group that educates young Native Americans about their cultural and spiritual connection to running.

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Just as their ancestors ran to communicate with others, today the young Native American athletes of Wings of America run to deliver messages of self-worth, cultural pride, and hope. Native Americans have practiced prayer runs for generations to spiritually connect with or give gratitude to Mother Earth. And hundreds of years ago, Native Americans relied on messenger runners to communicate with other tribes. In one of the Wings programs, elementary students in Albuquerque warm up, stretch, and, of course, run. But they are also sure to spend time in a circle, talking about Native Americans’ connection to running and how it can be a form of activism. This past March, Dustin Martin, the executive director of Wings, helped organize an 800-mile prayer run to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. “Everyone else in Indian country, unfortunately, for the last 30 years, has had to build a program on the premise or idea that something was deficient: ‘We’re preventing substance abuse, preventing domestic violence, we are trying to mitigate the poverty rate.... We’re fixing you somehow,’ ” says Martin. “But our association with Wings defines us as more than those things.”


For young Native Americans, running is a lesson in their own history

A plume of dust trails his worn sneakers as he strides over the red sand.

Most runners would find this surface trying: a sinking, winding path, made narrow by low desert brush. But not Dustin Martin. He glides over the sand – seemingly without sinking at all – as if he and the Earth made a deal long ago.

Mr. Martin, a Navajo from Gallup, N.M., is executive director of Wings of America, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe, N.M. It encourages Native American youth to embrace running, both as a cultural tradition and as a personal hobby, while simultaneously helping to dispel negative stereotypes associated with their peoples.

“Everyone else in Indian country, unfortunately, for the last 30 years, has had to build a program on the premise or idea that something was deficient: ‘We’re preventing substance abuse, preventing domestic violence, we are trying to mitigate the poverty rate.... We’re fixing you somehow,’” says Martin. “But our association with Wings defines us as more than those things.”

To be sure, Native American youth confront many statistics that back up these stereotypes. Obesity is said to affect 50 percent more Native Americans than white Americans, Native youth have more depressive episodes and emotional issues in the classroom. And while newer studies challenge the prevalence of alcohol abuse, the stereotype persists.

But for three decades, Wings has encouraged Native Americans to shake off these labels. Just as their ancestors ran to communicate with others, Wings of America runners today run to deliver different kinds of messages. Messages of self-worth, cultural pride, and hope.

“Running is good for everybody … but the dial is turned up, this is amplified, in Native American culture,” says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who has researched the history of Native American runners. “They have such an amazing cultural tradition of running and then you add to that some of the challenges that kids are facing on the reservation. There are multiple compelling reasons to support a program like Wings.”

The example of Jim Thorpe  

On a browning soccer field off Albuquerque’s buzzing Interstate 40, dozens of elementary school students run in circles, squealing. They are playing a game of tag. The students have a scarf tucked into the back of their pants or skirts and they try to steal others’ scarves while protecting their own.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
As Wings of America’s program coordinator, Alicia Littlebear helps coordinate Flight Club – the group’s after school running group for young Native Americans. Wings will preserve Native Americans’ connection to running, says Littlebear, and ensure that they carry the tradition forward themselves.

Martin and Wings’ program coordinator Alicia Littlebear are hosting “Flight Club” for elementary students at the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. Twice a week the students practice warm-ups, stretching, and, of course, running. But they are also sure to spend time in a circle, talking about Native Americans’ connection to running.  

Native Americans have practiced prayer runs for generations as a way to spiritually connect with or give gratitude to Mother Earth. And hundreds of years ago, before horses were readily available across North America, Native Americans relied on messenger runners to travel hundreds of miles to communicate with other tribes.

“Running doesn’t come out of the blue. Its roots are ancient and deep,” says Professor Lieberman. “Those roots have been lost and Wings is trying to revive them in a modern context.”

Martin and Ms. Littlebear teach the students about Tom Longboat, from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, who consistently beat other famous runners of the early 1900s in races more than 20 miles long. He won the Boston Marathon in 1907 with a time that was almost 5 minutes faster than any of the previous 10 winners. And they talk about Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, of the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island, who won the Boston Marathon twice, in 1936 and 1939, and Patti Catalano Dillon, whose mother was a Micmac from Nova Scotia, and who became the first American woman to finish a marathon in under 2 hours and 30 minutes and won the Honolulu Marathon four years in a row, beating her own course record each time.

Martin and Littlebear also teach the students about Jim Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. The first Native American to win Olympic gold for the United States, he’s one of the most versatile and accomplished US athletes in history. Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi runner from Arizona, was Thorpe’s fellow Olympian in 1912. Tewanima’s silver medal remained the best performance by a US athlete in the 10,000 meters until Billy Mills, another Native American, won gold in the event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But Martin seems most impressed by the context of these athletes’ success. Many of them were sent to boarding schools against their will, a common trend in the early 1900s, to force the “Americanization” of young Native Americans. Thorpe and Tewanima, for example, trained together for a few years at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School – whose founder coined the phrase “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” – before winning at the Olympics.

“To have the strength, not only of the body, but of the mind and heart, to compete for your oppressor?” says Martin. “To be humble and say, ‘I’m going to run, but I’m running for something else.… I want to use what is obviously the ability that my people gave me.’ ”

Sending a message in a run

As the young students gather in a circle on the soccer field, Martin apologizes for missing a Flight Club and asks the students if they would like to hear about the run in Nevada he attended instead. The circle nods in unison.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Dustin Martin is the director of Wings of America, a New Mexico-based group that educates young Native Americans about their cultural and spiritual connection to running. ‘If we incorporate more people into this tradition,’ says Mr. Martin, ‘I think that they’re going to make a huge impact on Indian country.’

The Water Protectors Sacred Run in Nevada in October was a protest against the Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline, a project that would pipe groundwater from central and eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. The pipeline was denied a permit in August and is being appealed. But participants such as Martin see the process as yet another affront to Native peoples’ right to natural resources.

“We don’t want people to forget that. I don’t want you guys to forget that,” says Martin, after having explained to the Flight Club members that they can be the guardians of their rights to the Earth. “Now go run two laps.”

Along with teaching the students about Native Americans’ historical connection to running, Wings teaches how running can be a form of activism in the children’s future. This past March, Martin helped organize an 800-mile prayer run with members of local tribes and pueblos to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a monument with significance to Native Americans, which President Trump recently shrunk by 85 percent. Outside Magazine named Martin one of 2018’s boldest activists.

To Littlebear and Martin, Wings is just getting started. In addition to Flight Club and summer camps, Wings brings top runners to the junior USA Track & Field Cross Country Championships race each year. The work is a manifestation of their generation’s will to change the way the rest of the country sees – and treats – Native Americans.

“Our hearts hurt when politicians or educators don’t take us seriously, or they’re not ready to see us succeed, or they doubt us. Like it’s really hurtful in your heart to know that this is what they think about you,” says Littlebear, as she starts to tear up. “We’re the first generation that’s really being vocal.… So our kids won’t have to suffer that.”

As the NACA students stand up to start their run, a kindergartner named Kiana is complimented on her moccasins. She looks down at her feet thoughtfully.

“I’m not used to running in them because I run barefoot on the res,” says Kiana. “Cause I’m a Navajo and that’s what Navajo do.”


The Monitor's View

In Indonesia, honesty has been a good catch

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When he became Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo asked his people to undergo a “mental revolution” aimed mainly at curbing corruption. To make his point, he targeted one of the largest abuses of public resources: fish theft. Jokowi estimated that 90 percent of the fishing boats in Indonesia’s waters were illegal, most of them foreign interlopers. The nation was losing an estimated $4 billion in income. Corruption was rampant. One result: Many of the country’s 2.6 million fishermen were poor. Could the government bring transparency and accountability to this large and corrupt industry, then transfer it to other parts of Indonesian life? It sent a message to foreign poachers, sinking illegal vessels. It collected data on catches and put observers on boats. It struck agreements with neighboring nations to prevent poaching. If numbers could track a mental revolution, it would be these: Foreign fishing in Indonesia has dropped by more than 90 percent since 2014, and total fishing has fallen by 25 percent. Fish stocks in Indonesian waters have more than doubled since 2013, benefiting domestic fishermen. Honesty has been a good catch.


In Indonesia, honesty has been a good catch

Soon after becoming president of Indonesia more than four years ago, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo asked people in the world’s fourth most populous nation to undergo a “mental revolution,” aimed mainly at curbing corruption. To make his point, he targeted one of the largest abuses of public resources: fish theft.

On many counts, Jokowi has landed his revolution.

Fish stocks in Indonesian waters have more than doubled since 2013. Recently, one of its tuna fisheries became the first in the country to win an internationally recognized award for sustainable fishing. Indonesia’s progress is a model for “long-lasting fisheries gains in many regions of the world,” according to the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The giant archipelago nation, whose total sea area is far greater than its land area, is the world’s second largest seafood producer. When he took office, Jokowi estimated 90 percent of the fishing boats in Indonesia’s waters were illegal, most of them foreign interlopers. By comparison, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s fish are caught illegally.

The Southeast Asian nation, whose 263 million people are spread across more than 13,000 islands, was losing an estimated $4 billion in income. Meanwhile, corruption in fishing ports was rampant. One big result: Many of the country’s 2.6 million fishermen were poor.

If the government could bring transparency and accountability to this large and corrupt industry, it could spur prosperity and perhaps set an example for tackling corruption in other parts of Indonesian life.

The government sent a strong message to foreign poachers. It has sunk hundreds of illegal vessels after arresting their crews. It began to collect data on fish catches and put observers on boats. It struck agreements with many of its neighboring nations to prevent poaching.

It became the first country in the world to publicly share the positions of its fishing fleets online. It has beefed up patrols of its maritime space and upgraded ports with efficient management. “We pay serious attention to fish theft in our waters,” the president said last August.

If numbers could begin to track a mental revolution, it would be these: Foreign fishing in Indonesia has dropped by more than 90 percent since 2014; and total fishing has fallen by 25 percent, helping to rebuild stocks for domestic fishermen. Honesty has been a good catch.


A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Diversity doesn’t have to mean divisiveness

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The question of what it means to have a diverse student body looms large in college and university admission offices, particularly in light of the ongoing affirmative action court case involving Harvard University. Today’s contributor shares an elementary school experience that helped her realize there’s a spiritual basis for unity in diversity.


Diversity doesn’t have to mean divisiveness

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Diversity was a fact of life at my elementary school. Like most kids, I accepted it without much thought. Until, that is, I became the target of bullying that appeared to be racially charged.

My parents contacted school authorities, but at home we prayed. I’d learned in Christian Science Sunday School that I could turn to God and expect to find protection and healing. It was natural for me to trust prayer to make a difference.

Our prayers acknowledged that both the girl who’d been bullying me and I were God’s daughters. The Bible says that “we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). So it’s natural for each of us to act like our loving and good divine Father-Mother.

As I began to see my classmate this way, our relationship shifted dramatically. First, I wasn’t afraid of her anymore. Then, the bullying stopped. By the end of the school year, we had even become friends.

This experience has been a touchstone for me; it taught me that diversity doesn’t have to mean divisiveness. Understanding that we are children of the one God, the spiritual expressions of His love, enables us to see others, even those who seem very different from us, as our brothers and sisters – beautifully individual, but having a common spiritual heritage. This view dissolves hatred and prejudice.

With more colleges and universities striving for better diversity, we can pray in support of these initiatives – to see diversity as a quality of God, rather than confined to labels.

What does that mean? I like to think of this spiritual view of diversity in relation to music, where the principles of music connect and harmonize a wide variety of notes. Similarly, God, divine Principle, expresses the infinite diversity of His ideas, His children, and harmonizes them in lovely ways. Governed by this Principle, we aren’t just safe in relation to one another, we’re brought into constructive and beautiful relationships.

This was not only evident in my elementary school experience but I’ve also seen it in other situations since then. As I’ve prayed to understand something of the infinite yet gorgeously varied nature of God, my view of diversity has changed from a focus on superficial differences to joy in knowing that God expresses Himself in radiant individuality. This has had practical results.

The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, saw the promise of this kind of unity-in-diversity when she wrote, “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself...’ ” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 340).

As we consistently identify those we meet as beloved brothers and sisters, we can expect to see the powerful, harmonizing effects of this prayer in our relationships, schools, communities, and world.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Perspective column, May 16, 2016.



Helping out in a pinch

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
People line up Jan. 16 at Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen in Washington. D.C. It offers free meals to furloughed workers and their families amid the federal-government shutdown.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

In Our Next Issue

( January 17th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we examine an issue currently caught in a swirl of misunderstanding and misperception: What does a state of emergency actually empower a US president to do?

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January 16, 2019
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