I’ve recently heard from Dr. Luana Maroja, an evolutionary biologist at Williams College who is an associate professor of biology as well as chair of the biochemistry program. Luana wanted to describe some of the opposition she and others have faced at Williams College in trying to get it to adopt the Chicago Principles, my university’s freedom-of-expression policy that has been widely adopted by other schools.
Williams has been in the news lately because many students have opposed a faculty call for freedom of speech, with the students, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in this article, effectively demanding freedom from speech. Be sure to read the student response highlighted in Luana’s piece.
I’ll add that Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is described by Wikipedia as “ranked first in 2017 in the U.S. News & World Report‘s liberal arts ranking for the 15th consecutive year, and first among liberal arts colleges in the 2018 Forbes magazine ranking of America’s Top Colleges.” This year’s tuition is $55,140, with ancillary fees (room and board, etc.) adding another $14,810.
Luana described the events occurring when the faculty tried to get a free-speech policy enacted.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH AT WILLIAMS COLLEGE: ARE THE WALLS CLOSING IN?
Many professors at Williams have been feeling the walls closing in. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and in my classes there is increasing resistance to learning about heritability (probably fear of the “bell curve”, something I actually dismiss by contrasting Brazilian with Americans, as I am from Brazil) and even kin selection! (Using the “naturalistic fallacy” argument, students assume that by teaching kin selection I am somehow endorsing Trump hiring his family.) The word “pregnant woman” is out: only “pregnant human” should be now used (after all, what if the pregnant individual goes by another pronoun?). In other fields the walls have closed in even more. The theater department recently dealt with two challenges: a cancellation of a show and an uproar about another show – both shows deemed offensive or overtly violent to blacks, yet both written by African-American artists. Williams is now developing a reputation of being unfriendly to artists of color.
While several speakers have been invited to talk about free speech (recently Geoff Stone and Frederick Lawrence), and classes on the topic have been taught, discussion about college policy never really got started among faculty or students. This is in large part because faculty sharing my concerns about the increasing censorship on campus felt afraid of speaking up, always assuming that they were an insignificant minority.
In my view, the situation became critical when Reza Aslan came for a talk in campus titled “The future of Free Speech and Intolerance”. This was supposed to have involved a panel with three speakers and a moderator, but Negin Farsad (a social-justice comedian) did not come. The panel thus consisted of Alicia Garza (co-founder of the BlackLivesMatter movement), Reza Aslan (religious scholar) and moderator Jamelle Bouie (chief political correspondent for the Slate Magazine). Reza Aslan dominated the conversation and, in his always convoluted and self-contradictory style, started by bragging that he had once been disinvited from another venue, proceeding to say that anything that offended him should not be allowed, and finally asserting that “only factual talks” should ever be allowed in campus. This nonsense was met with intense student applause. It was appalling.
After Reza Aslan’s talk, a group of six Williams professors started talking about getting the college to adopt the Chicago Statement. We scheduled two days for open discussion among professors (November 15 and 20), talked to the University President and steering committee, made plans for student outreach, wrote a petition, supplementary documents and a “reasons” document, and sent this material to all voting faculty. Within days, close to half of all voting faculty had signed the petition.
However, trouble started after a professor opposed to free speech shared the petition with students, who wrongly assumed that we were voting on the issue on November 15. While I did reach out to these students to let them know that no vote was taking place and that this was a faculty forum to discuss ideas, these efforts were in vain. A group of about 15 students waving posters stating “free speech harms” came to our discussion on November 15. The professor leading the meeting was extremely nice, welcoming the students in the room and reading their response aloud (the response is now a petition [JAC: they closed the Google document to non-Williams people but The Feminist Wire still has the petition online.]).
But many of the students were disruptive throughout, finally asking white male professors to sit down and admit their “privilege”. They pointed out how horrible the college is in welcoming and including them, but then stated that they want to be protected by the president! They equated free speech with “hate speech” and with the desire of professors to invite John Derbyshire back (Derbyshire a figure within the alt-right movement, was invited by a student group and disinvited by president Falk a couple years ago).
I explained how censorship hurts the very cause they are fighting for, noting that because I am Hispanic, people often assume that is the reason I got into Cornell, got a job, and got grants, and that students of color will face the same fate in the outside world. Thus, I added, students need to be able to defend their positions with strong reason and argumentation, not by resorting to violence or name-calling.
Disinvitations invigorate bigots; they do not suppress their message. Furthermore you can learn a lot from arguments you disagree with—something I have learned listening to creationists, climate denialists and even some bigots. I emphasized that the reason we want free speech is not because we want to invite bigots, but because we don’t want to see discussion shut down. The recent cancellation in theater shows how “protection” of feelings actually hurt African-Americans (the artist who wrote the play)! Students are hurting the very cause they think they are defending.
Finally, I re-emphasized that invitation is not the same as disinvitation: the Chicago Statement has rules on what to do once someone is invited, and has no guidelines about who should be invited. Furthermore, the guidelines allow disinvitations for extremist speakers who poses a genuine physical threat to individuals.
While most professors at the meeting were highly supportive of free speech and many sent me grateful emails, I was shocked at the behavior of some of my colleagues. For example, one professor turned to the students and said that they should read the names missing from our list of signatories, as “those were professors that were with the students” (an appalling tactic that created an “us vs them” atmosphere). Another professor stated that she was involved in creating violence in UC Berkeley for Milo Yiannopoulos’s disinvitation and would be ready to do the same at Williams.
The meeting lasted for 2.5 hours, well beyond the single hour scheduled, and, unfortunately, I think our message fell mostly on deaf ears. After the meeting was over, I sent an email to the College Council student who was there, trying to make our points clear once more. But that same night we noticed that a group of students and an anonymous person had accessed our petition online and that large pieces of the text had been removed. We deleted all our names and created a timeline of events, with the intention of showing people that this was not a secret cabal and that we had meant to include students in the process since the beginning.
The Tuesday meeting (November 20) was better and very constructive. No students were present—it was too close to Thanksgiving—and about 40 professors showed up. This was a more dynamic meeting than any I ever attended, and I’m glad that the petition started a much-needed dialogue!
This past Tuesday, our College President sent an email stating that she will form a committee composed of faculty, students and staff members to look into the free-speech issue; the committee composition will be announced in 2019. A couple of news pieces also emerged from the event (here is a piece against the Chicago Principles and one pointing out how students at Williams are demanding freedom from speech), and more should appear next week with the publication of the student newspaper.
I truly hope reason will prevail. Being born during a dictatorship in Brazil, I dread seeing censorship in place at my own college. It is truly sad to see freedom of speech appropriated by the Right and by Trump; I hope we can fight both the Right and censorship, and that all universities and colleges can again take leadership in the free exchange of ideas.