Jana Sawicki, Chair of Philosophy and Morris Professor of Rhetoric (committee chair)
Sandra Burton, Lipp Family Director of Dance and Senior Lecturer in Dance
Michael Crisci ’21
Eli Miller ’21
Eli Nelson, Assistant Professor of American Studies
Hale Polebaum Freeman, Reference and First-Year Outreach Librarian
Rachel Porter ’21
Mark Robertson ’02, Director of the 50th Reunion Program
Cheryl Shanks, Professor of Political Science
Fred Strauch, Chair and Associate Professor of Physics
Conrad Wahl ’20
Alysha Warren, Staff Therapist, Integrative Wellbeing Services
Rabbi Seth Wax, Jewish Chaplain
Williams, like other schools around the country, is debating how to uphold principles of open inquiry and free expression. The debate has focused on how to do so while not providing a platform for hate speech, racism, or other forces that are corrosive to a learning community. This issue was identified as a concern in Williams’ Fall 2017 accreditation self-study, which was shared with campus at the time:
“intellectual freedom… is defined broadly at Williams to include the unfettered exchange of diverse points of view, the dissemination of original scholarship, and respect for faculty, students, staff, alumni, and others who wish to share their opinions on how the college is governed. This “basket of rights” must sometimes be actively managed.” (pp. 103–4)
The conversation at Williams has recently focused on speaker invitations, as it has elsewhere around the country. I am charging an ad hoc committee with recommending to me, by May 2019, a set of speaker invitation guidelines that would demonstrate our full commitment to both inquiry and inclusion. This targeted project will complement our broader attention to learning and campus climate through the strategic planning process. I further ask that they do so through a process that allows for input from anyone in our community with opinions or ideas to share on the subject.
Following are a few framing questions the committee might consider in this work:
- What obligation do liberal arts colleges have for exposing students to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world?
- What responsibility has Williams assumed (or should it) for helping students achieve equal footing from which to study, expound and challenge diverse ideas?
- Given the wide range of content available on-line, including many speeches, what types of presentations (in both form and content) best support our educational mission?
- What support, if any, should Williams give to campus members seeking to host, engage or debate speakers?
- Are college guidelines related to campus activism toward speakers adequate?
Once the committee presents its recommendations in May, I will share this information with the community, and we will organize next steps for when people return in the fall. It will be helpful if the report identifies the historical, philosophical and other considerations that influenced their recommendations. The report should also identify likely costs and benefits of any proposals.
Some people have looked at the current “free speech” debate in this country with dismay. I believe, in contrast, that this is an important step toward building the most vibrant educational community possible. I am deeply grateful to the committee members, and to Williams, for taking on this challenge.