How to disagree

Last week saw two different instances of our community dealing with disagreement. In one of those situations, I saw a model for how we should respond and behave toward one another amid such disagreement. In the other, I saw events unfold in a way that left much to be desired.

On Friday morning a group of about 20 students and Steve Kaagan ’65 met me in my office to express their dissatisfaction with the College’s plans for addressing climate change. Steve spoke passionately about the role he believes the College ought to play, and as a sign of protest he returned the honorary degree Williams awarded him 30 years ago.

As strongly as Steve and those students feel that Williams isn’t doing the right thing, I believe we are doing what’s right – practically, symbolically and ethically. In my view, it is moral, not parochial, to look first at our own consumption of fossil fuels and work to reduce our own impact on the planet – leading by example as we do so – before we demand change elsewhere.

But I’m not asking Steve to change his beliefs, and I certainly don’t expect everyone at Williams to agree with the Board of Trustees and me. At a college as small and close-knit as ours, it’s easy to perceive disagreements as fractures in our community. They aren’t.

Steve’s actions, and those of the students who came with him on Friday, were dignified and civil. I admire their activism and passion, and I’m grateful to them for reminding us all that it’s possible to disagree – really strongly – and still act respectfully toward each other.

In the other instance, we as a community didn’t do nearly as well. When a controversial speaker – whose views on feminism I object to profoundly, by the way – was first invited and then uninvited to speak, we drew a torrent of public criticism for what was perceived widely as an unwillingness of our community to tolerate the expression of differing viewpoints.

Let me be absolutely clear: Williams has a long history of inviting controversial speakers to campus and no history of uninviting them, and this is a point of absolute principle. Ours is an institution of higher learning; such learning cannot occur without broad and enthusiastic exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. And certainly the invitation of a speaker to campus isn’t in and of itself an endorsement – by the College or by individuals who invite a speaker – of that person’s views. Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.

And when we do, we must work together to create a forum in which those views can be expressed and can be examined in constructive, respectful ways that lead to shared learning. At the end of that forum we don’t have to agree any more than we did at the beginning, but it will hardly hurt any of us to engage with difference productively.

That didn’t happen with the Suzanne Venker event, and, indeed, the role that social media played in the episode undermined the very possibility of healthy dialogue.

The senior class may remember that in my Convocation remarks to them this fall, I gave them an assignment to seek out someone whose opinions and beliefs are different than their own, and to engage in a conversation to really listen and learn from one another. “I worry that we may be losing our way here – here and throughout America … that we are in danger of forgetting our most basic commitment to each other, which is to see and understand each other as human beings,” I told them.

That’s not a small worry, and last week’s events serve as a much-needed reminder. We’re responsible for the community we create. It’s up to each one of us to embody and demonstrate the values of the Williams we want to be.


Adam Falk is the president of the College and a professor of physics.

Comments (21)

  1. I still remember what it was like to be the token white male conservative at Williams College in the 1980’s. My story on that experience is now available in an interview done by Jennifer Kabbany at The College Fix.


    Thanks to social media, conservative students at Williams College now have a lot more opportunities to network with those who share their interests and opinions.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Adam on this point and I have had my share of both agreementsnd disagreements since he and I met when he first came to Williams. The “real world” is full of disagreement at every turn. Those who engage in a constructive and respectful dialogue will both learn from it and be more productive in reaching there goals. Those who don’t will live in a echo chamber…it might feel good to have everyone agree with you but no progress with others will be made. We see the effects of this echo chamber in our political parties and the ability of our leaders to govern well. Williams Alumni should be part of the solution and not the problem.

    Class of ’86

    Silicon Valley, CA

  3. I have long been concerned about whether Williams discourages unpopular and heterodox views from being voiced. That kind of intolerance, which we see on other campuses across the country, belies the essence of a liberal arts education. This superb and timely essay sets what I hope will remain the standard for open inquiry and exploration at the College. Thank you, President Falk.

  4. President Falk –

    There is no doubt the situation reflects poorly on Williams and makes its students look foolish. Your support of open minds and dialogue is important. I would like to make two observations, one about privilege and one about student views on free speech.

    The Williams Record, and for that matter the academic community at large, regularly talks about “privilege”. With few exceptions, it is almost universally aimed at white males. Pick almost any social issue, and somehow white men are blamed and they are asked – rather told- to check their privilege. If white men dare to deviate from the liberal or feminist orthodoxy, they are trolls, Neanderthals, and of course, racists and misogynists. In an instant they are ridiculed and labelled in pretty unpleasant terms. I would like to introduce two “new” types of privilege to the lexicon, liberal privilege and feminist privilege as it relates to conduct and discourse. In your letter, you properly commented that social media served to “undermine the possibility of healthy dialogue.” We all know the guilty parties of the condescension, harassment and vitriol on social media were not a collection of white men playing rugby and drinking beer outside Paresky, but of liberal activists and feminists. They have been empowered to conduct themselves in almost any manner because colleges, and certainly the media, have never called them out on this behavior. No matter how militant or inappropriate the harassment might become, liberals and feminists are given a pass. In this instance, their behavior has created a national story where more civil, respectful and constructive approaches should have been pursued. The freedom liberals and feminists enjoy to verbally insult others without repercussion is a privilege they enjoy that is not available to others, particularly white men who are forced walk on egg shells.

    The second point relates to free speech at colleges and student views in general. Last week, the William F. Buckley, Jr. program at Yale released its 2015 study on free speech. Maybe it relates to the above where certain students feel maligned because of fear of harassment, but the results should worry liberal arts institutions. I don’t track this data year-to-year so I cannot speak to trends, but the absolute results suggest roughly ½ feel intimidated to speak out and 1/3 don’t understand the First Amendment. Not a positive sign for liberal arts education in 2015.

    Here are some high points (or low points):
    • Forty-nine percent (49%) of survey participants said they have often felt intimidated to share beliefs that differ from their professors;
    • Exactly half (50%) said they have often felt intimidated to share beliefs that differ from their classmates;
    • The majority of students (53%) say their professors have often used class time to express their own views about matters outside of coursework;
    • Greater than six in ten (63%) say political correctness on college campuses is either a “big problem” (19%) or “somewhat of a problem” (44%);
    • By a 52-42% margin, students say their college or university should forbid people from speaking on campus who have a history of engaging in hate speech;
    • Seventy-two percent (72%) of students surveyed said they support disciplinary action for “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive”;

    • The majority (52%) said that the First Amendment does not make an exemption for hate speech and that all speech is protected under the First Amendment. One in three (35%) say that hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment;

    Here is the link to the survey.


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  6. coincidentally, Wesleyan students committed this same myopic political censorship, in their case on their student newspaper. When an op-ed or letter to the editor was printed that challenged the meaning and integrity of the Black Lives Matter campaign, almost immediately the Student Council —hopefully some of the best and brightest of the best and brightest —voted to DEFUND THE STUDENT NEWSPAPER for printing such an unpopular piece. It is the same nerve or social current that allowed Williams to disinvite a controversial speaker. THIS IS A REALLY REALLY BAD TREND, and it is like Fascism. Wake up kids.

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  8. Excellent statement.

    Less important as the main point is not his personal views, but I can’t help but wonder … if “whose views on feminism I object to profoundly, by the way ” were replace by, say, “whose ideas I may see some kernel of merit in”, would Prof. Falk be allowed to remain President? I seriously doubt it. Everyone with anything to lose still has to rush to embrace the “correct” views.

    1. Robert,

      I noticed Falk’s effort to advertise his conformity to liberal opinion even in the midst of criticizing the students who successfully stopped Venker from speaking on campus. Sadly, discrimination against conservatives runs strong at places like Williams. For a great NYT opinion piece that provides evidence of discrimination against conservatives and discusses how this reduces the quality of academic research, see Arthur C. Brooks “Academia’s Rejection of Diversity.”

  9. From the article: “learning cannot occur without broad and enthusiastic exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives”.

    So the president of Williams College is a liberal. Wow, what a shocker. I’ll just take a “wild guess” here and bet that liberal professors at Williams massively outnumber conservative ones. It appears the Board of Trustees is also overwhelmingly liberal. What is meant by “broad exposure” to differing viewpoints on our college campuses today is to occasionally invite a conservative to say a few words so that faculty can lead students in mocking and ridiculing their viewpoints. “Sure we’ll let conservatives speak sometimes; we may even have one or two on staff somewhere. But they know their place. We certainly can’t be expected to have conservatives – gasp!! – live and work amongst us in any meaningful numbers.”

  10. Why has this generation of students been allowed to covered up art in The Log with plywood and Williams banners then? Art should be banned if it is offensive, even if it is historically significant? Legacy art?

    It is odd seeing the Williams College brand used to censor art and speech. This is a nice essay but as he writes it his banners cover up art.

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  13. For all his talk, Faulk is a typical hypocrite now that he has told John Derbyshire to take a hike. What a worthless president.

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  16. Adam Falk cancels John Derbyshire, not 4 months after this fine article he wrote. Where he tries to convince folks that he really isn’t the progressive stooge so many see him to be. What a weak and coddled bunch, these students of Williams, that they need protection from big, bad contrarian opinions. Where once science reveled in the ‘always question’ mantra, it now bows to ‘you must comply!’ Where once academia reveled in the sharing of disparate opinion, now those same opinions must be censored, in order that student’s feelings be protected. This is the damage that progressivism has wrought, and if Falk had a shred of dignity, he’d be ashamed. But I don’t think that’s an issue.

    1. Thanks to Falk, the Williams community has received a very important message. There is no place for any race realist perspectives on campus. Instead, any discussion of black dysfunction must be limited to the study of environmental factors and explanations based on how whites (and European white culture) are entirely responsible for persistent black dysfunction in the areas of crime, promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, school failure and drug use. Anyone interested in studying the race realist perspective needs to do so on their own and then keep their mouths shut if they want to keep their jobs.

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