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.