Letter to the Editor: On promoting conversation

November 11, 2015 by Steven Miller, Frederick Strauch, Christopher Bravo and Blake Mackall

To the Editor:

Recent events on campus have generated a large amount of passionate, principled and productive discussion about freedom of inquiry and its status at the College. This discussion was motivated by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding an Uncomfortable Learning event and its potential protest. The student, faculty and staff members of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), a national honors society dedicated to the love of learning and the principles of free inquiry and freedom of thought and expression, have continued this discussion. We officers now wish to publicly re-affirm our commitment to our principles and reach out to all members of the Williams community in support of free inquiry.

What does that mean for you? First, we strongly hold that every member of the Williams community should be free to explore any idea in a way consistent with the individual rights of those members. These are ideals; the actual expression of this freedom will always be in the context of the College’s Code of Conduct. We note that many may disagree on how to best achieve these ideals, but we encourage the community to work toward these ideals through civil discourse.

Second, we strongly support the full range of student learning activities at the campus and the free inquiry and liberty of thought and expression found therein. These activities include curricular, extracurricular, intellectual and cultural events, as well as peaceful civil protest. Should any student group wish to have an activity co-sponsored by PBK, we will be happy to work with it to support free and civil dialogue on campus.

Finally, we plan to promote this dialogue through open discussions and other events on campus and to work with faculty to reflect on free inquiry and its intersection with the many diverse viewpoints found within our community.

Why are we stating this now? We find much of the recent discussion to be part of the healthy back and forth between students of the liberal arts and sciences. Students at the College are articulate, creative, passionate and inspiring. We do not want the negativity of the recent past to limit our future. To that end, we officers – and a majority of our student, faculty and staff membership – agreed to co-sponsor the most recent Uncomfortable Learning event. While this co-sponsorship was not an endorsement of the speaker or the group Uncomfortable Learning, and while our decision was not unanimous, we all believe it is important that members of our community feel free to discuss issues and ideas without fear of reprisal or intimidation. We strongly support free inquiry for everyone.

We look forward to continuing the discussion, and welcome feedback from the entire community. Keep thinking, keep talking, keep questioning, keep it civil and keep it safe!

Steven J. Miller, PBK faculty president and associate professor of mathematics

Frederick W. Strauch, PBK secretary-treasurer and associate professor of physics

Christopher Bravo ’16, PBK student co-president

Blake Mackall ’16, PBK student co-president

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

andra neal stamps '82 December 12, 2015 at 9:17 am

I was embarrassed for Williams when I heard that students cancelled a speaker whose beliefs were “unpopular.” That wouldn’t have happened when I was there. What ever happened to “Live and Let Live?” Who decided for everyone exactly what is worthy and what isn’t? Opposing views aren’t a threat to someone who stands firm in what he believes. If anything, evaluating other paradigms will deepen those beliefs and enable a person to better communicate his position. To deny expression of “other” beliefs because one claims “to know better” is arrogant, divisive and ignorant. I have never known Williams to foster arrogance; rather, we were expected to argue our point brilliantly without disdain for the other side. I hope this is a learning opportunity for Williams and that I never see this mistake repeated.

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Steven Miller December 27, 2015 at 10:50 am

I heartily agree with you. I see these as opportunities to, as you so eloquently put it, “argue our point brilliantly without disdain for the other side”. Several times in my career I have supported the right of people to speak with whom I strongly disagree. It is not easy, but failure to do so would be disastrous long term. I am heartened that the next event happened and was well attended. There was an articulate speaker who was well-prepared with facts, and inquiring students who were willing to engage him.

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