This is the second installment in a two-part series on Uncomfortable Learning. The first part examined the origins of the group at the College; this part will focus on the private operations of the group, and whether it has strayed from its founding goals.
Speaker selection and alumni input
To the student body, the operations of Uncomfortable Learning (UL) are shrouded in secrecy. Anonymous alumni donors fund the group, and are unaware of when its members meet, as well as how they decide which speakers to invite. To shed some light on the inner workings of UL, I spoke with past and present members of the group. All but one, current head of group Zach Wood ’18, requested to remain anonymous.
According to a past member of UL, the process of inviting speakers is relatively consistent. At meetings, the members of UL suggest topics they believe would be beneficial to address and offer ideas of specific speakers. Each member then chooses a speaker to research further, focusing on factors such as cost and availability. While UL does not collectively look into speakers, it does collectively decide topics, focusing on multi-faceted issues it believes will interest the student body and that can be discussed in a way that challenges rhetoric students ordinarily hear at the College.
Exactly how much interaction UL members have with the alumni donors and supporters remains unclear. While some ex-members claimed that alumni do not have input into which speakers the group brings, another explained that those responsible for bringing speakers did communicate with alumni about lecturers.
In pursuit of independence
In the year of its inception, the founders briefly considered creating the group as an officially registered, College Council (CC) Office of Student Life recognized student organization (OSL RSO). When Ben Fischberg ’14 met with Assistant Director for Student Organizations and Involvement Ben Lamb to discuss starting the organization, they discussed the CC bylaws, specifically Section 8.a.2, which states in part: “[A] group [seeking to become an OSL RSO] may not allow closed or restrictive membership.” After two meetings with Lamb, the founders decided to form UL as an unregistered group.
Students and alumni attribute the founders’ decision not to establish UL as an OSL RSO to the necessity that UL remain independent from the College. Those affiliated with UL feared that, if the group became an OSL RSO, CC and the administration would censor it, preventing it from inviting certain speakers. In their view, the voices of conservatives at the College would risk going unrepresented if the group were to become an OSL RSO.
One past member of the group also suggested that CC funding may not have been able to cover the cost of some of the speakers the group hoped to bring. For these reasons, some alumni and students argued that UL’s independence from the College and from CC was essential to its creation. By establishing itself as an unregistered organization, UL retained the power to select its own speakers.
Anonymity and mystery
With UL’s status as an unregistered group comes the ability to solicit and accept donations from alumni. One of the most notorious and unique aspects of the group’s existence is that the funders are anonymous. The donations made by alumni are far from inconsequential. According to the LinkedIn account of one of the founders James Hitchcock ’15, UL manages a “five -figure budget.”
The anonymity of UL’s donors connects to what the media, as well as alumni and students, focused on in the wake of the Venker and Derbyshire cancellations: the lack of conservative viewpoints at a liberal institution like as the College. Some have suggested that UL is simply a pretense for a right-winged organization, allowing conservative students and alumni to bring contentious and similarly right-leaning speakers to campus. Most of the founders of UL were also on the leadership of a now defunct club, the Garfield Republicans. Now, there is no organized student Republican or conservative club at the College.
In fact, in an article Jonah Goldberg published in the National Review after he gave his UL lecture in 2014, he wrote, “The paperwork from my speakers’ bureau said I was being brought in by the Young Republicans.” He later explained that the group that had invited him was in fact UL; there had been “some mistake,” or perhaps it “was a clever ruse.”
While many that I spoke to expressed confusion as to why UL donors must remain anonymous, when prompted for further information, all refused to comment or confirm specific sources of funding.
The College’s response
In March of this year, after the cancellations of Venker and Derbyshire, the College updated its official policy concerning students bringing speakers to campus. Among the changes to the policy is a stipulation that students hosting speakers at the College must be acting on behalf of an RSO. If another entity agrees to sponsor an unregistered group, that entity “takes on full responsibility for ensuring compliance with [the updated] policy.”
Another significant change to the policy seems to address UL’s anonymous source of funding. “The provision of funding from alumni, foundations or other non-college sources for a performer/speaker and/or their program must be disclosed to the college,” the Outside Speakers/Performers section of the College’s Student Life website says.
How the College’s updated policy will affect UL remains to be seen.
The future of UL
For the first two years of its existence, the speakers UL invited to campus advanced the group’s mission of, as one past member put it, “challenging widely-held views on campus.” However, in recent months, UL has invited speakers who have been accused of inciting controversy rather than promoting discussion.
Current UL President Zach Wood ’18 maintains that they have not done this intentionally. “I am as committed as I have ever been to uncomfortable learning as an intellectual aim; however only time will tell what holds for the future of the organization itself,” Wood said.
When asked about specific plans for the future of UL, Wood remained uncertain. “Speakers we have planned for the future are dependent largely on the leadership and decision-making of our president, Adam Falk,” Wood said. “[W]hile I could give you a list of the speakers I might have in mind for the future, who I invite to Williams is really not my call anymore; it’s Falk’s.”