Ad hoc committee on inquiry and inclusion issues report

William Newton

In June, the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion formed by President Maud S. Mandel issued a series of recommendations for campus guidelines on speaker invitation. The committee endorsed the adaptation of both the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and PEN America frameworks for free speech, both of which give student groups the right to invite any speaker of their choosing without prior approval and allow the administration to disinvite speakers only in the “rarest of circumstances.” 

Mandel had charged the committee with developing guidelines that, “demonstrate our full commitment to both inquiry and inclusion” last November, following a self-accreditation study that identified issues surrounding free expression as a concern for the College in the fall of 2017. Faculty members are set to discus the committee’s draft during today’s faculty meeting. 

The steering committee, comprising College students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators, recommended that the College actively support “vigorous campus dialogue,” hold workshops on best practices for event planning, and adopt a set of guiding principles for free speech beyond just speaker invitations, modeled off of the AAUP and PEN America frameworks. However, the report also acknowledged that certain speech that harms a community member’s dignitary safety — “the sense of being an equal member of the community” — is “inimical in all respects to the college’s educational mission” and therefore could warrant an institutional response. 

At the beginning of last semester, committee members met for dinner at Mandel’s house and held meetings every other week for an hour and a half throughout the remainder of the semester. According to members of the committee, the majority of meeting time was devoted to planning and enacting outreach, including a campus wide survey that received over 500 responses. 

To Eli Miller ’21, a student member of the group, the focus of the committee was at times frustrating, especially because the group never attempted to reach a consensus on whether or not the administration should have had the authority to disinvite John Derbyshire, a political commentator for the white supremacist site VDARE, who had previously been fired from National Review for his racist writings. Derbyshire was invited to the College by the student group Uncomfortable Learning and was subsequently disinvited by former President Adam Falk in February 2016. 

“It became clear that the goal of the committee was less to reconcile the differences that people have — on the most basic level — about whether John Derbyshire should’ve been allowed to speak on campus, and it was a lot more focused on taking the temperature of the campus and doing outreach to as many groups as possible,” Miller said. “It felt like the primary objective was just to calm people down.” 

Still, in a collaborative response to the Record that was drafted before the committee convened, members of the steering committee had emphasized that gathering input from different campus stakeholders was a primary objective of their work. “The Committee hopes to reach consensus on a set of recommendations that reflect our concerted efforts to find multiple and engaging ways to seek input from any member of the Williams community with ideas or opinions to share,” the joint statement read. 

Looking forward, the faculty decision to adopt either the committee’s draft or its own draft of a guiding set of principles for free speech on campus, and the subsequent response from students, alumni and administrators, will likely serve as the next steps toward the committee’s goal of a published statement on expression and inclusion.