Changing the terms of the ‘free speech’ debate: Confronting national anxieties towards campus diversity

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The student letter that surfaced in response to the faculty petition was co-authored and edited by over 20 students from a wide range of identities and positionalities. It was, above all, a democratic, grassroots project from start to finish. We are now continuing under the name “Coalition Against Racist Education Now” (CARE Now) in the legacy of Black-led organizing efforts on the Williams College campus.

It is vital to say that CARE Now is not interested in entering a debate about free speech in this current moment. A policy or committee that deals solely with free speech or expression is not the solution. Rather, we insist on recognizing the positioning of “free speech” for what it has become: moral ammunition for a conservative backlash to increasing diversity. As a grass-roots collective of student organizers, we are concerned with long-term base-building that far surpasses rebuttals to “free speech” crusaders.

To be clear, this “debate” is not about free speech, nor is it about decisions about whom the College invites to speak and whom we do not. It’s a matter of mutual trust and respect between students, faculty, staff and the institution as a whole. By using “free speech” as a discursive cover, those on the right have controlled the terms of debate such that they will always have the moral high ground and divert attention from what is really at stake here. Of course, we don’t want to restrict people’s ability to speak; rather, we aim to question which ideas we promote by way of honorariums and institutional platforms.

For this reason, we refuse to accept the terms of this debate. Instead, let’s see the faculty petition for what it is: an institutional manifestation of a national anxiety towards a more diverse student and faculty population, not an invitation to a dialogue. After we can all agree that this is the ultimate root of this debate, we can then take steps to address it. We want to talk about the issue at the heart of this, which is the reality of bringing in students and faculty from marginalized backgrounds to create a “diverse” institution and expecting their silence and acceptance of the status quo. We will not accept this reality.

Prejudice cannot be talked away; more “dialogue” is not the answer. Oppression can’t be fixed with rational debate because oppression is not rational. Once we all agree that bigotry simply is not an “opinion” that can be swiftly invalidated in a “two-way discourse,” that such discourse instead needs to involve dismantling the very institutional and systemic forces that demean and denigrate marginalized students, and that the faculty petition represents institutional anxiety towards a more diverse student and faculty population, then we can take steps and move forward. Perhaps the authors and signers of the faculty petition did not have the intent to harm and silence students and faculty of marginalized identities, but they have chosen to enter a national debate that is harmful, toxic and ultimately must be recognized by the faculty and administration. Intent does not equate to impact.

The issue we – the administration included – need to address is establishing and improving resources that aid students’ livelihoods and support their well-being, as well as maintaining and strengthening the spaces, resources and networks created by and for students that already exist on campus. Only then can the College truly claim to offer all its students the resources and supports they need.

Institutions of higher learning have been reckoning with this for decades and the various student groups who have already taken practical steps to further this conversation have gone largely ignored. For example, the Williams Black Student Union (BSU), has been hosting all-campus Town Halls for years. This year, the BSU’s Town Hall brought students together to voice their concerns about the state of the College, and the “free speech” debate was brought to the floor. Student groups, primarily affinity groups, have furthered conversations about the future of higher learning in relation to diversity decades before the current “free speech” crusade began. The BSU among others has led the charge in creating solutions for these problems, and they are continuously publishing op-eds about current campus issues. These historic and present dialogues are entirely overlooked by framing this as a debate on “free speech,” further erasing and marginalizing the ideas and presence of Black members of the Williams community.

We also wish to decenter this faculty versus student narrative. The petition, though sponsored by several faculty members, has not garnered the support of all, or even a majority of the faculty body. Since the writing of the student petition, several dozen Williams faculty members have removed their names from the Chicago Statement, and the statement itself has been all but rendered defunct. Now, the faculty organizers, President Mandel and various other members of the Williams community are calling for open “dialogue” around the principles of our “educational environment,” centering the Chicago Statement without explicitly mentioning its name. As stated earlier, we contest the framing of this policy as one of “debate” or “dialogue.” Additionally, we point to the College aphorism, “death by committee,” and note the meager place of student voices on the committee and the ineffectual process through which they are appointed. Student appointments to President Mandel’s “ad hoc” committee are representative of the ineffectual and unjust process through which student voices are appointed. Though the administration deems College Council and the Minority Coalition the de jure voices of the student community, the fact of the matter is that both are concerned primarily with logistical tasks – of registering student organizations, events and budgetary distributions. To task these logistical bodies with the responsibility of filling the seats on the committee is to resort to the myopia of bureaucracy and is, ultimately, an act of bad faith.

We do not need yet another committee to investigate how our educational environment can be made more “open and inclusive.” Again, we ask: open, and inclusive for whom? Instead, we challenge the Williams community to consider, together, the fundamental anxieties of “diversity” which underwrite the contemporary discourse of “free speech.” How might we offer forms of redress or protection to those institutionally, historically and currently imperiled bodies-in-question? We can and must make way for alternatives. Until then, all efforts at “dialogue” are but a ruse.

Beyond this statement, we have chosen to not comment on our next steps as we are focusing on building coalition and self-care.

This op-ed was written by the members of Coalition Against Racist Education Now. Liliana Bierer ’19, Audrey Koh ’21, Isabel Peña ’19, Isaiah Blake ’21, Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí ’20, Suiyi Tang ’20, Annalee Tai ’21 and Rocky Douglas ’19 contributed.