Statement addresses inquiry, inclusion

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A statement published last Wednesday by the Faculty Steering Committee (FSC) emphasizes inquiry and inclusion as dual priorities for the College. 

President Maud S. Mandel tasked the FSC with creating the statement in June, after the ad hoc committee on inquiry and inclusion recommended as part of its report that the College “publish and affirm a statement on expression and inclusion.” Mandel had chartered the ad hoc committee in November in the wake of campus debates over the Chicago principles. She has accepted the ad hoc committee’s nine recommendations in full.

Those who played a role in shaping the FSC statement said it distinguishes itself from the Chicago statement by emphasizing inclusion in addition to inquiry. Professor of Philosophy Jana Sawicki, who chaired the ad hoc committee, said it was important to her that the College’s statement recognized and committed to addressing “power differentials in the ability to be heard.” 

“The problem with the Chicago principles is that they are simply legalistic and they say nothing about inclusion,” she said. “They’re then allowing us to just assume a free market of ideas. There isn’t a free market of our ideas in the sense that not everyone has the same freedom to exchange their idea and have it be valued.”

The statement, according to Sawicki, makes an “implicit” commitment to empower speech of marginalized groups through reform curricular and pedagogical reform. Professor of Classics Amanda Wilcox, who chairs the FSC, added, “One thing I really like about where we ended up is that we end by saying we know that we’re not there yet, that this is an ever-present issue, and we’re going to keep working on it.” 

“We recognize that in the past these freedoms have not been equally available to all people and that inequity of access persists today,” the statement reads. “The college is committed to supporting equal access to these freedoms and pledges to continue working to realize this commitment fully.”

Sawicki also drew attention to the statement’s promotion of event formats that facilitate dialogue with outside speakers, noting that effective planning could provide more mechanisms to combat hate. “Visitors are welcomed and expected to participate in open discussion and robust deliberation while they are on campus,” the statement reads. “We expect anyone inviting an outside speaker to create such opportunities as part of the visit.”

“We abhor hate speech, but we follow established legal principles about not censoring it unless it’s inciting violence or it’s connected to a pattern of harassment,” Sawicki said. “One of the things that our statement emphasizes and encourages is that any speaker who comes must be willing to engage in dialogue with members of the community… The whole point is we need to be able to respond, and we need to be able to protest if necessary.”

After the ad hoc committee released its report, Mandel met with the FSC and proposed that the statement be a joint production between her and the FSC. Mandel composed an initial draft statement over the summer and revised it after consulting members of senior staff and members of the ad hoc committee. She then handed the draft to the FSC, which continued the process of revision.

A draft was presented at the September faculty meeting, where several revisions in style and substance were made. Wilcox said that while some faculty wanted more emphasis on freedom of expression, and some wanted more discussion of preventing the silencing of marginalized voices, the FSC sought primarily to remain faithful to the ad hoc committee’s report.

“In that sense, Steering really wanted to be a kind of neutral conduit for what had come out in the report,” Wilcox said. 

Wilcox also extended the vetting process to students. She sent the same draft to a group of student leaders, and she brought the draft to College Council’s Oct. 1 meeting to solicit input. Mandel noted that staff were also represented on the ad hoc committee.

Using the feedback, the FSC made revisions throughout October. The statement was made public at the Nov. 13 faculty meeting, and Mandel sent it out in a Nov. 14 all-campus email.

In an email to the Record, Mandel said, “Our goal is that every member of this community should feel free and empowered to communicate, debate and, when so moved, protest. We’ve already taken a couple of steps to deliver on that promise, and I expect more to come.” She referenced three topics — the College’s clarification of speaker, protest and postering policies, the opening of a search for a dialogue facilitator in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the College’s encouragement for effective event planning with outside speakers.

Some students felt the document was somewhat of a non-statement. 

“Though perhaps a well-intentioned necessity, the statement doesn’t say much at all,” Grant Swonk ’21 said. “We already know that inclusion and free expression are priorities of the College … In its current form, the statement doesn’t precisely tell me how inclusion and free expression will interact when they collide with each other in the future. All I want is for Williams to … be transparent about what it believes in, and for it to couch this in specific terms, not cliché truisms.”

Others, however, endorsed the commitments it made.

“I think it acknowledges the fact that, yes, there are power imbalances, but there are also ways to gain power through speech,” Essence Perry ’22 said. “And I think what was awesome about this statement is that it encourages people, whenever you bring a speaker out to campus, to also invite dialogue, and that’s how you create inclusive experience.” Perry, who argued speech has been a mechanism through which marginalized groups have historically effected change, added that she believes campus speech is limited by self-censorship and could improve through cultural change.

Sawicki noted that the statement is not policy but rather an affirmation of core principles, adding that speaker policies have long existed and have been recently revised. Wilcox said she views the statement as a “living document” that could be revisited in the future if necessary.

“The statement that we came out with differs from the Chicago statement in that everyone has wanted to express that we have a concern for one another that is not some kind of mechanistic idea of the marketplace of ideas,” Wilcox said. “I could say ‘respect,’ but I think it’s a little bit stronger than that … I think we are interested in enabling one another to speak freely, and that’s a kind of concern that strikes me as being a little bit more generous or more interested in one another as human beings than might be the case in a more Chicago-style statement.”