Safeguarding Academic Freedom and a College Community

Joanne Berger-Sweeney cites the lessons learned from a controversy at her institution involving race, politics, campus safety and competing claims of ownership over who has the right to speak and what they can and cannot say.

January 23, 2018
 
 
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Here are two simple truths.

One, when you’re a college president who happens to be a black woman, you get asked to speak about diversity and inclusion a lot. Two, when you’re a college president whose campus has been disrupted by a social media maelstrom over a professor’s words, you get asked to speak about managing crises and the tension between academic freedom and other fundamental values a lot.

This year, I’ve experienced the convergence of those two truths because the controversy our campus weathered last summer involved a perfect storm of race, politics, safety on campus and competing claims of ownership over who has the right to speak and what they can and cannot say.

The trouble began on June 20, when Campus Reform -- a conservative website that counts as “victories” the firings of faculty members or changes in college policies that result from its efforts to expose liberal “bias and abuse” at colleges -- reported on the Facebook posts of a tenured Trinity College sociology professor who is black. A couple of days earlier, the professor, a scholar of race and racism in America, had expressed his outrage at continuing racial violence in a series of provocative posts on his personal social media accounts. In doing so, he used a hashtag borrowed from the title of a piece written by someone else (#LetThemFuckingDie). I’ve said that hashtag not only offended me personally but also was inconsistent with the highest values of our institution.

You don’t have to know the specifics of this story to have a sense of what happened next, because this sort of controversy is now familiar throughout higher education, and the events follow a well-worn pattern. Other conservative and alt-right organizations picked up the story, distorting it (in some cases publishing outright falsehoods), and social media trolls descended upon us. The professor and his family received numerous direct threats, as did my family and I, and we were forced to close the college for half a day after receiving several threats to campus. People across the campus -- administrative assistants, admissions counselors and many others -- were besieged with vile, hateful phone calls and emails.

And then, of course, we heard calls for the professor and me to be fired, and demands for me to defend the professor and his academic freedom unequivocally. There was fear on the campus and worry among our community broadly. The college placed the professor on leave while we examined the matter more carefully and in consideration of the safety issues. And many faculty members considered this an infringement on the professor’s academic freedom. Though our administrative report (released July 14, 2017) supported the professor’s right to say what he did, anger remained throughout many of our constituencies. The trolls, at least temporarily, had succeeded. We were a college divided.

Over time, the trolls (mostly) moved on, and we were left to come back together as a community and, hopefully, grow stronger. That work is hard. Anger on my campus and among our alumni remains. But we have worked hard to encourage programming that has allowed each side to express opinions and to understand the nuances and contours of academic freedom. We have been vigilant about safety issues on campus. That work continues.

And now I’m regularly asked to reflect on lessons learned. I can do that now, with a little distance from the intensity of the storm. There are many lessons. Here are a few.

  • Resist the pressure to make hasty decisions and view a situation simplistically. From all sides, we were bombarded with demands to say more, do more, act more quickly and see things in absolutes. As educators, our role is to help our students see and embrace complexities, and a situation like this is full of them.
  • Stick to your principles. I can both support free speech and acknowledge that it and every other freedom has limits and carries responsibilities. As a college president, I can uphold a community member’s right to free expression and express my own opinion when I believe something runs counter to our institutional values. This is not a popularity contest. This is a complex situation and, as a leader, you have to look yourself in the mirror each and every day as the controversy continues.
  • Rely on plans and processes. We put our emergency management plans to the test, and they worked. We also turned to existing policies in evaluating what had happened. But it’s important to acknowledge that most governance processes aren’t meant to address crisis situations, and college leaders must prioritize safety and balance an often-divergent set of institutional needs.
  • Listen. So many people were demanding that I say a particular thing (and, in fact, very different things, depending on their perspectives), but listening was at least as important as speaking. If I had it to do over again, I’d work harder to stay in direct conversation with the professor myself, before so many other external forces leaned on us. And I think more listening from everyone involved -- to hear perspectives from all sides -- would have helped us get more quickly to a point of understanding. Indeed, having gone through our recent experience, our hope is that all members of our community better understand the need to listen and our shared responsibility to communicate directly and honestly with each other.
  • Find strength in numbers. Colleges don’t bear the sole responsibility for protecting speech -- it’s the duty of all citizens. This is complicated in a society that recognizes that speech by bullies hurts and has consequences on the victim. But colleges and universities do have a special role to play in protecting speech, as a vicious culture war is being waged against higher education today. We -- college leaders, faculty members, alumni and organizations that exist to advance and support higher education -- must work together to battle it, to stay true to our values and protect academic freedom for the good of the academy and the public.

I don’t know what the future holds for this particular story. We are not yet a college united. The professor will be back teaching in the spring, and it’s very possible we’ll see a renewed attack from the alt-right and others. Some faculty members and students are still angry because they believe that I didn’t stand up strongly enough for academic freedom and placed concerns of physical safety over intellectual safety. Some alumni and students are still angry because they believe that the professor’s words set a hateful tone and damaged the college -- and in a business setting would have resulted in firing. Did I make the right choice in balancing academic freedom and safety? I believe I did. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees.

I’m hopeful, however, that the entire Trinity College community has learned important lessons. And I’m heartened by the way I saw our college community come together this past semester -- including around an initiative we launched called Bridging Divides -- to continue the ongoing work of engaging in productive, respectful dialogue and understanding across deep differences. Today, in our deeply divided world, that work seems more important than ever.

Bio

Joanne Berger-Sweeney is president of Trinity College in Connecticut. This column is adapted from her remarks at this year’s Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute.

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