On June 20, 2017, I vehemently opposed the censorship of my college president, Adam F. Falk, when I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in room 224 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. I fought my college president cerebrally, aggressively, and with rhetorical firepower for over two years. Six months before my graduation in June, 2018, President Falk announced his resignation.
In my time at Williams College, President Falk used his power to weaken and diminish values and freedoms I worked hard to protect and defend. Mr. Falk banned a controversial speaker, John Derbyshire, whom I invited to campus. He grossly misrepresented student protest on campus to the press. In print, he willfully distorted events for which I was responsible. Time and again, he would say one thing and do another.
Mr. Falk even refused to shake my hand in front of hundreds of people when I confronted him at a Williams College basketball game on November 17, 2017.
Mr. Falk believed (and often implied) that his vision for Williams College mattered more than students’ freedom to explore unsettling ideas and draw their own conclusions. He believed that his rendering of “social justice” simply outweighed any responsibility to respect independent critical thinking. Put mildly, Mr. Falk’s decisions pursuant to his agenda put me in an extremely challenging position for an inordinate amount of time.
I wanted Mr. Falk to shake my hand and to hand me my diploma on stage at graduation, but he resigned, so I was never able to stand in that moment.
Today, I am as concerned as ever about free discussion on college campuses. Conservative students are discouraged from freely expressing their views. Some are even ostracized and intimidated for supporting President Trump or his policies. Dissident intellectuals and iconoclastic thinkers write in fear of intense backlash. Professors get fired and students punished or threatened for stumbling upon the outrageous conviction that the thought police have a dampening effect on open debate.
No. The state of free speech on college campuses is not a problem.
It is a deeply shameful disaster.
University principals should acknowledge this crisis for what it is, and leaders need to be held accountable for their wrongdoing and bad decisions. At the heart of free inquiry is the core idea that people have a right to think for themselves, to arrive at and test their own conclusions, to make arguments and defend values that motivate them. Students go to college to learn and to grow. That powerful and fundamental purpose should never come second to the agenda of any college or university president.
When I was responsible for Uncomfortable Learning, the club I led that brought provocative speakers to Williams, I defended myself and my peers against administrative censorship. And I defend myself and my work today. As we enter the new year, I ask principals of higher education: How much do you value your freedom and your ability to make up your own mind?