For much of the early part of my life, politics was marked by centrists in both political parties working to craft legislation that would benefit wide swaths of their constituencies. Many individuals considered themselves centrists and, though they affiliated with a particular party, it was not uncommon to vote across party lines in elections. And political discussions among neighbors and coworkers with differing views were not something to be avoided for harmony’s sake, but part of the fabric of American democracy.
The last 20-30 years, however, have been more notable for the rise of the culture wars and the drive to divide. We have seen political parties adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality that encourages American citizens with differing perspectives to not work through differences but instead reject other ways of thinking. Of the many casualties wrought by this divisiveness, civility and engaged citizenship have suffered considerably. More and more, we are tempted to retreat into bubbles of information that feed and reinforce our preconceived notions and beliefs and make us more resistant to listening and understanding.
Early in September we witnessed the result of this shift at Washington College when Princeton Professor Robert George came to our campus to give a lecture. George is a noted legal scholar and political philosopher who often speaks on free expression. He is also known for his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and for questioning the legitimacy of transgender people and their rights. During the speech, students gathered outside the venue for a peaceful protest. Unfortunately, a small group of students later chose to disrupt the event, bringing it to an early end. Since then, I have heard from many people, with some praising Washington College for its handling of the situation and others decrying the institution. This event demonstrates the critical nexus between divisiveness and openness that small colleges occupy.
The lecture was announced broadly on campus three days ahead of the event. I quickly received feedback from some community members asking me to cancel the event. I shared a message with campus saying that canceling the event would not be consistent with the core values of liberal learning to which Washington College is dedicated:
“Challenges concerning free expression are not new to college campuses and they raise complicated questions, especially for a campus that values diversity, equity, and inclusion like ours. However, inviting a speaker to campus is not an endorsement of their viewpoint. The very foundation of a Washington College liberal arts education is committed to informed, critical inquiry and the exploration of a wide diversity of perspectives—indeed, we could not be true to our mission to challenge and inspire emerging citizen leaders if we did not uphold this commitment. It is incumbent upon us as a community to create and maintain an environment in which everyone feels safe to share their ideas, even those that may be controversial or offensive. And as a community, we must examine and, when necessary, challenge those ideas, but we cannot insulate ourselves from differing viewpoints.”
Campus leaders also understood that students, faculty and staff members identifying as LGBTQ+ would be experiencing a range of feelings about this particular speaker being on campus, including anger, anxiety and fear. The College proactively facilitated alternate events for concerned students to express their reaction to the speaker’s presence on campus. These included opportunities for peaceful protest and locations for both group and individual conversations with professional and trained staff and students to allow campus community members to express their feelings and concerns and to be cared for appropriately.
At the lecture, about 140 students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the College joined us. Approximately 20 minutes into George’s lecture, a small group of protestors entered the room making noise with music and whistles for about one minute. Thereafter, two protestors were responsible for the remainder of the disruption. Faculty and student affairs staff intervened to try to reason with the protestors, insisting that they must permit the speaker to conclude his talk, after which there would be ample time for questions or rebuttals. Unfortunately, the two students disrupting the speaker—who had both been warned that they would face consequences for violating the student honor code—refused to end their protest and I made the reluctant decision to call an end to the event to prevent further escalation.
We have been asked why we did not forcibly remove the protestors. I understand that some may disagree, but as a private institution of higher learning, we must take responsibility to handle student issues individually and with discretion. Washington College is a place for students to learn, experiment, fail, and grow. We have guidelines and rules that are intentional in encouraging growth and learning in all our students—including when they make mistakes. It is through this approach that we foster a strong teaching environment and emphasize the value of citizenship. Our campus cannot become a bubble intended to shield students from differing viewpoints, but rather a place where they can be free to learn from mistakes and grow into responsible citizen leaders. We strive to instill in our students the ability for reasoned disagreement, and I am proud that so many of our students attended the lecture prepared to listen to the speaker, ask questions and even challenge his views.
As with any incident, it is a moment for the College to reflect and learn how to improve our processes. But the value of a small college is our ability to act with nuance in the best interests of fulfilling our mission. Washington College and other top liberal arts colleges sit in a unique and ever more difficult position—we are committed to creating engaged citizen leaders who are open to different perspectives and have both the passion and compassion to care for their communities, and we must do all of this within a larger cultural environment that is trying harder than ever to force them to choose sides. Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must maintain space where civil discourse can thrive, even when it concerns topics of existential import. If we fail to do this, no less than the values of citizenship and democracy will be at stake.
Mike Sosulski, Ph.D.
President, Washington College