I hereby write you to address the concerns many of you have raised about freedom of speech in the current context of discussion on our campus.
Your concerns are in part motivated by the list of examples of acts of marginalization that the CMCers of Color movement presented in its initial manifesto. When we first met, I told the faculty that we should not get bogged down into lengthy discussions of this list of presumed offenses1. Instead, I suggested, we should focus on the spirit of the message, which was a profound sense of alienation, lack of support, and failure to thrive by a significant group of our students. We did this, and I believe it helped the conversation move forward productively, focusing on the big questions the students raised (on which we can legitimately disagree as well, of course).
That said, an unfortunate side effect of this has been that many of you may have had the impression that the college somehow agrees with all of the students’ statements, or that, if students were to launch formal complaints based on statement such as those, the college would react in a manner that does not protect free speech. The rapid departure of Mary Spellman after the hunger strike, combined with the recent rollout of CMCListens and the ongoing discussions about the new faculty grievance procedure have also reinforced an unease among many of you that for the college authorities the protection of free speech is secondary to other concerns. As a result, some of you have openly stated that you are considering not teaching courses on sensitive subjects anymore out of apprehension for the repercussions on your reputation or wellbeing, and because you worry the college will not support you. I understand your concerns.
This would be absolutely devastating to the college, and to each of us as professors. Your capability and willingness to teach courses on difficult subjects is what a CMC education consists of, what all our students need, and we will support you in every possible way to do so. I want to be absolutely clear: we remain entirely committed to the bedrock principle of our college, of all higher education, and indeed of this society, namely the protection of free speech.
Allow me to return to the student manifesto. Even if all the allegations listed there about faculty in the classroom were all indisputably factually true, none of them come even close to the level that would trigger our harassment policy or any investigation, whether under our old procedures or the future ones currently under discussion. They are covered by the First Amendment, and that is as it should be. At the same time, I want to remind you that the students are covered by the same rights: the allowance to make others uncomfortable runs both ways. We may not be much used to this or enjoy it much; we may disagree with its content; we may fear it, especially in our new world of hyper-speed social media, where reputational damage can occur in a matter of hours—but nonetheless, free speech protects your right to tell students things that make them uncomfortable as much as their right to do so to you.
We reaffirm our commitment to our standards of free speech and free inquiry, and we ensure you of our continued determination to defend them vigorously. We have never wavered from that. We never did and never will ask you to adopt a particular ideological line in your classes, or to avoid certain topics. We never did and never will oblige you to have quota in the authors you assign for readings, the theories you discuss, and so on. We never did and never will oblige you to talk about particular events in your classes. We never did and never will require you to employ predetermined pedagogies or methods. We will continue to support your right to express your ideas freely in the academic setting and to teach topics and ideas that may be uncomfortable or challenging. And we will work with you to ensure that our faculty grievance procedures powerfully protect your right to free speech in the exercise of your functions.
As you make your decisions about all these matters, we do ask you for the thoughtfulness and concern for our students’ well-being that we can expect of all of us. The students who are at the heart of this movement are not making up their feelings. Their sense of exclusion is real, and, frankly, old—many (but not all) low-income, LGBTQ, and alumni of color have told me that they had these same experiences here years ago, that they passed courses here but did not thrive here. We admitted brilliant and dynamic students; if some of them tell us loudly and with pain in their voices that they are not thriving here, then it is reasonable to be concerned about that. Kindness, common sense, modesty, a desire to learn more about our students’ experiences, knowledge about how to facilitate difficult conversations, interest in inclusive pedagogies, a willingness to listen to critique and to apologize if warranted, appropriate support to students—all of these are things any and all of us can do as human beings and as members of the faculty. Yet support to our students should and will not come at the expense of academic freedom. We will support you in the exercise of your freedom to decide what you teach and how you teach it, what you research and how you research it—subject, of course, to the constraints outlined in our harassment policy and the law.
Please find in attachment some of the language that currently governs free speech in our faculty handbook. And I invite you all to continue this important conversation.
Vice President for Academic Affairs & Dean of the Faculty
Claremont McKenna College
Bauer Center North
500 E. Ninth Street, Claremont, CA 91711
1Also note that the students in their manifesto wrote that their citing individual incidents was not to “chastise individual faculty members” but to put their concerns on the table to discuss.
For further thought and reflection, please see these commentaries: