The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Academic Freedom Hangs On by a Thread at Williams College

June 3, 2019

Williams College—where the 75th percentile SAT score is a staggering 1570 and the federally estimated total expense for attendance is an equally staggering $73,200—has made a mockery of higher education. It is as if the campus at large is one vast, twitching St. Vitus dance, pathologically jerking to each new refinement of progressive sentiments.

While claiming utmost purity of motives, with statements that would stretch credulity in a comic novel, its student council gave official recognition to the radical Students for Justice in Palestine, but refused it to a pro-Israel student group. Williams College President Maud Mandel expressed disappointment on May 3 with this decision and signaled that the group can function without official recognition (and the money that comes with it). It would take a committee of administrators and college council representatives until May 14 to fully recognize the pro-Israel group.

Three hundred sixty-three Williams students signed a letter calling free speech “discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Their protest signs read, “Free Speech Harms,” and they interrupted a faculty meeting devoted to endorsing the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression, telling white, male professors to sit down and “recognize their privilege.” One of the lone voices standing up to these students was Luana Maroja, an associate professor of biology. As a Hispanic woman, she explained that she values free speech because she grew up under a dictatorship in Brazil and understands the consequences of censorship. Her plea fell on deaf ears.

Within the past year at Williams, a play written by a black woman for a black cast was so relentlessly criticized—with the absurd claim that since it evoked the history of viciousness that black people experienced it would “harm” them—that the production was canceled. The theater professor who attempted to direct the play, Shayok Misha Chowdhury, is a self-described “queer Bengali,” who sponsored the play to give minority students a place on the stage. Instead, he saw the Williams community “[police] what people of color are allowed to do and make and say.” Professor Chowdhury has resigned and will be leaving Williams this summer.

The damage of hypersensitivity at Williams goes on and on, with no clear end in sight. Unless college leadership takes the wheel, this pattern will continue until Williams is transformed from a once elite institution into what Tom Nichols called “an overpriced coffeehouse.” As it currently stands, brave faculty members like Professor Maroja and Professor Chowdhury are left to fight their own battles, and advocates of Israel are silenced, evoking old and ugly anti-Semitism. Academic freedom at Williams College is hanging on by a thread as a toxic culture continually threatens it. When will Williams’s leadership realize that it falls to them to regain control of their campus and put adults back in charge?


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