The “Uncomfortable Learning” brouhaha has subjected Williams College to a torrent of national media criticism. Most notably, conservative news outlets have shouted charges of censorship and liberal intolerance and general decline of Western civilization. Lost in the right-wing screaming match are the specific dynamics of this case, especially the fact the College administration itself, and the faculty, had nothing whatsoever to do with this particular disinvitation. Such evidence is irrelevant, however, to the pre-determined narratives of conservative critics of academia.
This whole affair has been driven by a group, one that involves Williams students but is not a formal Williams student organization, that has privileged access to tens of thousands of dollars from conservative alumni, allowing them to transgress established college fund-raising rules that all other students and faculty must follow. The rest of us cannot, by rule, raise money from alumni or foundations without going through College channels. Yet one group gets money, unavailable to the rest of the community, and that money lends them power to transgress other rules regarding political activity on campus.
My interpretation of the “Uncomfortable Learning” group, based on the speakers it has brought to campus over the pasts couple of years, is the same as that advanced by the right-wing media: Its purpose is to promote conservative arguments and ideology. The group might claim that they are politically neutral but, in fact, they are being used by conservative forces nationally. Thus, the question I want to consider here is: Why should a very small conservative group have privileged access to outside resources that other Williams students and faculty are denied?
The first answer could be the entrenched liberal bias of American colleges and universities. This is a familiar critique that has attracted mountains of publications. I’ll just state from the start that “liberal” and “radical” viewpoints tend to be more prominent on campuses than “conservative” perspectives (all of these labels are complex and dynamic). This is not news. Some years ago Dinesh D’Souza came to Chapin Hall and told us how bad we were. It must noted, however, that the liberalism of academia is not the result of active ideological discrimination. Thus, the correct response is not some sort of affirmative action for conservatives. If explicit ideological criteria were used in hiring of faculty and other curricular decisions, Williams College would very quickly slide into academic irrelevance.
Though Williams, as most colleges, runs more liberal than conservative, that is not to say there are no “conservative” arguments on offer here. We often invite outside speakers who put forth conservative arguments. Last year I bought an autographed copy of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul after his talk here. Had a nice chat with him. This week two experts will debate the merits of the Iran nuclear deal, for and against. For those who feel we secular liberals have an anti-Christian bias, they might want to go to the Croghan Lecture, an annual, endowed event, which this year focuses on “Paul and the Five Gospels: Multiple Origins of Early Christianity.” An interesting Winter Study possibility might be Ambassador Donald Gregg’s (class of 1951, former National Security Advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush) course on the CIA, or Father Michael Sullivan’s (class of 2003) class on “Pope Francis and the Problem of Evil.” And so on.
The issue, then, is not whether conservative ideas circulate on the Williams campus, but whether there is enough conservatism here. The “Uncomfortable Learning” group appears to assume that a shortage of conservative thinking justifies their privileged access to outside resources.
We do not, however, face a significant shortage of conservative perspectives if we consider a fundamental mission of a liberal arts college: to present a wide range of ideas and arguments that might be unavailable in the wider society. Our mission is not to proportionally represent the current political debate, but to produce and experiment with various ways of thinking, some of which might be challenging to existing political or cultural norms. There are many political arguments out in the world, some that hardly exist outside of academia. Conservatism is one of many, and it is neither absent on the Williams campus, nor endangered in American discourse.
In carrying out our mission, we face certain constraints–there are only so many courses that can be taught. When we make a decision to hire, we do not use the current “liberal” versus “conservative” distinction, which misses so much of the more detailed intellectual debate. The unsurprising truth is that academics take academic criteria into account when making decisions about academic appointments. There are certainly political implications of our decisions, but those are secondary to one of our purposes, which is to present students with ideas they may not find elsewhere.
When placed in a broader national and global context, the apparent imbalance between “liberal” and “conservative” perspectives on campus diminishes. Conservatives will argue that they are a minority, and thus require some sort of special attention or treatment. If they are a minority on campus, however, they are a minority that enjoys significant political power outside the Purple Bubble. Indeed, the Bubble has a highly permeable membrane. We live in an intensely saturated media environment, instantly connected to national political debates. When presidential candidate Jeb Bush utters the sentence, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” those words circulate through and around Williamstown. In this case, feminists are not shielded from anti-feminist thinking; rather, they are confronted on a daily basis with challenges to their standpoint.
Let’s push a little further on feminism, the topic that upended “Uncomfortable Learning”.
Women in the US have a constitutional right to abortion. This is a core tenet of liberal feminist thinking, demonstrating a woman’s capacity to have autonomous control over her body. It is a politically contentious issue and the anti-abortion position is represented on the Williams campus by Williams for Life, a duly constituted student group. Beyond Williams, if, as feminists might argue, the anti-abortion position is anti-feminist (arguments are more complex than that and I do not mean to suggest that Williams for Life is necessarily “anti-feminist;” I will let them represent themselves), it is clear that anti-feminism has access to political power that serves to limit women from exercising their constitutional right. This is not simply an academic debate; it is a lived experience that does not stop at Hopkins Gate. Even though Massachusetts and Williams are liberal in this regard, the restriction of abortion rights nationally is a direct attack on feminists locally.
The gender pay gap also surrounds the Purple Bubble. When they graduate, female Ephs know they are walking into a national economy where women face career obstacles that men do not. There are plenty of contrasting explanations for this, but even a skeptical analyst has difficulty avoiding the conclusion that: “It’s the deeper, more systemic discrimination of inadequate family-leave policies and childcare options, of women defaulting to being the caretakers.” Anti-feminism, it seems, is written into the economy and culture.
Some might want to argue that Williams women will enjoy advantages in the work force and the culture because that’s what graduating from a leading liberal arts college gets you, but, there is evidence that in STEM fields women face significant discrimination and harassment. Whether a woman chooses to “Lean In” or, as Eph Elissa Shevinsky suggests, “Lean Out,” the problem remains: big tech firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook have a “brogrammer” problem.
These sorts of issues are not external to the Williams experience. They are part and parcel of the national context within which Williams operates. Indeed, the feminism found on the Williams campus is articulated precisely as a counterweight to these sorts of powerful political, economic, and cultural forces. Whatever imbalance between “liberal” and “conservative” arguments might be found within the narrow confines of the Purple Valley, it pales in comparison to the larger discourses of “liberal” and “conservative” that flow around, through, and beyond Williams. In the specific case of anti-feminism, it is all around us. Extraordinary efforts to bring more of it on campus are superfluous.
To get back to the issue at hand, then: Is the need for conservative perspectives on campus so great as to justify the circumvention of established College rules by means of privileged access to large amounts of external money?
The answer is clearly “no.”
To recapitulate: conservative arguments are present at Williams, in both curricular and extra-curricular ways, and, more powerfully within the political discourse and actions that surround and permeate the campus. If conservative students wish to increase the presence of their views on campus, there are regular procedures and rules that can be followed, as has been done by Williams for Life and other groups. It appears that a certain apathy has afflicted conservative students of late with the disappearance of the Garfield Republican Club from the list of formally recognized student groups. That would be the first place to start. If conservatives want to press their claims, they can organize the way other groups do.
“Uncomfortable Learning” does not do this. Apparently, when organizers initially approached the college, it was suggested that they work with other groups on campus in developing their agenda. They demurred and, instead, they were able to connect with conservative alumni who were willing to provide funding, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars (one organizer mentions a “five-figure budget”). This is where the problem, and the privilege, arises.
All student groups at Williams are limited in how they can reach out to alumni for support. The Dean of the College’s policy on fund-raising states: “Students who wish to raise money for any campus activity by soliciting alumni, foundations, or other sources of funds must receive advance approval.” That approval is supposed to come from the Dean’s Office, the Provost, and the Vice President for College Relations. Similar rules apply to faculty. From what is known at present, the “Uncomfortable Learning” group has not followed this policy.
Additionally, “Uncomfortable Learning” is not a formally recognized student group, which could raise questions about their access to college facilities and resources. It might be the case that this campus rule applies: “Any political activity on campus should be sponsored by a college office or group.” That would depend, of course, on whether we understand their project as political or not. At the very least, they have been recognized as such by the conservative media that has entered into this mess.
What we are left with then is something rather familiar: a group of conservatives, most notably conservative alumni, who are able to use significant amounts of money, unavailable to others, to advance their ideology. All of this is couched in the language of “fair and balanced” discourse–but we’ve heard that before.
Most disturbing in all of this, to my mind, is the power this money has provided, to transgress rules that all other student groups and faculty must follow. Conservatives might want to argue that their mission is of such great importance that breaking the rules is necessary to save liberal academia from itself. This is false, and we can see that falseness when we recognize the broader contours of power and knowledge nationally and understand the mission of a liberal arts college.
At the very least, the Williams College administration should disallow the use of external alumni funds to promote the “Uncomfortable Learning” project and they should enforce all rules for student groups equally.
Beyond that, we can hope that the students involved in “Uncomfortable Learning” will come back into the fold and work through the established rules, or work to change those rules, to create an organization that allows them to express themselves fully on campus. They may run into opposition, even harsh words, and that may be uncomfortable, but that is, after all, the point.