A cadre of Wellesley College professors wants to help students and faculty decide which potential speakers are too offensive to bring to campus.
In a faculty listserv message obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the two-year-old Presidential Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Equity said the recently invited Laura Kipnis and previous controversial speakers were exhausting students with their offensiveness.
The six faculty on the women’s college commission cited the left-wing historian Jelani Cobb’s theory that certain ideas “impose on the liberty of another” if the person hearing those ideas is “relatively disempowered”:
There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley. We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments. Students object in order to affirm their humanity. This work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.
Apparently referring to campus reactions to Kipnis – the subject of a two-month Title IX “inquisition” at Northwestern University, where she teaches film – the commission members said “dozens of students” have told them “they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words.”
Those who invited Kipnis and previous speakers must have known their ideas “would be painful to significant portions” of Wellesley, the commission members wrote.
They specifically criticized the sociology professor who invited Kipnis, Thomas Cushman, for writing something that “publicly disparaged” a group of students that made a video critical of Kipnis.
The commission’s solution? Use them as a “sounding board” for potential speakers:
First, those who invite speakers to campus should consider whether, in their zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups. …
Second, standards of respect and rigor must remain paramount when considering whether a speaker is actually qualified for the platform granted by an invitation to Wellesley.
The faculty claim they are not imposing “ideological bias” by asking Wellesley community members to only invite people with “standing” in their discipline.
They seem to be hearkening back to former Harvard President Larry Summers when they say anyone who suggests “men are more naturally equipped to excel in STEM fields than women … has no place at Wellesley.”
— Thomas Cushman (@thomas_cushman) March 21, 2017
And this seems to be a preemptive strike against libertarian social scientist Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and near-victim of a violent mob at Middlebury College, coming to campus:
Similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers are equally inappropriate.
By calling for faculty and administrators to “step up in defense” of the community and “defend the disempowered,” the commission seems to be recommending that particular speakers be banned from campus.
Kipnis told FIRE that the commission failed to note “there was a lively back and forth after I spoke” on campus. She said the professors’ suggestion that students be shielded from offensive ideas is “a $67,000 babysitting bill,” referring to the total cost of attending Wellesley next year.
Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf says the Wellesley faculty contradict themselves in the space of the letter:
Most curiously, their email denounces the hypothesis that men are more equipped than women to excel in STEM fields—and “similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers”—only to embrace the implicit assumption that women (the identity marker germane to the Kipnis controversy) are somehow unequipped to hear critiques of Title IX, so much so that a talk given by a dissident feminist will predictably cause “distress,” “damage,” and “injury.”
This is pernicious nonsense that smacks of long discredited sexist stereotypes. Wellesley women are formidable. They can get through a Laura Kipnis lecture unharmed.
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) March 23, 2017
The commission members who signed the letter are Theater Studies Lecturer Diego Arciniegas; Environmental Studies Prof. Beth DeSombre; Social Sciences Prof. Brenna Greer, an historian of race, gender and culture; Education Prof. Soo Hong; American Studies Prof. Michael Jeffries, who sent the listserv message and says “all of my work” is about racism, sexism and exploitation; and Layli Maparyan, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.
FIRE gives Wellesley a “red light” speech-code rating.
IMAGE: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock