Update: Ad hoc committee on speakers, inquiry and inclusion

Williams faculty, staff and students,

As I noted in an all-campus message before break, “Williams, like campuses across the United States, has engaged in debate about how to bolster its commitment to free expression while maintaining its responsibility to ensure an inclusive environment for all community members.” In that same message I announced plans to charge an ad hoc committee with recommending policies and practices that will help us achieve these goals. I’m pleased to provide you with a brief update on that work.

Faculty, student and staff governance bodies are helping me build a committee roster, and I expect to have a final version to share with you in my start of semester message on January 30. In the meantime, below is a copy of the proposed charge for the committee. I hope this will help you and our whole community understand the scope of their work and the framing questions I’m posing to help them get started.

After the committee comes together I expect they’ll want to communicate with campus about their process and opportunities for input. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing news about the roster in a few weeks.




Proposed Committee Charge

Williams, like other schools around the country, is debating how to uphold principles of open inquiry and free expression. The debate has focused on how to do so while not providing a platform for hate speech, racism, or other forces that are corrosive to a learning community. This issue was identified as a concern in Williams’ Fall 2017 accreditation self-study, which was shared with campus at the time:

“intellectual freedom… is defined broadly at Williams to include the unfettered exchange of diverse points of view, the dissemination of original scholarship, and respect for faculty, students, staff, alumni, and others who wish to share their opinions on how the college is governed. This “basket of rights” must sometimes be actively managed.” (pp. 103–4)

The conversation at Williams has recently focused on speaker invitations, as it has elsewhere around the country. I am charging an ad hoc committee with recommending to me, by May 2019, a set of speaker invitation guidelines that would demonstrate our full commitment to both inquiry and inclusion. This targeted project will complement our broader attention to learning and campus climate through the strategic planning process. I further ask that they do so through a process that allows for input from anyone in our community with opinions or ideas to share on the subject.

Following are a few framing questions the committee might consider in this work:

  • What obligation do liberal arts colleges have for exposing students to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world?
  • What responsibility has Williams assumed (or should it) for helping students achieve equal footing from which to study, expound and challenge diverse ideas?
  • Given the wide range of content available on-line, including many speeches, what types of presentations (in both form and content) best support our educational mission?
  • What support, if any, should Williams give to campus members seeking to host, engage or debate speakers?
  • Are college guidelines related to campus activism toward speakers adequate?

Once the committee presents its recommendations in May, I will share this information with the community, and we will organize next steps for when people return in the fall. It will be helpful if the report identifies the historical, philosophical and other considerations that influenced their recommendations. The report should also identify likely costs and benefits of any proposals.

Some people have looked at the current “free speech” debate in this country with dismay. I believe, in contrast, that this is an important step toward building the most vibrant educational community possible. I am deeply grateful to the committee members, and to Williams, for taking on this challenge.