Letter to the Editor: Wellesley Should Establish A Free Speech Policy

As proud students and alumnae, we believe strongly in the college’s core values which encourage a robust exchange of ideas, so let’s enshrine those values by establishing a free speech policy for both students and faculty. Wellesley women are best able to make a difference if they learn both to advocate their beliefs and to consider the views of others.

In recent years, a growing problem of silencing unwelcome ideas has emerged. While not unique to Wellesley, this behavior is particularly troubling at a place that should champion women’s voices. The national media first exposed this issue on campus in 2014, when students gathered hundreds of signatures to remove a realistic sculpture of a man in his underwear. Beyond this example, many students now silence peers with unpopular views and even lob personal attacks against them. As conservatives like Sabrina Liang (‘19) and Emily Rodriguez (’16) recount, there are “outright dismissals of our credibility such as getting labeled ‘bigots’ or ‘racists’” and liberal students expressed they “did not want us on campus.” This leads many conservatives to self-censor and hide their politics.

To be sure, there is widespread concern, not just from conservatives. Statistics from the 2015 annual Senior Survey, taken by hundreds of students, indicate: 92% agree “Students here are too ready to take offense.” 75% agree “Students are so concerned about being politically correct that difficult issues do not get discussed as they should,” and 58% disagree that “Wellesley students feel free to express their views in class even if those views are unpopular.”

Rightly, President Bottomly made open discourse the topic of her 2015 Convocation Speech, with her strongest point: “Attempting to prevent people from saying or expressing ideas that offend you – that is incivility. Hiding from ideas by banning or boycotting their advocates, that is incivility.” However, the situation has continued to worsen. In March of 2016, The Wellesley News penned an excellent Staff Editorial admonishing students for policing their professors’ politics. The student-run newspaper’s article ends with a plea for students to “refrain from attacking professors for simply trying to hold their jobs,” highlighting the groupthink-like political hostility that has infiltrated classrooms.

This fear of ideas has an unfortunate way of bleeding to life off-campus as well – permeating the general alumnae Facebook group “Community” (with over 7,000 members), as well as specific online discussion groups on topics ranging from workplace issues to fashion. Many Wellesley graduates, especially ones from recent years, advocate for ideological moderators to join them in denouncing peers and telling them to stop posting until they apologize. Some with unwelcome views have even been censored and banned from online groups. Even if technically unaffiliated with the college, the silencing atmosphere on these virtual groups reflects negatively on Wellesley, making some alumnae reluctant to support or promote the college.

What happens if we don’t act? Wellesley is hardly the only school facing this problem. Not just conservative speakers, but even our liberal alumna Madeleine Albright has been subject to speech boycotts. We may well be heading towards a worst case scenario nationally, an Orwellian college atmosphere where we scrutinize every syllabus to ensure maximum nonoffensiveness and police every class discussion for the “wrong” opinions. If we don’t take a stand, we ensure a faster march towards dystopia and betray what Wellesley represents. But if we do, we live up to our core values and help maintain them for generations of Wellesley women to come.

While deeply disturbed by these developments, we think Wellesley has an opportunity to become a leader at this pivotal time, especially with an incoming new College President. How amazing it would be if the nation’s premier women’s college took a stand to promote open discourse, recognizing that our college’s entire existence stands against the historic silencing of women’s voices! Wellesley should articulate strongly and consistently that it is a place for the free exchange of ideas, where no one will be shut down. This can be accomplished through a free speech policy statement which guarantees all student and faculty maximal free expression. This policy should then be widely disseminated and agreed to, similar to the Honor Code.

To be clear, we are not proposing to limit the speech of those fighting for social justice, even via open protest. These are worthy conversations for Wellesley students and alumnae to continue, and no one political group has all the answers. Under such a free speech policy, members of the college can speak out openly against ideas they oppose. Indeed, the 2015 Senior Survey results also demonstrate that 87% of students surveyed agree they are “…likely to intervene when I witness insensitive or hurtful speech or behavior.”

In order for Wellesley to educate empowered women who will be effective leaders, their training starts in the classroom. Faculty and students need to be free to express ideas and viewpoints rather than be penalized for their politics. The school has made inroads with programs like the Albright Institute, which commits to “open dialogue—and an open mind,” and the Freedom Project, which helps students “think for themselves.” We would like the next college fund-raising campaign to feature a vibrant class discussion with diverse points of view. Freedom of speech allows Wellesley women who find their voices to use them in order to make a difference.

Ahmie-Woma Farkas ’00
Christina Wang Kloster ’05
Ellen Lee Schwartz ’88
Elizabeth Tharakan ’06
Erica Wang ’00
Gerlande Christophe ’05
Grace Seol ’08
Jennifer Huddleston ’09
Jenny Lee ’96
Jing Chen ’05
Joyce Hsu ’05
Kimberly Loutey ’06
Kova Jurn Fahey ’06
Kristin Larsen ’90
Krystal Santiago ’10
Lina Gomes ’07
Linda Kosinski Davis Scholar ’15/’16
Madison Duff Burke ’09
Marilynn Willey ’14
Marissa Hendrickson ’93
Maura Fitzgerald ’09
Mei-Mei Tuan ’88
Miriam Yudelson Katz ’93
Nicole Yabut ’07
Niki W. Zhou ’05
Rachel Harris ’14
Raeefa Shams ’08
Sabrina Liang ’19
Sarah Niederberger Becker ’12
Shannon Tang ’06
Sonali Banerjee Hutchison ’94
Susana Puente-Matos ’14
Susanna Kim ’04
Suzannah McClellan ’08
Tamara Hendrickson ’90
Teal Pennebaker ’04

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