On the evening of Oct. 3, members of the Wellesley community gathered in the Academic Council Room for the second Town Hall held by the Wellesley College Task Force on Speech and Inclusion. The Task Force is a body of twelve students, faculty and staff that will produce “a set of recommendations to the President for creating a campus environment that supports freedom of speech and intellectual challenge through thoughtful and respectful engagement.”
The issue of free speech on Wellesley’s campus has been widely discussed over the past several months. This is due in part to the protests student-activists held against Freedom Project speakers last semester. Another major factor is the interim demonstration policy that members of Wellesley’s senior administration crafted and later retracted after widespread community backlash.
The second Town Hall was moderated by Task Force members Christine Cruzvergara, the associate provost and executive director for Career Education and Brenna Greer, an assistant professor of history. Cruzvergara opened the meeting by explaining that the Task Force will generate its set of recommendations, which will be presented to President Johnson in early 2019, in the following three phases: listening, deliberating and developing. The two Town Halls held this semester were part of the first phase of Task Force members listening to the views of the larger Wellesley community.
Few students attended the first of the two Town Halls. Rebecca Leu ’19 indicated that this is one of the reasons they decided to participate in the second Town Hall: “I did not attend the first Town Hall. However, I did hear that they did not get a lot of students at the first one. Wanting to increase student attendance at such events was one of the reasons I wanted to go to the second Town Hall.”
The second Town Hall had a significantly higher student attendance rate than the first. However, Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies Catia Confortini shared in an interview that she wishes more members of the Wellesley Community had participated in the event; “I think the Task Force is doing a great job, but the number of people who showed up was a little bit disappointing for me. It’s frustrating when people complain that ‘this policy was written without me,’ and then don’t participate in important conversations when they have the chance.”
Cruzvergara opened the discussion by asking Town Hall attendants to consider what they thought community expectations for the issues of free speech and inclusion should look like at Wellesley. Participants broke into small groups to deliberate and then were invited to share their thoughts with the greater Town Hall.
Participants offered unique perspectives on what they thought speech and inclusion should look like at Wellesley. However, a recurring concern amongst participants was that the College offers little guidance to students on how they can engage in difficult conversations. During the discussion, Leu pulled out a card that they found at the Stone Center, which offers a step-by-step guide for how students can have challenging conversations. They suggested that Wellesley should offer more educational tools like the card.
When asked about their decision to bring up the card, Leu shared, “I agreed with the other folks in the room that Wellesley doesn’t teach us, in a concrete way, methods of debate and/or resolving conflict. Learning the theory and having shared values is important, but we also need to learn practical steps and tips for how to be in a difficult conversation. That’s why I thought that the card that I found at the Stone Center is so important. It cued steps for each side/person to take.”
Another widely expressed sentiment was that students often conflate free speech with not having to face the consequences of their words. Holland Rhodd-Lee ’19 shared after the Town Hall that they believe this is the most serious problem the Wellesley community faces when it comes to the issue of free speech. “I think that the biggest issue that this campus has when it comes to free speech is that we often conflate free speech and intent of speech. No one is infringing upon anyone’s right to speak but oftentimes people are voicing their concern with what is being said and questioning the intent behind it,” Rhodd-Lee explains.
Confortini expressed similar concerns after the Town Hall concluded. “Something that was talked about and something I’m pondering is whether at Wellesley we have a freedom of speech problem or whether we have an oppression problem. Dominant groups have never been challenged and so when they are challenged they say, ‘It is my free speech.’” She added, “And yes, it is their free speech. But it is also my free speech to challenge you.”
Another question Cruzvergara raised was who Town Hall participants thought comprised the “Wellesley community” and whether they trusted the “good intent” of its members. Answers to the first half of the question were varied. Some participants said they tend to think of students when they hear “Wellesley community” while others said they think of everyone from students to faculty and staff.
When addressing the second part of the question, numerous members of the student body expressed a distrust of Wellesley’s administration. Rhodd-Lee indicated that they were not surprised by these answers due to a lack of transparency between administration and students. “I’m not surprised that there are feelings of distrust towards admin felt by students. Admins do not provide transparency in regards to issues that affect the student body and the recent debacle that was the interim protest policy is the perfect example of that.”
Rhodd-Lee suggested that there needs to be more communication between the student-body and Wellesley’s administration if either party wants to see a change in the relationship. “There is currently no open and clear forms of communication between the entire student body and admin and that needs to change. Dialogue needs to happen in order for trust to exist in any kind of relationship and this is no exception,” they said.
Erin Konkle, the program director of civic engagement, shared that she learned much from the second Town Hall. Though the discussion exposed her to many of the problems within Wellesley, it also showed her how committed members of the community are to improving the college. “I learned a lot from the Town Hall. I learned about challenges that exist in our community that I haven’t been exposed to in the work that I do, and I learned how committed we all are to pursuing the changes that we so often talk about.”
Konkle added that everyone in the community has a role to play in changing the problems that were raised in the second Town Hall. “It will take all of us in this community to make the changes that we seek. We all have different roles and responsibilities on campus, and we all have a responsibility to make the progress we so often talk about to create the kind of community we want,” she stated.