Williams College cancels a speaker who was invited to bring in provocative opinions
Williams College’s president took “the extraordinary step” this week of canceling the speech of an author who had been invited to bring provocative ideas to campus, saying his ideas cross the line into hate speech.
There is a lot to cover, but here are the key issues:
1) Will this controversy lead to Adam Falk’s departure from Williams? I feel absurd (and sad!) even typing those words. I like Adam Falk! I think he is doing a good job as president! It would be bad for Williams to lose its president in the middle of a capital campaign. But this controversy is close to spinning out of control. And there are a lot of people at Williams, a lot of powerful people among the board of trustees, who believe strongly in free speech. The odds of Falk’s departure are not high, but they are no longer zero. Were the issues that led to the end of Hank Payne’s presidency any more serious?
2) This article reads like it was written by Adam Falk’s worst enemy. Could that title be biased any more strongly against him? It isn’t that the title is wrong or false. It is just the framing that is so damning. Why not “Williams College Cancels Speech by White Supremacist” or “Williams College Cancels Racist Speech” or, at minimum, “Williams College Cancels Speech by Author Widely Accused of Racism”? The greatest sin in America today is racism. Supporters of Falk’s decision need that word, or something like it, in the first sentence of every news story.
3) Who is giving Adam Falk such horrible advice? Jim Kolesar has been guiding Williams presidents through troubled waters for a generation. I like to hope he was against cancellation. Who does Falk rely on to make these sorts of decisions? He needs better advisers.
4) Has the backpedaling begun? Key passage:
“The understanding I came to of his writing was that it was simply racist ranting, with no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever,” he said.
Just how much time did Falk spend coming to an “understanding” of “his writing?” The Williams College library includes three books by Derbyshire. Did Falk read them? Did he talk to someone who did? One of those books, We Are Doomed, is a good summary of Derbyshire’s views. Which passages does Falk object to?
Yet the good part of this passage is that it provides Falk with a way out. Next week he could say:
I have talked to many Williams faculty and alumni. I have had a chance to read Derbsyhire’s book We Are Doomed. Although I profoundly disagree with John Derbyshire, I now realize that my earlier decision was a mistake. Williams College is precisely the place where these odious views need to be explored, confronted and debunked. If not us, then who? If not here, then where? So, in the spirit of uncomfortable learning, I have personally invited John Derbyshire to Williams, where we will stage a debate between him and some of the members of our faculty . . .
And so on. There is still an (easy!) way out for Adam Falk and the people around him. Are they smart enough to take it? I have my doubts.
5) Where to next? Once you have made the Post, the New York Times, NPR and the rest of the US media will not be far behind. Could this story make the morning talk shows (Mike Brezinski ’89)? The nightly news (Erin Burnett ’98)? You betcha!