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Sensitivity vs. Academic Freedom

In honor of Halloween, I thought it might be interesting to look back on some controversies related to the holiday. The obvious Williams example is, “The Taco Six.”

However, the controversy I want to look at in more detail occurred at Yale in 2015. Here is the email from the wife of a College “Master,” that sparked the  controversy. Towards the end of the email she quotes her husband in making one of her main points:

“..if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Also, here is a link to an article on Vox.com that does a fair job summarizing the controversy and some of the immediate fall out. Here is a quote from the article that I thought was interesting,

“In the balance between sensitivity versus critical thinking and academic freedom, students are increasingly emphasizing the former over the latter.”

A good example of this is when a student at Yale says,

“I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

I had some preconceived notions about what happened at Yale but as I read the article, those changed and I became convinced that both sides had good points. For example, the Yale student is NOT talking about an academic setting, they are referring to interactions when they might go to the Master or his wife for support. In that setting, it seems perfectly reasonable to not “want to debate.”

My conclusion is that it is not an either/or choice. We can be sensitive (if someone feels a need to talk about their pain, listen and try to empathize, do NOT debate) and have academic freedom (if you disagree with a position, an action or a costume, engage with the person who holds that position).

What do you think? Can college communities be both sensitive and have academic freedom?


5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Sensitivity vs. Academic Freedom"

#1 Comment By Anon On November 1, 2019 @ 11:18 am

The free-speech concerns surrounding this issue, as is usually pointed out, are not particularly relevant, as Yale is a private institution.

But what this episode did capture is the obsession on the left with safety over freedom, and how the self-described victims use appeals to authority rather than argumentation and appeals to their “oppressors”.

In a community of adults who are bright and generally respect each other, there is no need for an authority figure like a dean to instruct students on what costumes are okay to wear. If someone has a costume that’s in poor taste, leave it to the community to ostracize that individual. If someone in my friend group wore a sombrero and taco costume, they’d be criticized and change their behavior. It’s pretty straightforward.

But instead of dealing with this less safe space of a self-defining community, there’s a small percentage of students who keep demanding more interference and regulation from administrators. They actually want this far-reaching paternalism from authority figures. If they could have their way, there would be legislation to enforce things like this — i.e., they want people who wear offensive costumes to be arrested. I’m not exaggerating; they think hate speech should be illegal, as many people do, but they have an incredibly loose definition of hate speech.

I saw this happening at Williams. Early on, there was a furor over how we should all be asking people for their pronouns. Nobody did it, as it’s silly and unnecessary and mostly an exercise in virtue signaling. Then, JAs and WOOLF leaders were told by administrators that they HAD to ask for pronouns when they met their frosh.

If your ideas are unpopular, just get an administrator to be afraid of telling you “no”. You’ll get the hegemony you’re after.

#2 Comment By anon On November 1, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

“ Can college communities be both sensitive and have academic freedom?”

Can Williams?


#3 Comment By timothyjohn On November 1, 2019 @ 7:22 pm

Well, that’s an interesting link. Anyone know when the boycott started? I haven’t heard anything about this.

#4 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On November 2, 2019 @ 10:36 am

Does anyone know if this boycott is getting any traction? Presumably the College knows whether registration in English department classes is meaningfully down since the boycott began.

#5 Comment By timothyjohn On November 4, 2019 @ 5:58 pm

I have to reiterate that I haven’t heard anything about this on campus–not a peep, not a general tension, nothing. That being said, it is a real thing and it is very current. Some very general impressions/guesses to a timeline:

1. This began mid-last week in any ‘official’ capacity. Why? It was not in the Record last week Wednesday and it appears to have been publicly shared around late last week (it took a lot of digging to find that).

2. If I had to guess, the big moment is going to be this Wednesday when the call for boycott and the petition (maybe with some names, as they are already soliciting signers?) is published in the Record.

3. Honestly, it’s way too late. Preregistration ends today, and if it’s only hitting the Record Wednesday, I don’t know what meaningful effect it will have on registration. It kind of feels like the whole English Department controversy at the end of last year…kind of tacked on and happening way too late to be effective.

4. It is the conglomeration of last year’s events regarding the English Department (and, according the the website, decades of structural racism, etc.).

Just because I haven’t heard anything doesn’t mean it’s not real! Also, it would be great if someone could do a post (or a series of posts) on the website they have…I don’t have the time to read it all myself.