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Eagle Critiques Falk

From the Berkshire Eagle:

Our Opinion: Wrong call by Williams in cancelling speaker

At a time when too many college student bodies are demanding that controversial speakers be banned it is disappointing that Williams College won’t get to hear such a speaker who was invited by students.

1) Any forecasts on what other media outlets will editorialize about Falk’s decision? I am most curious about the Record, which deeply embarrassed itself last fall in the Venker controversy but is now under new leadership.

2) Key in this whole discussion is that Derbsyhire was invited by members of the Williams community. He wasn’t just wondering in off the street. I don’t think it should matter whether the invitation came from students or faculty or staff.

Williams President Adam Falk has ordered the cancellation of an appearance Monday by former National Review columnist John Derbyshire, who some have condemned as being racist. He had been invited by a student group called Uncomfortable Learning.

In framing the debate, how one describes Derbyshire is key. I think that the above is a fair description. It is both true (lots of people, including Adam Falk!, do condemn Derbyshire for being racist) and it highlights the reasons behind the controversy. This is much more neutral than describing Derbyshire as a “white supremist,” since he would disagree with that terminology, or as a “race realist,” which is too confusing for Eagle readers.

Students, faculty and administrators at colleges and universities nationwide have taken to banning or disinviting speakers whose views some find discomfiting. Teachers introducing similar views or failing to provide “trigger warnings” about controversial subjects are demeaned, harassed and threatened with suspensions or firings. The offending speakers and viewpoints are almost invariably conservative or far-right

Mostly correct, although a bit overwrought. But is there a single example — either at an elite college or anywhere else — of a president “banning” a speaker, of forbidding Person X from stepping foot on campus even though they have an invitation from current students or faculty? I can’t find one but pointers are welcome!

This is counter to the mission of higher education, which is to expose students to a variety of disagreeable viewpoints, not to protect their delicate sensibilities from them. Mr. Derbyshire denies he is a white supremacist (Eagle, February 19), and while The Eagle disagrees with the sentiments expressed in a National Review column advising white children about how to be safe among African-Americans, he is entitled to them and Williams students should be able to hear and debunk them.

Fifty years ago, Robert Gaudino considered it one of his missions to “expose students to a variety of disagreeable viewpoints.” Does any faculty member at Williams agree? I am honestly curious.

A Williams grad told The Eagle that “White supremacy has no place in the Purple Valley,” but all manner of racist views exist in the wide world outside of that protected enclave. There is no hiding from them and it is best to be exposed to them in school. That is part of the educational process, one that has been denied to Williams students.



Advice for Falk


What advice do our readers have for Adam Falk?

First, admit that you have a (big!) problem. This controversy shows no signs of going away. If anything, it is on the verge of snowballing out of control. When well-respected Harvard professors like Steven Pinker are openly mocking you, it is time to do something.

Second, the best approach would be what I suggested yesterday. Issue the following statement:

I have talked to many Williams faculty, students and alumni. I have now read John Derbsyhire’s book We Are Doomed, having checked it out from our own Sawyer Library. Although I profoundly disagree with Derbyshire’s views on a variety of topics, I now realize that my earlier decision was a mistake. Williams College is precisely the place where these odious opinions 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. The exact details are unimportant. But banning student-invited speakers is a horrible idea. Admit your error and move on.

Third, the second best approach is to shut up! Stop giving interviews. Stop talking to people. If anyone has questions, refer them to your statement. There is no upside (for you) in continuing the conversation. Your quotes in the Washington Post are a disaster. Consider:

“The understanding I came to of his writing was that it was simply racist ranting, with no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever,”

Then why does Williams have three of his books in its library? Are your staff idiots? Do Williams librarians purchase many books that are simply “racist ranting?” Providing quotes like this only makes you look incompetent. Moreover, John Derbyshire regular writes for The New Criterion, as hoity-toity an egghead magazine as you are going to find. Do you really believe that The New Criterion publishes a lot of material with “no redeeming intellectual value?” Are they a bunch of racists too? That is nuts, and readers of the Washington Post are smart enough to know it.

“The college does not have an obligation to give a platform to absolutely anybody. And a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was going to come and tell students … that they should avoid the African American students, was over a line.”

Note how the Post leaves out a part of your comment? Reporters are not your friends. They have a beast to feed and you are the meat. The more you say to them, the more you leave yourself open to quote-mangling, malicious or otherwise.

And you leave yourself open to rebuttal on the facts. John Derbyshire is many, many things but he is not “a self-proclaimed white supremacist.” You have just opened yourself (and Williams!) up to claim of defamation! Listen to your lawyers and shut up. (Attorney readers are welcome to offer their opinions as to whether or Derbyshire would have a case.)

And you aren’t even accurately summarizing Derbyshire’s infamous article correctly. He writes:

In that pool of forty million, there are nonetheless many intelligent and well-socialized blacks. (I’ll use IWSB as an ad hoc abbreviation.) You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with IWSBs. In addition to the ordinary pleasures of friendship, you will gain an amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice.

Derbyshire’s (rude) advice to non-black Williams students is exactly the opposite of what you have claimed it to be. He recommends that they go out of their way to make friends with black Williams students. He reasoning may be false and obnoxious and racist — and you are allowed to call it all those things and more — but you aren’t allowed to say that Derbyshire gives Advice X when, in fact, he gives Advice Y.

Fourth (and this is by far the worst option but still better than the path you are going down) is to make someone else at Williams the face of this issue. That is why senior administrators like Will Dudley, Denise Buell and Sarah Bolton get paid the big bucks. Let one of them — or perhaps a senior professor looking for a fight — spout off to the Washington Post. You are the president of Williams College. You should step back from the fray. You already made the decision. Let other faculty members talk about it.

What advice do our readers have for Falk?


Record Assignment Desk

The forthcoming issue of the Record will get more views outside of the Eph family than all of last year’s issues combined. The news of an elite college president banning an student-invited speaker is that big a deal. What articles should the Record be working on, in addition to general news stories?

1) History of speech debates/suppression at Williams. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know this history at all. Does anyone? When was the last time a speaker was banned at Williams? What have previous Williams presidents said about free speech on campus? Start here, although I couldn’t figure out how to search. Suggestions welcome! Also, Katie Nash, the new Archivist, knows her stuff.

2) A comparison to other NESCAC/elite schools. Ask Amherst and Swathmore if they have ever banned a speaker. Ask them if they ever would. They might use this occasion to make fun of Williams. Ask them if they have any official policies which would prevent their students from inviting Derbyshire to campus. Place Falk’s action in the context of our peers.

3) Interviews with prominent alumni who have experience with, or expertise in, campus speech debates.

4) Interviews with faculty who have spoken out. I would start with EphBlog favorite Sam Crane who has an extensive discussion on his own blog. The key point to push with Sam is the following: Should students at Williams have fewer rights than students at MCLA? Because of the First Amendment, students at a state school like MCLA can not be punished for “hate speech” and can not be prevented from bringing (non-violent) speakers to campus, even if they are speakers that Sam Crane does not like.

Williams is a private institution and can have whatever rules it likes. But I would love to have Sam and other faculty on record as claiming that such restrictions benefit Williams students relative to their peers down the road at MCLA.

PS. Here is another suggestion for the name for the scandal: “Derb Makes Falk Uncomfortable.” This includes a reference to all three key players: John Derbyshire (who is nicknamed “Derb” in corners of the internet), Adam Falk and the student group Uncomfortable Learning. Previous discussion here. Only thing I don’t like is that it is too long. Suggestions?


Countdown Clock

Thanks for Professor Darel Paul for pointing out this Washington Post story.

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!


Does the Falk Cancellation Have Legs?

What do readers predict will happen with regard to the Falk bans Derbyshire story? It just hit the AP.

BOSTON (AP) — The president of Williams College is canceling a speaking event by a contentious writer who had been invited to campus by students.

President Adam Falk told students on Thursday that the writer John Derbyshire, whose views have been criticized as racist, will not be welcome on the campus in Williamstown.

A student group that regularly hosts speakers with polarizing opinions had invited Derbyshire to speak on Monday. The group’s leader, sophomore Zach Wood, says that as an African American he disagrees with Derbyshire’s opinions, but he wanted to give students the opportunity to challenge those views.

It’s the first time the college has blocked a speaker invited by the group. The school’s president says many of Derbyshire’s views amount to hate speech.

Derbyshire could not immediately be reached for comment.

The story could end here. Or it could go as far as the Venker Disinvitation and get a mention in conservative outlets like Fox news. Or worst (best?) case, it could get into the mainstream press. What do readers predict?

The bull case is that this is the first time in several generations that an elite college has banned a speaker. (Changing your mind about awarding an honorary degree is not that same thing. And, even in those cases in which a speaker was disinvited from talking at Commencement, the college/university did not ban — and even explicitly welcomed — a talk in another venue on campus.) Does anyone know the last time this happened at a NESCAC or Ivy school? The last time it happened at Williams?

The bear case is that places like Fox news won’t touch it because they view Derbyshire, and other figures on the Alt-Right, as too toxic. There are also fierce divisions on the right, divisions which make people like Derbyshire more critical of Fox news than many liberals. (Fox, for example, is a big supporter of amnesty.) And, if Fox won’t touch it, why would the New York Times?

My prediction is that this story makes it to places like NPR and the New York Times. It is too juicy, too emblematic of the changes in society’s attitude to free speech. If the story does have legs, all that we ask is that they spell EphBlog correctly!


Alumni Office Letter on Falk Cancellation

Someone posted on Yik Yak this letter from the Alumni Office sent, I think, to Class Agents. (And others?)

Today, President Adam Falk make the decision to cancel the scheduled appearance at Williams of John Derbyshire. The full text of Adam’s letter to the community about this decision is available here.

I expect that some of you have already heard about this from your own classmates, or from any friends or relatives you may have on campus. Below is additional information that may prove helpful as you continue the vital work of contacting your classmates to encourage their support of Williams.

Derbyshire, who was fired from his role as a commentator for the National Review in 2012 after writing this piece in another publication, had been invited to speak by a couple of students involved with the Uncomfortable Learning group on campus. Derbyshire’s expressions of hate in the 2012 piece were directed specifically toward African-Americans, but his other writings and speeches have expressed, among other things, homophobic and misogynistic viewpoints (stating that women should not have the right to vote, for instance).

Cancellation by the college of a scheduled speaker—even one engaged by a group of students receiving no funding or official recognition from the college—is extremely rare and something the college would do only in extreme circumstances. This is the first such instance we’re aware of. Uncomfortable Learning has hosted many events over the past several years including K.C. Johnson, who spoke on November 5, 2015, after the Venker cancellation.

It is important to note key distinctions between this cancelation and the cancellation of a scheduled talk by Suzanne Venker in the fall. Both speakers were invited by the same group, Uncomfortable Learning. In the Venker incident, the students did not consult with or advise the college prior to inviting her. Indeed, the college learned of the planned event only after the student organizers had canceled it.

Had the administration been consulted, it would have strongly advised the students to continue the talk as scheduled, despite strong objections from fellow students.

In this instance, however, the organizers of the Derbyshire event submitted an electronic request for auditorium space several days in advance, and upon seeing it and learning more about the event, President Falk stepped in cancel it out of concern for the Williams community and a conviction that Williams will not promote hate speech. This goes beyond concern that students might be “uncomfortable” with differing viewpoints. Hate speech actively harms individuals, and in President Falk’s determination and that of many who have expressed support for today’s decision, to have provided Derbyshire with a stage and a microphone from which to espouse his views would have brought significant harm to the Williams community.

There is a lot to unpack here. Worth a week’s close reading?


FIRE Slams Falk

FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has slammed Williams/Falk for cancelling the UL/Derbyshire talk. Best part:

There is no reconciling Falk’s October position with his current one, leaving students with unclear guidelines as to which speakers or subjects are out-of-bounds at Williams College. In fact, the only thing that is clear now is that President Falk has declared his administration to be the sole arbiter of what can and cannot be said at the college, the college’s supposed commitment to free speech notwithstanding.

Although Williams is, as a private institution, free to craft its own rules, it has stated that it is “committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated” and that “controversy is at the heart of … free academic inquiry.” Imposing restrictions on what topics may be discussed and who students may invite to discuss them is the polar opposite of “free academic inquiry”; it is closer to indoctrination than education.

Indeed. What would Robert Gaudino say? FIRE continues:

It’s worth noting that some of the most controversial speakers invited to speak at colleges and universities over the past century have sparked the adoption of policies that protect robust and open debate on campuses. The prime example is Yale’s 1975 Woodward Report, which is regarded as the first free speech policy statement by a university to espouse a deep commitment to examining all viewpoints, no matter their popularity, as a path toward truth. That report was adopted only after students called for the disinvitation of controversial Nobel laureate William Shockley, whose views many contended were not only patently racist, but incontrovertibly false. The Woodward Report has been cited as an inspiration for the University of Chicago’s free speech policy statement, which FIRE has endorsed, and which schools are increasingly adopting.

For the moment, it appears Williams has chosen a different path—a path on which paternalistic administrators decide which ideas are too dangerous for college students to hear, even when students themselves have established a program specifically for the purpose of engaging with such ideas. It is now up to the students, faculty, alumni, and trustees of Williams to decide whether that is truly the kind of place they want their college to be, or whether they are going to push back against this act of censorship.

Are we going to push back?


Eagle Article on Falk Cancellation

Outstanding Berkshire Eagle article by Scott Stafford about Adam Falk’s banning of John Derbyshire from speaking at Williams. Read the whole thing for an excellent overview of the controversy. Some highlights:

“We feel very confident on this decision given that Mr. Derbyshire’s writings not only on race, but on women’s rights, gay rights and sexual harassment make him unsuited to discussions at Williams College,” Detloff said.

How quickly the definition of hate speech expands! If one is, for example, against the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, is one guilty of hate speech and, therefore, not welcome at Williams? Perhaps Detloff could provide us with a summary of the acceptable views on controversial topics like “women’s rights” . . .

Derbyshire describes himself in his writings as a “race realist.” …

Derbyshire says that to label him as a white supremacist is a “misinterpretation.”

Basic politeness requires that we describe people using the terminology they prefer unless that terminology is grossly misleading. If someone describes herself as “pro-life,” you should use the same terms, even if you really want to call her “anti-abortion.” The same should apply to Derbyshire. He describes himself as a race realist. Why not use that term? (Google suggests that Williams folks will find race realism every bit as objectionable as white supremacy.)

Entire article below the break.
Read more


Suggested Names For This Controversy?

What should we call the current campus controversy? Suggestions welcome! For now, our category will be the simple “UL/Derbyshire,” but that is boring! Recall some previous excellent controversy names like Willy E. N-word, Nigaleian and Mary Jane Hitler. (That last one is, in many ways, the most relevant to today’s. I bet that Morty Schapiro would have been smart enough not to cancel Derbyshire’s speech.)

UL/Derbyshire is not a bad name since it includes two of the personae dramatis: the student group Uncomfortable Learning and John Derbyshire. But it leaves out Adam Falk, perhaps the most important actor. We might also include a reference to Professor Robert Gaudino, the patron saint of uncomforable learning. Maybe:

Ferbyshired — combining the F in Falk with the speaker, in a way that suggests the action Falk took, or in reference to the situation being all Ferbyshired up.

Line in the Derb — making a reference to Falk’s note about “We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it.” Also uses short form of Derbyshire’s name, a common usage in the Alt-Right community.

Falk Bans Derb — highlights the key actors and actions.

Falk Hates Derb — connects to Falk’s discussion of hate speech. Also, is there some common emoji for hate that we could use?

Falk Bans Speech — abstracts away from Derbyshire, who is not the most important aspect of this debate, and highlights the central problem: What other speech will Falk ban? What are students and faculty not allowed to say?

Suggestions welcome!


Falk Cancels Speech

I enjoyed Adam Falks op-ed in the Record last fall, especially this part:

The senior class may remember that in my Convocation remarks to them this fall, I gave them an assignment to seek out someone whose opinions and beliefs are different than their own, and to engage in a conversation to really listen and learn from one another.

Excellent advice! Alas, it looks like Adam Falk no longer agrees.

To the Williams Community,

Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him.

Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.

We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.

We respect—and expect—our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.


Adam Falk

Good stuff! But surely there is more that Falk should do. For example, if Derbyshire can’t speak at Williams, then we can hardly allow his books to stay in the library.


Hate speech is hate speech, whether it is spoken or written.

With luck, Falk will correct this oversight immediately. EphBlog recommends a nice book burning ceremony this afternoon, right on the steps of Chapin.


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