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Woodward Report II

Simplicio, a regular commentator here and at the Record, suggests viewing the Falk/Derbyshire dispute through the lens of the Woodward Report. Let’s do that for five days. Today is Day 2.

What is the closest Eph connection? Former faculty member William Sloane Coffin.

So if the elimination of oppression is a rational goal for society (and I think it is), and therefore also a rational goal towards which the exercise of free speech ought to be teleologically directed, then the extent to which free speech helps us reach this “truth” gives us a rational criterion for delimiting the extent to which free speech is to be tolerated. If democratic, undominated discussion within the community so determines, we may prohibit the malicious advocacy of racist or imperialist ideas. As Rev. William Sloane Coffin pointed out: “Unless social justice is established in a country, civil liberties, which always concern intellectuals more than does social justice, look like luxuries. The point is that the three ideals of the French revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity, cannot be separated. We have to deal with equality first.”

This is from the “Dissenting Statement” portion of the report. But isn’t it just perfectly in tune — despite being written 40+ years ago — with the views of the Williams social justice warriors who opposed allowing Venker or Derbyshire to speak at Williams?

Consider the Record editorial (!) from last fall:

Though Venker’s speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.

The big change from the Yale of 1975 to the Williams of 2015 is that the author (Kenneth J. Barnes) of the Dissenting Statement to the Woodward Report has won, at least at Williams. (Temporarily, we (all?) hope.)


Crane on Conservative Privilege I

Professor Sam Crane’s Williams Alternative article on “conservative privilege” at Williams must be a parody. Right? No? He actually believes it! OK, then. Let’s spend a few days taking it apart. Today is Day 1.

The “Uncomfortable Learning” brouhaha has subjected Williams College to a torrent of national media criticism. Most notably, conservative news outlets have shouted charges of censorship and liberal intolerance and general decline of Western civilization.

Not a promising start! Did Sam see some of the Facebook discussion about Venker cancellation? Here is a sample:

When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’ you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students, but you are also—paying—for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters. You are giving those who spout violence the money that so desperately needs to be funneled to black and brown (trans) femme communities, to people who are leading the revolution, who are surviving in the streets, who are dying in the streets. Know, you are dipping your hands in their blood, Zach Wood.

If that isn’t “liberal intolerance” than the words have no meaning. Note that this sample (and there were hundreds of words like it directed at Uncomfortable Learning) was published in the Alternative as well, so Sam must have seen it. Nor was intolerance limited to Facebook. Consider the editors of the Williams Record:

Though Venker’s speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman.

What word besides “intolerance” would you use to describe this attitude, the idea that Williams College “should not allow speech” of this or that kind?

If parents/alumni can’t trust Professor Crane to accurately describe what is happening on campus, why should we trust his claims that are not so easy to check?


Censor Student Speech

Professor Sam Crane’s comments (and here) about Uncomfortable Learning merit further criticism. See last week for background.

I was, in fact, trying to restrain my anger at the immediate presumption that Williams faculty routinely censor student speech. Such a serious assertion should be accompanied by concrete evidence, not snide guesses about our favorite caffeine drinks.

What more concrete evidence can we offer besides Professor Crane’s own comments? Critics claim that Williams faculty/administrators don’t want students to invite speakers like Venker to campus. (I hope that Sam won’t rely on weasel words like “routinely” and “student.”) Isn’t that exactly what Sam wants, to deprive Uncomfortable Learning of funding so that they can’t afford to bring speakers to campus? If this isn’t what he wants, then just what is his complaint?

But that is not today’s deliciousness. Sam has been spewing invective about the students (and alumni) behind Uncomfortable Learning, suggesting that they have broken all sorts of college policies. Fortunately, random political science professors are not responsible for enforcing the rules. That honor goes to Dean of the College Sarah Bolton. So, all Sam needs to do is to inform Bolton about his concerns. She will surely jump in to bring the right wing rabble to heal!

Not so fast! Dean Bolton was asked about the Venker Cancellation during a conference call with class agents last week. You can listen to the entire call here. Go to the 16:40 mark to here the question and Bolton’s reply.

Too lazy to listen? Allow me to summarize: Dean Sarah Bolton likes Uncomfortable Learning! She had (almost) nothing negative to say about them. She seemed to share none of Sam’s concerns about their lack of registration, their shadowy sources of funding or their contact with alumni. In fact, she was sad that Venker did not come! “There is no need to rescind that invitation.” She wants Williams to “be there for them,” i.e., for the student leaders of Uncomfortable Learning. She wishes that they had reached out to her before cancelling. She is interested in “How we can bring conversations that might be difficult or uncomfortable to campus, and have that go well.”

So, sleep well Professor Crane! Dean Bolton is firmly on Team Uncomfortable Learning. You have nothing to worry about when it comes to rules and regulations. If Dean Bolton has no objections, then why would you?

UPDATE: Post changed to provide link to Williams’ page with the call audio.


Fairness in Discourse

Professor Sam Crane’s comments about Uncomfortable Learning merit further criticism. See Monday for background.

Maintaining a certain fairness in discourse, not privileging some voices because they have more access to money than others, is a principle that, I suspect, Gaudino would defend.

Agreed! But this is precisely the principal that Williams, to some extent, fails to uphold. Neither Williams College, nor the Political Science Department, nor the Lecture Committee succeed to “[m]aintaining a certain fairness in discourse.” Indeed, all of them are much more likely to bring progressive/liberal/Democratic speakers to campus. Would even Professor Crane deny this fundamental reality of campus discourse? Other than speakers brought by Uncomfortable Learning itself, how many libertarian/conservative/Republican speakers have come to Williams in the last three years? If Professor Crane doesn’t believe in “privileging” left-wing “voices” over right-wing “voices,” he is doing a very bad job of acting on those beliefs.

Consider a concrete example: Rutgers Professor Donna Murch ’91 gave the 2015 Davis Lecture last week. Excellent! The more speakers with diverse viewpoints, especially alumni, that Williams brings to campus the better. But where is the speaker this fall or in all of 2015 or 2014 — outside of Uncomfortable Learning itself — who is much an Eph of the right as Murch is an Eph of the left?

Nowhere. Professor Sam Crane has done nothing to bring non-liberal/progessive/Democratic voices to campus in the last few years. (Contrary opinions welcome.) And that is OK! Sam is a busy guy, with teaching and research obligations. But, if he is not going to take the trouble to help maintain a “certain fairness in discourse,” the least he could do is to stop attacking those Ephs who are working on it.


Should Uncomfortable Learning Register?

Professor Sam Crane insists that the students behind Uncomfortable Learning should (must?) register as an official Williams College student group. I used to agree. But maybe I am being naive? Since Sam seems (is?) diametrically opposed to the goals of Uncomfortable Learning, perhaps his “advice” is not worth taking.

Recall the excellent scholarship of Rutgers Professor Donna Murch ’91, a recent speaker at Williams. Murch documents that, in the long struggle for African American equality, many of the obstacles were “content neutral” — sort of like a requirement that student groups register. On the surface, something like a poll tax is not unfair. Everyone is subject to the same rules. In practice, however, the poll tax was both designed to disenfranchise African Americans and used by local officials to do so. Might the same be true of a registration requirement for student groups at Williams? You betcha!

First, we ought to dig into the history of this requirement. Where does it come from? (Also relevant are recent rules against soliciting funds from alumni.) Katie Flanagan ’14 kindly provides some of the history, but we need more details. Second, even if it is true that these regulations were not born in sin, there can be no doubt that Williams officials have tried to use these rules to stymie Uncomfortable Learning, just as Professor Crane has tried to do for weeks (months?).

That is, Williams officials have used these rules against students associated with Uncomfortable Learning in ways that the rules are rarely/never used against non-conservative students seeking to, for example, reserve a room.

Given that history, perhaps students are right not to register in just the same way that groups like the Black Panthers often refused to play by the rules of the society that they were challenging. A refusal to register is a form of protest. A refusal to register, to subject oneself to a set of rules that will be used by your enemies to hinder your goals, may be very smart.

Note Flanagan’s observation that “CC [College Council] would really only have jurisdiction over registered organizations.” If you doubt that College Council is very committed to your goals, then why would you register and, thereby, subject yourself to its whims?

Look at how much Uncomfortable Learning was able to accomplish in the last few years despite not being an official student group. Would it have been as successful if it had registered? I don’t know.

I still think that they should register, just as I think that they should not have disinvited Venker. But I also, with all due humility, recognize that they are much closer to the action than I am and that their judgments might be much better than mine.

If we have any former student leaders of Uncomfortable Learning among our readers, perhaps you could share your thoughts.


Venker Re-Invited, Has “No Plans to Accept”

Venker's website, via the Huffington Post

Venker’s website, via the Huffington Post

Notwithstanding EphBlog’s defense of the disinvitation of Suzanne Venker, the student organizers of the “Uncomfortable Learning” series appear to have quickly backtracked. In a post at Reason’s “Hit&Run” blog on Friday, reporter Robby Soave shared an email from Zach Wood ’18:

“Suzanne Venker has been re-invited to Williams . . . However, she has yet to confirm whether or not she’d like to come this spring.”

Unfortunately, Venker does not appear enthusiastic (although the reinvitation has received some positive press coverage, such as at

“No plans to accept since my speech has just been published, and the students can effectively see what I was going to say,” she said in an email to Reason. “Plus I can’t muster writing another speech anytime soon. As I say, it’s no small thing and I’m already behind on a book I’m writing.”

Venker’s speech is indeed posted at, and it’s hard to fault her for being reluctant to reschedule after how this controversy unfolded. It’s asking a lot of Venker to check her pride at the door and speak now.

That said, EphBlog believes Venker should accept the re-invitation. Sure, the cancellation and reinvitation is awkward, but it has an obvious upside. Presumably she believes that the message in her “Uncomfortable Learning” talk is an important one for Williams students in their too-often protected cocoon. In light of the cancellation controversy, exposure for her remarks (both at Williams and beyond) is likely to be much greater than it otherwise would have been. More listeners = more value.

Moreover, as EphBlog has noted before, the students organizing “Uncomfortable Learning” deserve to be rewarded: they are taking on a difficult task in the face of immense peer pressure, pressure that keeps “uncomfortable” voices almost entirely excluded from campuses other than Williams that lack the tradition of a Gaudino. “One strike and you’re out” is a perfectly reasonable lesson to teach them, but so is “apologize, fix things, and do the right thing in the end.” And this is particularly true given the subject matter here: conservative speakers (especially those with experiential, rather than academic, credentials, as in the case of Venker) are heard so infrequently in liberal/academic environments that it should be a cardinal rule for conservatives: NEVER decline an invitation to speak
on campus.

Her reason for not speaking seems particularly flimsy. Although it’s true that students can “see what [she] was going to say,” how many students is she really going to reach that way. is hardly a must-read for college students — and voluntarily searching out “uncomfortable reading” isn’t generally the way of the Internet. If she thinks what she originally had to say was interesting and valuable for students to hear, she should go ahead and deliver the same speech – perhaps tweaked to include mention (or rebuke?) of the disinvitation.

On this issue, as with his earlier post on the cancellation, the usually-reliable Glenn Reynolds, law professor at Tennessee, gets it wrong at Instapundit:

Reynolds on reinvite

Another question — what caused the organizers to change their mind and reinvite Venker? So far, there’s no public statement on that decision. Maybe it was feedback like this critique at the Williams Alternative from (former EphBlog regular) Will Slack ’11:

Nothing about this piece suggests that you learned something new about the invited speaker between the issuing of the invitation and the cancellation. Nothing I’ve read has suggested any coercement from any party – not other students, nor the administration, nor alumni. Nothing has provided evidence that anyone is being silenced here. If that did happen, then I will stand up and defend your freedom to invite controversial speakers, in good faith.

On the contrary, your choice is the worst of all worlds – and displays bad faith. You do a disservice to the invited speaker by rendering her preparation useless with a last-minute change. You do a disservice to your fellow students by inviting a controversy about ideas than preventing them from being aired. You do a disservice to the College and its alumni community by being so vague in your messages to the speaker that you inspire misleading articles like this one: [Venker’s column].

Slack cuts right to the heart of the issue, which bears on Venker’s decision as well. Unlike the “Uncomfortable Learning” organizers, Venker does have new information on which to decide. But EphBlog is hoping she’ll do the right thing, and gracefully accept.


Matter of Rules: The Petty Tyrants of Williams

Professor Sam Crane writes:

There is a matter of rules. You will notice that there are specific procedures that student groups need to follow, as per: It is not clear whether “uncomfortable learning” is registered as a student group. If it is not, these other rules may apply:

Does Professor Crane make it his business to ensure that every student and student group at Williams follows these rules? Of course not! If a group of progressive students fail to correctly fill out their forms or if Students For Bernie do a little vote registration on campus, Sam has no complaints. He only goes after students who he disagrees with politically. (If Sam has, in fact, hassled, say, the Williams College Democrats, as much as he has Uncomfortable Learning, then I will gladly withdraw this accusation.

If “uncomfortable learning” is a student group, then it would be bound by this rule: “Students who wish to raise money for any campus activity by soliciting alumni, foundations, or other sources of funds must receive advance approval.” (

Interestingly enough, the College did try to shut down Uncomfortable Learning three years ago by citing these regulations. Unsurprisingly, that threat was a bluff and cooler/smarter heads in the Administration prevailed.

That does not seem to be the case with “uncomfortable learning.”

Isn’t it cute the way “Professor” Crane puts Uncomfortable Learning — the official name of a student group at Williams — in quotes? Note that he does this three times, clearly meaning to denigrate the claim by these students that their group follows in the best traditions of Williams and of Bob Gaudino. Should we follow “Professor” Crane’s lead in this, using quotation marks to imply that even though “Professor” Crane calls himself a Professor, that he isn’t really one, at least in the way that we prefer to use that term, as someone committed to supporting all the students at Williams, not just those we agree with? No! That would be too cute!


Sam Crane Demands Transparency on Alumni Donations

Williams has raised more than $374 million in its capital campaign. Professor Sam Crane has an interesting proposal.

A list of donors and the amounts of money they have given would be helpful in understanding the ideological intentions and effects of the program. I suspect rather significant amounts of money are necessary to bring in some of the speakers, but we have no idea where that money is coming from and what the providers of the money are trying to get for their investment. Follow the money.

Williams, like every US non-profit, is not required to provide a list of donors and the amounts each has given. Of course, Williams could still choose to do so, presumably after informing potential donors. The major problem, obviously, is that lots of donors prefer to give anonymously and, so, such a policy would hurt the campaign. The College, of course, is happy to publicize major donations from donors who don’t mind the press.

Sam feels very strongly about this idea, so much so that I read it as a demand rather than a suggestion. He has posted versions of it to the Williams Record, Inside Higher Ed, and the Williams Alternative.

Wait a second! I have this all wrong! Sam does not believe that Williams College should make public its donors and the amount they give. He thinks that Uncomfortable Learning (UL) a student group at Williams should make public its donors and the amount they give. Secrecy is fine for Sam and the people he agrees with, obviously. Secrecy is only a problem for people that Sam disagrees with, like the students who run UL.

That makes sense! /sarcasm

Here is a clearer statement of Sam’s views:

Who funds the “Uncomfortable Learning” series? I imagine it takes a lot of cash to bring in some of the people (Jonah Goldberg?) they have brought. Who is paying? A list of donors and the amounts they have given might help clarify the ideological context of the program.

Perhaps. But, as always, note the question that Sam does not ask:

Who funds the Dively Committee series? I imagine it takes a lot of cash to bring in some of the people (Jiz Lee?) they have brought. Who is paying? A list of donors and the amounts they have given might help clarify the ideological context of the program.

Excellent Record reporter Francesca Paris should follow up with Professor Crane, exploring his views on which Williams events require donor transparency and which do not. I guarantee that the supporters of Uncomfortable Learning would provide her with some juicy quotes . . .


Defending Williams on Venker Cancellation

No one has written more words over more years complaining about the lack of intellectual diversity at Williams than I have. Yet even I think that critics of the decision to cancel Venker are being unfair to Williams and to the students involved. Here are four representative examples:

First, Williams has probably bought more conservative/libertarian/traditional/non-liberal speakers to campus than any other liberal arts school in the last few years. Examples include: Casey Mulligan, Richard Sander, Ron Unz, Mike Needham ’04, Jonah Goldberg, Greg Lukianoff, Richard Vedder, KC Johnson and others. If you think Williams is “pathetic,” then you must believe that places like Amherst, Swarthmore and Pomona are absolutely hopeless. There is more intellectual diversity among public speakers at Williams than there is at any other liberal arts college and, perhaps, at any elite university.

Second, Williams College as an institution (administration and faculty) had nothing to do with the cancellation. The College cares about its massive capital campaign. It does not care about who students invite to speak on campus and who they disinvite.

Third, Uncomforable Learning, the student group behind the invitation/disinvitation, has done more to increase the range of public debate at its college than any other student group in the world. (Contrary opinions welcome.) Big shout-outs to some of its leaders, including Ben Fischberg ’14, David Gaines ’15, James Hitchcock ’15, Matthew Hennessy ’17, Didier Jean-Michel ’17 and Zach Wood ’18. They (with help from other students in the group) brought all those unusual speakers to Williams. No only that, but they also brought liberal/leftist speakers like Norman Finkelstein and Randall Kennedy. Unless you have done as much to improve the range of views presented at your university, you should be slow to criticize their efforts.

Fourth, the decision to cancel was not unreasonable. I happen to disagree with it, but, if your goal is to expand political discussion at Williams, to encourage students to engage with unfamiliar views, then you ought to try to meet those students halfway. Instead of Venker — hardly the most subtle of thinkers — you would probably be better off bringing Wendy Shalit ’97, an alum whose critique of modern feminism is similar to Venker’s. Replacing Venker with Shalit might be the right call.

Again, Williams needs more intellectual diversity, among its invited speakers, its faculty and its students. It needs more open dialogue and debate. It needs more “uncomfortable learning,” from all possible directions.

Yet many of the criticisms over this decision seem poorly informed.

Contrary opinions welcome!


Intellectual Engagement


I think that this is the clearest statement, from Zach Wood ’18, of the reasoning behind the cancellation of the Venker event. Comments:

1) I like Zach Wood! I hope this controversy leads him to be more involved in the public life of the college. I have been told (accurately?) that he is not even a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, Eph division. (Sorry Mike Needham ’04!) Instead, he is just a Williams student who, following in the legacy of Professor Robert Gaudino, believes in the importance of wide open dialogue and debate.

2) I like (and know) the two unnamed students mentioned by Zach above. (At least I think I do.) Both are wonderful Ephs, similarly committed to dialogue and debate. Both, in their roles with Uncomfortable Learning, have done more to bring alternative views to Williams than any other students or faculty or staff in the last year or two. Kudos to them!

3) I respect their judgment that, given their goals, cancelling was the best path. They could be right! But I also disagree with that judgment.


Suzanne Venker disinvited from “Uncomfortable Learning”

Just weeks after EphBlog discussed the activities of the “Uncomfortable Learning” organization at Williams College, the group is in the headlines — and not in a good way. Suzanne Venker has an opinion piece posted online titled: “Williams College dropped me from its ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ speaker series. Why?” In it, she writes:

For the past two months, I’ve been preparing a speech for my upcoming visit to Williams College in Massachusetts. I was invited to speak at the university on behalf of its ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ Speaker Series…

[M]y talk was cancelled several days prior to the event. “Thank you for agreeing to speak,” read the email, “but we’re not going to be able to host this event.”

Though my contact didn’t give a reason, the day before he’d sent me this email: “Dear Ms. Venker, A quick heads up…We’ve been advertising the event, and it’s already stirring a lot of angry reactions among students on campus. We just wanted to make you aware of the current state of students before your presentation…”

When I pressed further as to why the event was being cancelled (though of course I knew why), he conceded that Williams College “has never experienced this kind of resistance” to a campus speaker.

Venker is the author of “The Flipside of Feminism” and “How to Choose a Husband and Make Peace With Marriage,” and is an iconoclast critic of modern feminism. According to her article, she planned to share her critique of feminism, framing it around the idea of uncomfortable subjects, as appropriate for the series:

My goal for you all, my purpose in being here today, is to inspire you to think for yourselves. Do not be swayed by groupthink no matter what your friends, your family or the culture believe. Do not be afraid to ask yourself questions that may make you uncomfortable. And do not be afraid of the answers…

Imagine the possibilities if students at Williams College and elsewhere were exposed to a completely different worldview. Something positive. Something uplifting. Something, dare I say it, empowering?

We can hope that there’s another side to the story of the cancellation of Venker’s scheduled speech, but at a time when the toxic atmosphere for intellectual disagreement on college campuses has drawn widespread attention — with even President Obama weighing in to encourage universities to host more ideological diversity — this disinvitation is not reflecting well on Williams.


A Ring of Motivated Ignorance

We will have more coverage of this topic tomorrow, but here are some clarifications about the most widely covered Williams story of 2015.

Start with Instapundit:venkler

All right-wing Ephs love Instapundit, but he is wrong on the facts. Venker was not “dropped” by Williams College, the institution. She was disinvited by the same students who invited her in the first place, as Williams itself notes in this tweet:venk2

Correct. Despite the fantasies of the clueless weevils infesting Instapundit’s comment threads, Williams College barely cares about the speakers that its students invite. It, as an institution, cares about completing its $650 million capital campaign. That is what keeps Adam Falk awake at night, not the prospect of a visit from the Fox News junior varsity. With luck, Instapundit will correct his post.

Venker’s article is here. Background on the issue comes from this excellent article in the Williams Alternative by Zach Wood ’18. Summary: The Uncomfortable Learning student group disinvited Venker after (many?) students expressed (how?) vehement disagreement with her scheduled appearance. It is a shame that the group caved. As Wood eloquently writes:

At America’s top liberal arts college, we should not settle for petty personal attacks, unchecked confirmation bias, and Taco 6-like verbal harassments when we deeply disagree with people. We can come to terms with meaningful disagreements without making presumptions of guilt. We can critique each other intellectually and challenge people effectively without snidely suggesting that they are sexist, racist, anti-black, anti-feminist, or xenophobic. Fact is: All of us are biased. So before we discount what someone has to say because we think that they are biased or prejudiced, we should ask ourselves, as Socrates asked Plato, whose bias do we seek?


1) Do I blame Uncomfortable Learning for caving in to student pressure? No. It is a free country and the students involved have every right to make their own decisions. Having your friends (honestly!) think that you are encouraging “hate” is hard, especially when you hold campus positions (like JA) or hope to contribute more to the Williams community in the future, all the more so if all you really want to do is encourage discussion.

2) Adam Falk, rather than viewing this as a public relations annoyance — there are plenty of rich and political moderate alumni who don’t like the idea of Williams cancelling speakers (which did not happen here!) — could seize it as an opportunity, a chance to demonstrate that Williams is the most politically diverse and intellectually open of any elite college. Invite Venker back, but in a debate forum, with her arguing over the merits of feminism with a prominent member of the faculty, perhaps Professor Katie Kent ’88. This would quiet the right-wing loons screeching censorship while generating much useful campus discussion. Even better would be to include students in the presentation, as in the Williams College Debate Union events a decade ago.

3) Wood ’18 makes reference to various Facebook threads. Are those public? Could some of our readers paste them into this comment thread (leaving out author names, if you like). Future historians will thank you! And our readers always enjoy reading the arguments of passionate Williams students.


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