What happens when the liberal arts education you expected turns out to be an illiberal one?
That’s the question a small group of Wellesley College students are grappling with at the historic Boston-area school, famous for educating some of the world’s most successful women.
Over the course of two days, members of The Freedom Project — a nonpartisan program at Wellesley dedicated to exploring a range of ideologically diverse viewpoints — described to FIRE the opposition they’ve encountered for their mere willingness to discuss controversial ideas, or question widely-accepted ones.
The students explain how a campus culture where students face fierce backlash for saying the “wrong” thing — or for speaking up at all — stops important campus conversations before they ever start.
In an atmosphere where real self-expression is rapidly being replaced by self-censorship, these Freedom Project fellows tell FIRE about their fears for the next generation of Wellesley women — and their hope for an intellectually freer future at the college they love.
Watch the interview above or see it over on FIRE’s YouTube channel. And while you’re there, make sure to subscribe to receive automatic notifications when new videos are posted. For your convenience, we’ve also appended a transcript below.
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, Wellesley administrators announced they had selected English professor and former dean of faculty affairs Kathryn Lynch as the new director of The Freedom Project, effective Aug. 1. Lynch has been an outspoken supporter of The Freedom Project, so this move may bode well for the future of the program. We’ll keep you posted.
FIRE Investigates: An (il)liberal arts education at Wellesley? (TRANSCRIPT)
FIRE: It seems like an uncontroversial idea to say “We just want to discuss ideas in a … neutral way.” Why is it controversial here at Wellesley?
Kaila Webb: It’s controversial at Wellesley because there’s very little tolerance for any other opinion besides the opinion that is accepted by the majority of students.
FIRE: Wellesley College is one of the most elite in the nation. Since 1875, its educated thousands of wildly successful women. But members of a student debate group there are raising the alarm about a major cultural shift they say is turning their promised liberal arts education, into an illiberal one, where real debate on controversial issues, is no longer welcome on campus.
FIRE: Is there an approved Wellesley ideology on certain issues?
Sandra Osei-Frimpong: Think of the most mainstream liberal ideas, and then that would be Wellesley. And if you deviate slightly from that or you question one idea, then you’ll be seen as the hater who is against feminism, equality, like, whatever….
Melissa He: I’ve like, always been really liberal, but I feel like the liberalness here isn’t actually, like liberal. It’s like a very specific set of ideas you need to cohere to completely if you don’t want to be labeled anything.
KW: It’s not good.
FIRE: Do you guys self-censor a lot?
Catherine Woodhouse: Every day.
FIRE: These Wellesley Women are members of The Freedom Project, a nonpartisan program that brings viewpoints to campus from across the ideological spectrum, through debates and a speaker series. The project even shelters at-risk international scholars whose human rights research might be too dangerous to do in their home countries: places like Turkey, Zimbabwe, and Iran. But these students’ willingness to debate controversial ideas has come at a price.
FIRE: What risks do you guys undertake by being associated with The Freedom Project.
Margaret Flynn Sapia: You want to start us out?
Amelia Forman: Um, I feel like there’s a lot of in-the-closet Freedom Project fellows. Like, people will be ostracized for going to a talk that they don’t necessarily agree with just because like by going to the talk people are saying that you’re supporting them.
SO: You’re racist, you’re homophobic, you’re transphobic.
Grace Wong: It’s sort of like a discredited thing like, “Oh, she’s a conservative,” or “Oh, she’s a moderate,” or “Oh, she’s part of The Freedom Project. Then we don’t really have to take what she’s saying seriously.”
KW: I have had students come to me saying they’re no longer allowed to speak in their class until their opinions change. There are certain professors that will not grade you the same based off your political affiliation.
FIRE: Freedom Project speakers have drawn protests, which the group’s members say is great. Protest is a critical part of any vibrant college campus. But if a protest is a way to engage with the other side, that’s not exactly what’s happening at Wellesley. Consider the case of bioethicist Alice Dreger, who spoke on campus in February. Dreger said protesters seriously misunderstood her views on transgender rights, but when she tried to explain that she agreed with many of them, they wouldn’t listen.
GW: When Ms. Dreger asked protesters about “Hey can we have this conversation? This is like, my work and I would really like to talk to you and ask you why you’re here,” a lot of them seemed, at first, like they didn’t want to engage.
CW: They actually said like, “We’re too tired, to engage you.”
FIRE: And that approach, is stopping important conversations at Wellesley before they ever start.
GW: One thing people say to this is “Oh, we’ve heard it before.” Like, “We’ve heard transphobic comments before, we’ve heard racist comments before, we’ve heard classist comments before, and we don’t need to hear it again because it harms us.” But, I mean, you have to respond to it, and if you respond maybe you could change someone’s mind. Maybe you could have a conversation and you could learn from it; understand where they’re coming from, they could understand where you’re coming from and everyone could grow because of it. I mean, that’s what I believe.
FIRE: The backlash has gotten so bad that last month Wellesley administrators effectively took control of the future of The Freedom Project. A move the students worry could lead to censorship. And while silencing objectionable voices might seem like a quick and easy fix, they say that approach will ultimately do more harm than good.
MFS: If you don’t confront these ideas in your education you aren’t going to have the facts or the rhetorical strategies to confront them when you’re out of college. And if you want to change things, how do you expect to do that without confronting things which oppose you?
GW: I think if both people come from a place of good intention, you should be able to have these discussions. You should be able to ask questions without invalidating someone’s whole life experience.
SOF: I just want people to be open-minded. I understand not wanting to get hurt emotionally but, that’s not how the world works.
FIRE: In not getting the education they were promised, they worry for the future of all women at Wellesley — an institution they truly respect.
FIRE: What do you love about Wellesley
CW: I mean, Wellesley is fantastic. I do love a lot of the people here.
MH: And I think that freedom of speech is so important and if we can get more people to prioritize this, I feel like there could be a complete change. Hopefully.
GW: I think I still would’ve chosen Wellesley. I love Wellesley and I’m really grateful to be here. I think that there are just moments where I question the culture and what it will mold me to be.
KW: Wellesley’s changed my life. I can’t avoid that and I love that. It has opened windows into worlds that I didn’t even know existed. It’s provided me with an education that I couldn’t — oh, I’m almost crying right now — that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I went to my public school. I had an AP biology textbook from the 1970s when I went to high school, so having the opportunity to learn at Wellesley means the world to me.
FIRE: It’s changed your life?
FIRE: So what’s your hope then for the future of all Wellesley students who might have the opportunity to learn as you have?
KW: I want Wellesley Students to be able to chase after their dreams without having to worry about being judged, just for wanting to learn.