FIRE Letter to Bryn Mawr University President Nancy J. Vickers, August 3, 2007

By August 3, 2007

August 3, 2007

President Nancy J. Vickers
Bryn Mawr College
Office of the President
Taylor Hall, 101 N. Merion Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (610-526-7450)

 
Dear President Vickers:

As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, due process, legal equality, voluntary association, freedom of speech, and religious liberty on America’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is deeply concerned about the threat to the freedoms of speech and conscience posed by the launch of Bryn Mawr’s Social Justice Pilot Program and the planned adoption of a mandatory “social justice requirement” for all Bryn Mawr students. If implemented, both the Social Justice Pilot Program and the proposed “social justice requirement” will represent brazen violations of the individual autonomy, dignity, and freedom of thought of Bryn Mawr students. We write today to implore Bryn Mawr to reconsider its decision to violate one of the most central freedoms of any human being: the freedom of conscience.

These are the facts as we understand them; please inform us if we are in error. This past April, Bryn Mawr’s campus became embroiled in a controversy regarding a party invitation posted on the popular social networking site Facebook.com by student Joanna Dauber, the treasurer of the college’s Student Government Association (SGA). Dauber’s Facebook invitation quoted a song lyric that included a racial epithet. Further, the description of the party included references to racial caricatures and stereotypes about urban African-Americans. Outrage over the invitation spread quickly, and Dauber offered a public apology at an SGA meeting held the week after the event. Asked publicly at the meeting to resign by student Mzimeli Morris, Dauber refused to do so. However, on Morris’ motion, the SGA formed a committee to investigate the possibility of impeaching Dauber. After several weeks of research, debate, and procedural wrangling, the SGA scheduled a school-wide vote on Dauber’s impeachment on May 2 and 3. Faced with the prospect of impeachment, Dauber chose to resign on April 30.

Throughout the controversy surrounding Dauber’s resignation, students, faculty, and administrators held discussions regarding ways to address perceptions of racial tension on campus. According to the May 1 edition of The Bi-College News, Bryn Mawr professors held a “Teach-In” on April 28 to discuss with students the possibility of instituting a social justice requirement within Bryn Mawr’s current curriculum. Additionally, faculty and students on the Ethnic Studies Committee met on April 23 to discuss “what a Social Justice requirement would encompass, and how it could become a reality.” Through these and other discussions, a consensus vision of a social justice requirement at Bryn Mawr seems to have emerged, culminating in a May 26 e-mail to the Bryn Mawr community from the Social Justice Pilot Committee, a self-described group of “students, faculty and members of the Diversity Council.”

The e-mail outlined the proposed requirement’s “Goals,” “Approach,” and “Model.” Specifically, the “Goals” section establishes that students, working in conjunction with faculty and staff, will be expected to:

(1) critically examine in an ongoing way and in multiple forums the hierarchies and relationships of power that shape our lives and how we shape them;

(2) learn to interact in ways that respect the dignity and worth of all people by developing the ability to utilize language and master tools necessary to work towards mutual understanding; and

(3) feel empowered to begin conversations and to create forums that address these hierarchies in society, and their implications and presence on Bryn Mawr’s campus.

The “Approach” sets out the mechanics of the proposed requirement’s operation, including discussion of a “‘contract’ to map and document each student’s ‘social justice journey.’” The “Approach” elaborates on this contractual aspect of the requirement, stating that in “creating and signing this contract, each student and the institution enter into an agreement about that journey.” Finally, the “Model” section of the proposal focuses on “targeted skills” acquired in different “arenas” for credits towards completing the social justice requirement. The “targeted skills” include, for example, the ability to “interrogate personal history & self-identity” and “dialogue across difference”—requirements that can be fulfilled by attending “[d]iversity discussions” or by becoming a “Community Diversity Assistant,” among other options.

Following the May 26 e-mail describing the requirement, the Social Justice Pilot Committee sent another e-mail on July 5 to Bryn Mawr upperclasswomen, inviting them to serve as student mentors for the Social Justice Pilot Program. The e-mail stated that the Committee is “looking for candidates with facilitation skills, a desire to be a part of the movement towards embracing diversity in a new way both at Bryn Mawr and in the world at large, the ability and openness to dialogue across difference, and a willingness to interrogate their personal history and self identity so that they will be better equipped to help their mentees do so.”

In sum, Bryn Mawr seems to be adopting a social justice requirement that would implicitly demand that students adopt a particular ideological worldview and “interrogate their personal history and self identity,” presumably in an attempt to arrive at answers deemed sufficiently “socially just” by the program’s administrators. FIRE is profoundly troubled by these developments. If Bryn Mawr adopts a social justice requirement as described in the Social Justice Pilot Committee e-mails—and the actions of the Social Justice Pilot Committee seem to indicate the requirement’s full implementation is forthcoming—the college will be unacceptably interfering with the moral and intellectual agency of its students. 

Whatever Bryn Mawr’s intentions, implementing a vaguely defined social justice requirement will serve only to intrude upon the essential right of Bryn Mawr students to keep their own counsel when contemplating the important moral, political, philosophical, and metaphysical questions a successful liberal arts education necessarily engenders. Tellingly, nowhere in the Social Justice Pilot Committee’s e-mails to students is the term “social justice” defined; at no point is the term explained, contextualized, or otherwise situated in the larger philosophical and political worldview it seems to infer. What does it mean to “dialogue across difference” or to “interrogate [one’s] personal history and self identity”? Bryn Mawr students—who will apparently be asked to sign a “contract” agreeing to perform these nebulous and uncertain acts—have every reason to suspect their participation in the college’s social justice program will require a commitment to a predetermined and politically loaded worldview. At the very least, such vague language causes confusion and virtually guarantees abuse.

“Social justice” is an entirely abstract concept that can represent vastly different things to different people. By instituting a social justice requirement and requiring students to sign contracts committing to document their “social justice journey” as a condition of graduation, Bryn Mawr runs a grave risk of contradicting its own advertised commitments to freedom of expression and inquiry. An ill-defined official social justice requirement will inevitably diminish students’ willingness to voice opinions about their own conceptions of “social justice” that they fear may differ with the majority or institutional conception. Indeed, at least one current student has expressed to FIRE her dismay that Bryn Mawr seems to be approaching the implementation of an institutional definition of “social justice.” Given the tense campus atmosphere, we can assume that others students feel similarly. A social justice requirement of the sort described by the committee’s e-mails would result in a tacit imposition of “correct thinking” on Bryn Mawr’s campus, replacing intellectual discovery with dogmatic political orthodoxy. 

Although the United States Constitution does not bind private universities like Bryn Mawr to guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of conscience to their students, those that claim to value the open exchange of diverse ideas should pay heed to the wise and moral principles enshrined in the First Amendment. 

Bryn Mawr’s Student Handbook states unequivocally that “[t]he College is also firmly committed to academic and professional excellence and to freedom of inquiry and expression for all members of the College community.” The Handbook also makes the explicit claim to “uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States and of Pennsylvania.” In order for students to enjoy this promised freedom, however, their willingness to speak freely about their political views must not be chilled by an institutionally calibrated understanding of “social justice.” The inhibition of dissenting student discourse and scholarship dealing with controversial topics should not be tolerated at an institution committed to genuine freedom of inquiry, as Bryn Mawr claims to be. 

Consider the Supreme Court’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), which dealt with mandated allegiances to political ideologies at public schools. Writing for the Court, Justice Robert H. Jackson declared, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The Court ultimately concluded that the Constitution intended to protect precisely “the sphere of intellect and spirit” from “all official control.” To the extent it implies an evaluation on the basis of viewpoint, a social justice requirement forcing students to “interrogate their personal history and identity” cannot truly be compatible with the Court’s conclusion.

Furthermore, dictating political beliefs opposes the principles and statements of the American Association of University Professors. In the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students (1967), the AAUP advised that “students should be encouraged to develop the capacity for critical judgment and to engage in a sustained and independent search for truth. … [They] should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.” In 2000, the AAUP reaffirmed the necessity of these fundamental rights in its Statement on Graduate Students: “Graduate programs in universities exist for the discovery and transmission of knowledge, the education of students, the training of future faculty, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.” FIRE is concerned that with the implementation of a social justice requirement, Bryn Mawr moves uncomfortably into the realm of policing its students’ opinions and hampering their ability to “take reasoned exception” and “reserve judgment about matters of opinion.” 

We hope that you will seriously consider the implications of your proposed policy. We thank you for your time and look forward to your response by August 24, 2007.

Sincerely,

Will Creeley
Senior Program Officer

cc:
Ralph Kuncl, Provost  
Karen Tidmarsh, Undergraduate Dean
Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, Assistant Dean and Director of Intercultural Affairs
Professor Mary Osirim, Faculty Diversity Liaison
Professor Linda-Susan Beard
Professor Jody Cohen
Professor Alison Cook-Sather
Florence Goff, Associate CIO and Equal Opportunity Officer
Dave Merrell, Editor-in-Chief, The Bi-College News
Alison Cook-Sather, Teaching and Learning Initiative
Zanny Alter
Allison Bates
Kathy Huynh
Shayna Israel
Stephanie Kearse-Gaston
Mzimeli Morris
Maeve O’Hara
Nydia Palacios
Tiffany Shumate

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