Editor’s Note: Williams College student and FIRE Prometheus Society honoree Zach Wood sent this message to FIRE supporters today, sharing the personal challenges he’s faced trying to bring diverse perspectives to his campus. We’re grateful for Zach’s dedication to this important initiative.
After reading this, we hope you’ll agree with Zach — that FIRE’s “work is more important than ever” on America’s college and university campuses — and consider his call to support FIRE’s efforts.
When I arrived at Williams College in 2014, I was eager to explore the world of ideas. Given my deep interest in politics, I was especially looking forward to thoughtfully discussing and energetically debating a host of controversial topics with my peers, professors, and visiting speakers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I realized that many of my peers and professors had little to no interest in considering ideas that challenged their worldview and the prevailing campus orthodoxy, particularly on issues of race, class, and gender.
Like most college students today, I identify as a liberal Democrat and I admire the work of political figures such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But I was eager to step outside that identity, explore other ideas, and consider different perspectives. After all, in my view, college should be about engaging with ideas and philosophies that challenge students to check their assumptions, test their conclusions, and rethink their firmly held beliefs.
I wanted my experience at Williams to push me to my intellectual limit. It’s what I was looking forward to most about college, even if it meant feeling uncomfortable or was unnerving at times.
Boy, was I disappointed.
Despite my hope of finding a community of inquirers who sought to pursue truth in its full complexity, more often than not, my education felt limited both inside and outside the classroom by what many commentators have accurately described as an “echo chamber.”
No matter the topic, dominant values oftentimes go unquestioned at Williams, as they do at many colleges and universities throughout the country. Hence, students who espouse minority viewpoints or unpopular ideas, even students like myself who enjoy playing devil’s advocate, often face ridicule, ostracism, and in some cases, intimidation and punishment for challenging progressive beliefs.
Instead of a marketplace of ideas, it’s a monopoly of ideas.
Sadly, my experience isn’t unique, but as a friend of FIRE, I bet you already knew that. The good news is, we students have an advocate in our corner. In the face of a closed campus culture, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education works to promote the exchange of ideas and protect free inquiry at schools across the country. Their work is more important than ever, and I’m writing you today in the hope you might consider supporting FIRE’s efforts.
Not only does FIRE give students the resources to understand and defend their rights, they also publicly recognize those individuals who advocate for change. I was humbled to be among those recognized by FIRE for my advocacy.
Unable to accept a college experience without robust, open discussion of ideas, I joined and eventually became the president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that strives to broaden the range of political discourse on campus by hosting controversial speakers. It probably comes as no surprise to FIRE supporters that, throughout the past two years, my club has faced significant opposition.
Not only does Uncomfortable Learning face a hostile student body, but my college president, Adam Falk, disinvited a controversial speaker my club invited to campus and then had the gall to say, “We have free speech at Williams” and “Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard.” His statements could not be further from the truth.
President Falk also went out of his way to institute numerous policies which have limited the ability of my group to bring speakers to campus. What was once a clear and fairly simple process now involves extensive red tape, intense questioning, and sometimes even express discouragement from the administration.
The attempt to silence controversial speakers and ideas is happening all across the country.
This is why I appreciate FIRE’s work so much. Without them, there would be no one standing up for students’ right to express themselves and seek out thought-provoking dialogue. Their defense program advocates for those targeted by censorship, their policy team works to eliminate speech codes and pass legislation supportive of free speech, and their media project constantly generates awareness on important campus civil liberties issues. But to me, their most important work consists of efforts to empower students and promote free expression.
FIRE has, in both word and deed, consistently defended the values for which I and my student group proudly stand. That effort is truly invaluable in today’s campus climate.
I hope, after hearing about my experience, you’ll consider making a donation to support FIRE’s important work. Their advocacy and presence is sorely needed on campus, and your contribution can make a real difference to students like me.
Zach Wood, Williams College ‘18