By Peter Wood at The National Association of Scholars
Dear President Bettison-Varga,
I urge you to reconsider your decision to dis-invite George Will to speak at Scripps College. The students at Scripps would greatly benefit by your reversing course. Let me offer three reasons:
First, your initial dis-invitation strongly enunciated your personal disagreement with Mr. Will’s views on sexual assault on campus. Scripps students are now aware, if they had any doubts before this, where you and the Scripps’ administration stand.
Second, by reversing course at this point you could give significant force to the liberal arts ideal that, after all, civil disagreement on matters of principle is a vital part of education. Just as the decision to dis-invite Mr. Will emphatically underscored the difference between your views and Mr. Will’s, a re-invitation would dramatically show your commitment to intellectual freedom. It is easy to “tolerate” views that differ from one’s own only slightly. Tolerating views that differ on points of passionate concern requires grit. Scripps students would benefit immensely if they were to witness their college president reluctantly upholding the principle of open dialogue against her own preference for limiting a particular discussion.
Third, students at Scripps and across the country are learning by example that when faced with the prospect of hearing from someone whose views they dislike, an appropriate response is to stop that person from speaking. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has tracked dis-invitations since 2000 and found 192 reported cases, with a very sharp increase (29 cases) in 2013. This year we are on track for even more. And FIRE’s numbers do not include the parallel cases such as the silencing of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at Brown University in October 2013 by protesters who shouted him down.
This is a deeply disturbing trend in American higher education, and it has been condemned by thoughtful observers across the political spectrum, including Michael Bloomberg at Harvard’s 2014 Commencement. It is, to borrow your phrase, “not a conservative or liberal issue.” It is an education issue.
And you are in the unusual position to do something about it. If one college president came forward to say, “I misjudged. I don’t agree with the speaker about this issue, but I recognize the urgency in letting someone whose views I reject have the opportunity to present those views,” it would begin to change the entire atmosphere. Scripps could help move us from a growing mood of censorious anger to a mood of patient listening. That would be a precious gift to Scripps students and a principled stand that would do the whole country good.
I have written separately to the members of the Scripps Board of Trustees asking them to weigh in on this matter. But I would hope you would see the importance of inviting Mr. Will now and at your own initiative.
National Association of Scholars
Schools: Scripps College