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On Freedom of Conscience, Bryn Mawr Gets It Right

Early this summer, FIRE received a case submission from a Bryn Mawr student worried about a proposal for a “Social Justice Pilot Program” gaining momentum on her campus. Conceived in the wake of a campus scandal involving racial slurs published on popular social networking site by a member of the school’s student government, student and faculty proponents of the Social Justice Pilot Program (SJPP) argued that the best way to address perceived intolerance at Bryn Mawr was through adding a “social justice requirement” to the curriculum.

As support for the proposal coalesced, the Social Justice Pilot Program began to take shape. According to an e-mail sent to the student body by the Social Justice Pilot Committee, students would be required to “develop a ‘contract’ to map and document each student’s ‘social justice journey,’ working in collaboration with faculty to ‘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.’” Participating in workshops, retreats and approved coursework would serve to fulfill a student’s social justice “credits.” Bryn Mawr’s student newspaper, The Bi-College News, noted in May that under the proposal, “incorporating the social justice requirement into classes would not require a reformatting of curriculum, but rather just a new perspective be taken on some existing classes.” Further e-mails were sent throughout the summer, soliciting student involvement. By all indications, the SJPP had the full support of Bryn Mawr administrators and faculty.

At this point, the worried Bryn Mawr student contacted FIRE. Why? Well, anyone familiar with FIRE’s work will instantly recognize the problem presented by a “social justice” requirement: whatever the intentions of such a requirement, it necessarily violates a student’s fundamental freedom of conscience. That’s because a concept as fundamentally subjective as “social justice” cannot morally be defined and taught, as if it were as static as multiplication tables. Rather, what is and is not socially just is an inherently personal determination, inevitably contingent upon such infinitely variable factors as the sum of one’s life experiences, faith, political ideology, and so on. For a school to present “social justice” as something that can be learned (and graded) is deeply terrifying, as it assumes that only the school’s definition of social justice is acceptable, or that there can be a “right answer” at all. In short, to insist that only an institutional conception of social justice can be correct is both a terrible encroachment upon a student’s individual right to freedom of conscience and simple coercion.

Now, keep in mind that FIRE’s core objections to “social justice requirements” have been broadcast loud and clear. For ready example, we’ve told Columbia University’s Teachers College time and again that their use of “social justice” dispositions in student evaluations is morally repugnant. Despite sending more than a few letters to Teachers College, they still seem not to understand. (To be fair, their last letter insisted that they were looking into the problem—but that was May, and we’ve heard nothing since.) Unfortunately, Teachers College is far from the only school with a penchant for dictating acceptable ideologies to its students. As we wrote in the New York Post in June, Washington State University, Le Moyne College, Brooklyn College, and Rhode Island College have all imposed their own political or moral conclusions upon their students in the past several years.

But back to Bryn Mawr. After reviewing the SJPP materials sent to us by the worried student, FIRE’s suspicions were indeed raised. As I explained in our August 3 letter to Bryn Mawr President Nancy J. Vickers, it seemed as though Bryn Mawr was poised to “adopt[] 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.” Further, I wrote:

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.

Perhaps having been conditioned by schools like Teachers College to expect obfuscation and stonewalling, I didn’t expect the school’s response to confront my questions and concerns directly. After bracing for the old college administrator shuffle—something all of us at FIRE have sadly come to expect—imagine my surprise when President Vickers’ response was conscientious and specific, worthy of quoting at length:

From its founding, originally as a Quaker college, Bryn Mawr has always espoused a strong commitment to free inquiry, freedom of conscience, and free expression. During the Nazi rise to power in Europe and World War II, Bryn Mawr became home to many distinguished European scholars who were refugees from Nazi persecution. In the McCarthy era, Bryn Mawr was the first college to decline aid rather than force students applying for loans to sign a loyalty oath to the United States and an affidavit regarding membership in the Communist party. Later, at the height of protest against the Vietnam War, Bryn Mawr was the only institution in Pennsylvania to decline aid rather than report student protesters as a condition of eligibility for government scholarship support.


Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that a group of current Bryn Mawr students recently initiated an effort to create a social-justice program. Let me clarify the status of the Social Justice Pilot Program: it is experimental, it is voluntary and it is student-led. There is no pressure whatsoever for any student to participate. Furthermore, should a student sign up and later change her mind and drop out, she is free to do so without repercussion of any kind. The pilot may or may not ultimately evolve into a program that our faculty’s Curriculum Committee might propose to include in our formal curriculum, but any such process would take time and extensive faculty and student debate.

You raise a number of concerns about the language that has been used to describe the Social Justice Pilot Program, including the lack of definition of the term “social justice” and the reference to a “contract.” I agree that the issue of what constitutes or defines “social justice” is one the organizing committee will need to think through for themselves, and they have made clear to me since the inception of the pilot that they are engaged in that process. It will also be a concept that participants in the program must ultimately define individually and over time. As for the term “contract,” the committee has told me that it is only a plan for the six elements that each participating student will choose to complete. I will recommend to the committee, for the reasons you point out,  that they substitute the word “plan” for “contract.”

Let me assure you that we remain ever mindful of fostering students’ freedom of speech and conscience. The Social Justice Pilot Program is an attempt to discern whether this kind of program has a place in our extracurricular or curricular offerings. We won’t know the answer to that, much less whether it can pass the high bar set by the faculty, until we see how this experiment progresses.

The most important element of President Vickers’ response, besides her demonstrated understanding of the essentiality of freedom of conscience, is learning that the SJPP is in no way mandatory for Bryn Mawr students. That’s a crucial point: If Bryn Mawr isn’t forcing students to participate in the SJPP or accept its conception of social justice, the SJPP is no longer objectionable, as students surely enjoy the basic associational right to participate in programs of their choice. That’s a far cry from Teachers College’s use of social justice dispositions in evaluating every student, an aspect of education at Teachers College over which enrolled students have no control or choice. Indeed, President Vickers’ eminently reasonable response begs the question: Why can’t other schools respect the fundamental importance of freedom of conscience? As Bryn Mawr has demonstrated here, granting students this basic liberty is not all that difficult. Just the opposite, really: letting students determine the contours of their worldview for themselves should be the hallmark of a good education, a sine qua non of higher learning.

And the student whose concerns prompted our dialogue with Bryn Mawr? After receiving a copy of Vickers’ response, she wrote:

It’s a relief just to know that President Vickers responded. The greatest relief, of course, is hearing that there will extensive discussion and debate before the pilot turns into anything else.  The over-the-summer hastiness and the wording of the initial e-mail had me thinking that a mandatory program was inevitable.  It sounds like my junior year will be (marginally!) less stressful than anticipated.  Thank you very much for your help. You’ll definitely hear from me if the situation changes for the worse.

This is not to say that FIRE will not continue to monitor the Social Justice Pilot Program, to ensure that it remains as voluntary as President Vickers has assured us it will. As we noted in our response: “The students involved in the Social Justice Pilot Program would be well-served by remembering that as aggressive as those who fight for free speech and free minds may be, the value at the heart of the First Amendment is ultimately humility. Judge Learned Hand eloquently articulated this essential truth when he described the true spirit of liberty as ‘the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’”

It is very encouraging to see a school finally “get it”: freedom of conscience is a necessary prerequisite for true learning. Bryn Mawr has raised the bar—especially for schools like Teachers College, for whom we’re still waiting.

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