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Williams College alumni unite to preserve freedom in the liberal arts

Morgan Hall in the fall at Williams College

Morgan Hall at Williams College.

Daniel Blatt treasured his time at Williams College, a small private liberal arts school in Massachusetts. 

As an alumnus, Daniel served on the college’s executive committee; founded the Ephs-in-Entertainment, “a networking group for Williams alumni in the entertainment industry”; and, for six years, served as president of a regional association for the Williams College community. Daniel even served a term on Williams’ Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni — an honor accorded to those who give a “high level volunteer service to the college.” 

Most recently, Daniel teamed up with other alumni to form the Williams Free Speech Alliance, through which he hopes to protect the college from growing tendencies toward censorship and closed-mindedness.

When Daniel thinks of Williams, he remembers a college that helped him learn the value of seeking different perspectives. “As an undergraduate, I came to appreciate that while someone may have an opinion at odds with my own, they could still have a valid argument,” he said. “I could learn from them — just as they could learn from me.” 

But recently, Daniel has begun to fear his alma mater has changed — and not for the better:

But I fear that the Williams I loved is disappearing, with students disrupting speakers — student organization meetings, with an academic program taking a stand on a political issue, alienating students who disagree with it, and that a professor, a department chair no less, sneering at the idea of free speech and open discourse, the very heart of a liberal arts education, the very essence of my Williams experience.

The student government’s decision to deny a club official status based on their pro-Israel viewpoint especially disturbed Daniel. Even when the college rectified the situation after FIRE’s advocacy, Daniel worried that students and administrators failed to value free speech and robust dialogue in the collegiate setting. 

Now, he wants to encourage the Williams community — from students to faculty, administrators, and alumni — to recognize that free expression is a necessary ingredient to a phenomenal liberal arts education like the one he received at Williams College. 

FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings support Daniel’s observations about the culture of the college. Williams currently ranks 161 of 203 colleges surveyed — a decidedly uninspiring sign. 

Student raising his hand in a classroom

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This result is, unfortunately, unsurprising: It represents a broader trend among liberal arts colleges, which consistently place in the bottom quarter of all the colleges and universities FIRE surveys. Though you wouldn’t know it by these grim findings, restrictive speech codes and a student body hostile to free speech are not required features of a liberal arts college education — in fact, they’re antithetical to it. 

Proving liberal arts schools don’t have to be illiberal, Claremont McKenna College, a school similar to Williams, has consistently scored in the top 10 of the Campus Free Speech Rankings. This year, it ranked sixth of 203 schools surveyed. It has also adopted the Chicago Statement — an excellent model for free speech commitments by a college or university. 

Claremont McKenna is far from perfect, however. Even though it earned a spot in the top 10 for free speech, its composite score in the free speech rankings is 72.6%. FIRE doesn’t do grade inflation — so Claremont McKenna only receives a C minus. Still, it’s far better than Williams’ disappointing 36.37%. Claremont McKenna might not have all A’s, but Williams isn’t even coming to class. 

But hope is not lost for Williams. Alumni groups have had remarkable success rallying around free speech principles at their alma maters. 

For example, Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University (ranked 169 of 203), dedicated an entire section of freshman orientation last fall to free expression training. This is an important step FIRE recommends college presidents take to protect free speech. A group of Princeton alumni have been outspoken in their support of free expression at Princeton and specifically criticized President Eisgruber’s previous failure to address the necessity of free expression during freshman orientation. Doubtless, the Princetonians for Free Speech can take at least partial credit for the transformation in the president’s rhetoric. 

 Though you wouldn’t know it by these grim findings, restrictive speech codes and a student body hostile to free speech are not required features of a liberal arts college education — in fact, they’re antithetical to it. 

Another alumni group, the MIT Free Speech Alliance, petitioned MIT for two years to adopt a free expression statement and finally received an endorsement by college president Sally Kornbluth of a faculty-devised free expression statement. 

There are limitless possibilities for alumni who wish to help their campuses embrace free speech. We compiled a few of them in our list of “Alumni Action Items for University Reform.”

We’re proud to see graduates like Daniel and the other members of the Williams Free Speech Alliance take initiative in fostering free expression on their campus. 

To follow the progress of Daniel and free speech leaders like him, and to learn how you can bring free expression to your alma mater, subscribe to FIRE’s Alumni Network.

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