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So to Speak podcast transcript: Words, violence, and censorship at Williams College

So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Okay, Professor Maroja, thanks for coming on the show today.

Professor Luana Maroja: Mm-hmm, yeah. Thank you for the invitation.

Nico: You’re a biology professor, correct?

Professor Maroja: Correct – an evolutionary biologist.

Nico: And what got you interested in that?

Professor Maroja: Well, I always had a passion for biology. I really never considered any other path other than biology – so, hard to say. I grew up in a place that was being rapidly ruined by the growth of cities and nature disappeared very quickly.

Nico: Were you near some of the famous Brazilian rain forest or were you in one of the big cities?

Professor Maroja: Yeah, I was – well, both. I was born in Rio – Rio de Janeiro – which is in the Brazilian rain forest which now has less than one percent of its original expansion. It’s the Atlantic Rain Forest – very rich in bio-diversity and now very little of it is left.

Nico: So, it sounds like the environmental situation in Brazil prompted your interest in this career, but you have an interest now in free speech – in particular at Williams College. And if I recall correctly, that interest kind of comes from your experience in Brazil growing under a dictatorship, right?

Professor Maroja: Correct. So, I was born at the peak of the dictatorship in 1976. A lot of my family members were Communists at the time. There were lots of family friends that disappeared. There were – I had a cousin that had to leave the country for a long time until the dictatorship was over. So, yeah, difficult times – my father actually had to burn all his Marxist books.

Nico: And so, your family didn’t feel safe speaking out in a culture like this?

Professor Maroja: No, nobody did. Nobody did. So, the political life of Brazil was completely suppressed and I would say that, to this day, it hasn’t been fully regained. You can see what’s happening in Brazil.

Nico: And did you come to America in part to escape that?

Professor Maroja: Well – and also to get a better education. So, I became very interested in science and I fully realized that science here was at another level. So, I decided to come to grad school in the US and then I never left.

Nico: Were you shocked by the amount of political freedom you had in the United States? Or, while you were growing up in Brazil, did you already sort of know that this sort of political freedom would exist in the United States?

Professor Maroja: It’s a good question. I sort of knew that things were much more open here, but – yeah – and I think it’s something that I realized slowly. It wasn’t a sudden realization.

Nico: And where did you get your degrees from before coming to Williams?

Professor Maroja: So, my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree I got in Brazil at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. And then I came to Cornell University where I got my PhD. I also did a post-doc in the UK at the University of Cambridge and another post-doc at the Smithsonian Institute in Panama.

Nico: There’s a lot of talk now about free speech and academic freedom on college campuses – also political correctness which is kind of tangentially related to that. When you were at Cornell, did you have any concerns about these issues?

Professor Maroja: No, it wasn’t as obvious. So, in Cornell, there was a lot of speech going on that I actually didn’t like and that was the rise of the intelligent design group. And they were very active in Cornell. There were several invited speakers denying evolution – straight creationists – and I would go to all these talks and that’s one thing I gained a lot from those events is learning the opponents’ arguments so that you can better your own arguments. So, that’s one example of how the speech that I considered hateful, if you will, could actually teach me a lot of stuff.

Nico: And when did you go to Williams?

Professor Maroja: I came to Williams in 2010.

Nico: So, I visited Williams for the first time early last month and got the opportunity to meet you of course.

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm.

Nico: And I had been reading in headlines across the country about free speech controversies at Williams College dating back to Zach Wood who was the head of Uncomfortable Learning – a campus group at Williams – for a time that sought to bring controversial speakers to campus for dialogue. And there was an incident where the president of the university – Falk – unilaterally disinvited one of his speakers and generated headlines as a result. And then there have been a couple of more recent campus controversies which I’d prefer you talk about because you know them better than I do.

But I arrived on campus thinking that I work on campus free speech issues every day. When I get up in the morning, some of the first headlines I read are about – headlines about campus free speech issues. So, it’s very easy for me to get spotlight syndrome and think like the most important thing happening on any campus at any one time is the free speech thing.

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm.

Nico: So, when I go to campuses, which I do quite regularly, I often need to take a deep breath and say this is a campus where there are a lot of other things going on. Free speech is probably only a very minor concern on the campus and doesn’t take over the dialogue and conversation in the way that I might think it does from afar.

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm.

Nico: And then I arrived at Williams, and within my first hour of walking around campus, I heard one group of people talking about free speech. And I overheard a second group of people talking about political correctness. And I’m like, hmm, this is odd. This hasn’t happened to me before. And then I finally got together and met some students and they relayed to me how this debate over free speech and what speakers can be invited to campus is kind of all-consuming at Williams. The debate over safety and whether physical safety is different from psychological safety and bringing certain speakers to campus can actually be considered violence in some cases.

And students were telling me that, when they came to Williams, they weren’t anticipating an environment like this. They were anticipating a liberal arts education where there’s a grappling of ideas no matter how controversial or offensive to some. And the environment now on campus is one of almost complete self-censorship if it deviates from the prevailing campus orthodoxy. And it just sounded like one of the most stultifying environments that I’ve ever experienced visiting the dozens, if not hundreds, of campuses that I’ve visited across the across the country over the years.

So, I wanted to pitch it to you and see if you can kind of tell me the story of what’s happening at Williams. Is my impression of my visit there off-base? Or is it really that stultifying right now – that entrenched?

Professor Maroja: This semester has definitely been rough. A number of us professors got concerned about this push for censorship that we started sensing among students. For me, the realization came during a talk when Reza Aslan came to campus and he said during his talk – the talk was entitled “The Future of Free Speech”. And Reza Aslan said that colleges should write rules on stone on who can and cannot speak on campus. And the students stood up and applauded that. One student asked who is to decide on the rules? And Reza Aslan answered that the college should decide on the rules, and again, applause – standing applause – and that was concerning for me.

He ended up saying that only factual talks can happen on campus. So, opinions cannot be expressed – only factual talks. And again, a standing ovation from the students – so, that was incredibly concerning to me. Once we all walked out of that talk, a number of us professors got together and we decided that it was time that we adopted the Chicago principles of free expression on campus. We sent a petition around, and to our surprise, about half of the professors signed the petition within days which is great – a great response. I mean I haven’t seen a response as great as that.

We had a couple days scheduled for discussion. The students heard about this. I don’t know who told them about it. We were not voting – we were just discussing what the principles meant and what did it mean to adopt the principles? As you know, many institutions have now adopted it. So, I heard from college counsel that the students were planning on breaking into our meeting. I emailed the students. I explained we were not voting, but they still came.

They had signs saying free speech harms and they disrupted the meeting throughout. They were saying we wanted to kill them with hate speech. I explained that nobody had any intention of inviting – [inaudible] [00:09:40] is what they thought. They thought we wanted to invite Reza Aslan back. I explained that this is not the intention – that is not why we’re needed. And that was it. We then had a second meeting that went well. [Inaudible] [00:09:52] created a committee to come up with rules for free speech at the college. This committee has not reported yet, but they are working into it and I am hoping that the results will be good. So, I keep my hopes high.

And then – that was it for the fall. And then, in the early spring, two professors did not come for their teaching. One warned us in advance – he went on medical leave. The other one quit the day that classes were starting and that second one said that she was quitting because of violent practices – violent, racist practices at the college. She just sent an email to students and did not show up to class. Without knowing the circumstances of the medical leave or anything, the students fully believed them and started this big campaign of protection to these professors.

They put a shrine in their building and they blocked the corridor with newspapers and objects which were clearly a violation of the fire code because they were blocking passage. Another professor removed some of these objects and in consultation with the fire marshal and campus security. The students got very upset with that and said that the professor was disrupting their freedom of expression. And then, basically, this professor got accused of a number of things, but the freedom of the expression was one of the main things.

And the students didn’t realize that blocking the corridor and disrupting the fire code is not freedom of expression, right? The fire code is content neutral –

Nico: Yeah.

Professor Maroja: – it’s not going to work for contents but not others.

Nico: Yeah.

Professor Maroja: So, yeah.

Nico: So, the argument from the one professor who took leave or quit – that they needed to leave because of the college’s violent practices – is something that you wrote in a recent article deserves investigation. I mean to the extent that violence is happening anywhere, this is something that is something that we would presumably want to be very concerned about.

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. That’s right, yeah. So, if these claims have a basis, we all need to know what’s going on so we can remediate and we can fix it because these are very serious accusations. I frankly have not seen violence on campus much less racist violent practices or institutional lies. So, that is – I think that the college is immensely supportive to the professors of color, the students of color – to diversity.

We have a very large number of diverse students and professors on campus. It has been a top priority to hire diverse professors. There is no evidence whatsoever. Despite what this group has been claiming, there is no evidence that professors of color leave the college more often than white professors. In fact, if anything, there is no significant difference between the two groups, and if anything, professors of color are retained at a slightly higher rate. So, I don’t see evidence.

There were several meetings scheduled after these events to discuss the climate at the college for professors of color and not and all the groups. In one of these meetings, I asked – we need to know what is the violence that is happening on campus and I was told by another professor that even asking what is the violence is a violent act. So, basically, you cannot discuss anything. You just have to take everything at face value and, of course, there are problems with that. Serious claims need serious evidence, right?

Nico: Yeah. It almost becomes unfalsifiable at that point to claim something is violence but then to refuse to allow people to examine those claims and to argue that the mere examination of those claims is itself violence is a perfect rhetorical fortress that you’re building for yourself against any evidence to the contrary. And it shuts down dialogue and debate and rhetoric, and in this case – to the extent that you do get any information about what actually is violence – it isn’t the sort of violence that the standard American or non-American would consider violent. It’s a misplaced remark here or there.

It’s an experience at a car mechanic off campus, but it’s not like anyone is throwing fisticuffs or anything of that nature. How is this rhetoric surrounding what is or isn’t violence manifesting itself in the classroom and outside the classroom? Do you feel as though Williams is a place where you can have debate and discussion now? Or is it so overcome by these accusations of violence that people are afraid to merely speak their mind?

Professor Maroja: I think people are very afraid – I mean I think professors in particular and many students. I have had, since I wrote the op/ed, I have had a number of students that came to me. I have had secret meetings with groups of students that do not want to be identified. So, I think that there’s definitely a fear of even questioning or of even asking questions about what exactly is the experience? I mean there were several op/eds on the editorial front page – things in the student newspaper – saying that the violence is called violence which are micro-aggressions as you mentioned.

A lot of the events that I was given as an example of the institutionalized violence in the college actually took place in other cities as you pointed out – in the neighboring cities – and it involves things like asking about a dress or asking where you’re from when they detect your accent. And definitely, those things are very common. I’ve experienced them several times, and occasionally, you do get a comment from a student – an anonymous in the student evaluation forms – that is hurtful like, well, you can’t talk in English. Why don’t you ask your senior colleagues to write exams for you? That’s one of the things I got.

But I don’t blame the college for that. To say that the college is responsible for the misbehavior of a few students is – I can’t say those things. And I have not encountered professors that were mistreated students based on race or any other attributes.

Nico: Do you feel as though there is a minority of students who are setting the culture on the campus and they’re doing so because they’re using rhetoric that no one really wants to argue against?

Professor Maroja: Yes.

Nico: They’ll call you racist. They’ll call you sexist. If you disagree with them, they’ll call your language violence and no one wants to be labeled a racist, a sexist – no one wants to be called the purveyor of violence. And these people will also claim psychological trauma –

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm.

Nico: – if you don’t validate their experiences.

Professor Maroja: Mm-hmm.

Nico: So, no one wants to be seen as the person who induces trauma on someone. And as a result, wielding these rhetorical tools, they can shut down almost any debate and make anyone who disagrees with them cower or fear that speaking up is going to make them a – quote – violent person or a person unsympathetic to the concerns of the marginalized.

Professor Maroja: Exactly. So, this is exactly – I think it’s very few students and very few professors. There are definitely some professors and some students that are doing that. And then there are some people that will side with them and basically be signaling virtue – I defend – I’m anti-racist and I’m on your side and all these things. And then there are a number of people that are very afraid of questioning anything because, as you mentioned, nobody wants to be called a racist. This is a serious accusation. The same goes for students.

And I know from hearing from a lot of students that the strategy that this relatively small group of students is using is going to Facebook and saying things – if you are against racism, sign this petition. So, that’s how that petition that they initially wrote against free speech got 300 signatures or something. Whole sports teams were emailed saying, if you don’t sign that, you are a racist or if you anti-racist, sign this. And everybody signs without even paying much attention to what they are signing, right?

Nico: We should lay out Williams College for listeners who haven’t been there. It’s a very small college. I’m in Washington DC. In order to visit it, I had to fly to Albany, New York and then rent a car and drive about an hour through the mountains or the foothills of the mountains to get to Williams College which is in the very small community of Williamstown. And it seems to me that everyone knows everyone else.

And I’ve heard from students that if you are one of the people that speak out against this rising liberal college at Williams or you are one who gets branded at Williams, heads turn. People know who you are if you’re in the cafeteria or if you’re in the student center – people know who you are. Zach Wood, who has been on this podcast before, has talked about the experience of feeling like an ostracized person on campus.

What has your experience been like? Because you were – and correct if I’m wrong – but it seems, at least from the outside, that you are one of the few professors that has been vocal in opposition to this rising liberalism at Williams although I’ve heard through whispered voices and emails that there are others like you who feel the same way but are just afraid to speak up.

Professor Maroja: Right, right. So, I have definitely gotten a lot of emails since I wrote the pieces. A couple emails have been anonymous – not threats but intimidations like you must apologize. You must remove your op/ed – things like that – which they do by cc’ing all the administrators, residents, etcetera. And I also got a lot of support emails from students saying – mainly students – also a few professors and several administrators – saying thank you so much for speaking out. We all feel like you – thank you so much.

So, I got – I would say that I got more support than I got hate speech – hate mail. But definitely, I do feel that I’m more visible now as I walk through campus. I know that students sometimes turn their heads when I pass and you don’t know if they are on my side or not.

Nico: Are there other professors that you are seeing now feel a little more emboldened to speak up? I always recognize that speaking up in a culture like this brings about its own risks. I mean we’re all adults. We all have responsibilities in life. We’ve seen what students have been able to do to the lives of professors on other campuses. We have mortgages and families to worry about. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be able to speak up in defense of freedom or free speech. Are there other professors that are there with you vocally?

Professor Maroja: There are definitely many professors there with me. And I do think that the fact that we are starting to write things and say things – it’s making people a little more willing to talk. The college has started by organizing only meetings for professors of course, but then they brought in that to all professors and I know that during these meetings, professors did speak out of how they were afraid and that they felt like they didn’t have a voice. And those are tenured professors, right? So, I do think people are starting to see a problem and that they want to participate and solve this problem.

Nico: And what about the administration to the extent you’re willing to talk about them? It seems as though they want to have it – they want to please everyone and by trying to please everyone, they are pleasing no one. I saw a leadership vacuum when I was at Williams. They tried to be sympathetic to the students but also sympathetic to the free speech argument.

And one of the things that other colleges and universities are doing so that their goal posts are more clearly defined is adopt the Chicago statement so that when campus controversies surrounding free speech do happen, they have these statements of principles that say this is what the college believes. This is what we signed on for and this is what we value so that you don’t get this mealy-mouthed email or this mealy-mouthed statement.

Professor Maroja: Yeah, no, the administration is definitely being pulled on all sides. On one side, you have very vocal students who are continuously talking to Maude and talking to all the administrators about – and again, they’re in favor of censorship – and then you have a lone star not in favor of censorship and are also being vocal in professors. So, they’re being pulled on all sides and there is a desire to please everybody, but that, as you pointed out, is impossible.

Maude did express early on that she would love to adopt the Chicago principles so that she doesn’t have to make decisions when a controversial speaker comes to campus. I don’t know – I do hope that we come up either with our own version of the Chicago statement or adopt the Chicago statement. So, we’ll see.

Nico: There is another controversy happening right now. So, we’ve already talked about the uncomfortable learning controversy surrounding Zach Wood and the group’s decision to invite John Derbyshire who has been called a racist. And then the president, Adam Falk, disinviting him unilaterally. We’ve talked about your efforts to get the Chicago statement at Williams College and then we’ve also talked about the debate surrounding these two professors’ decisions to leave and the speech which they call violence that was a contributing factor in their minds to their leaving.

But right now, you can read in the headlines about the student government’s decision to not recognize a student group – a pro-Israel student group – I believe it’s called the Williams Initiative for Israel – based more or less on the student government’s dislike of Israel and pro-Israel advocacy.

Professor Maroja: Yep.

Nico: The administration, it appears, has stepped in to allow for them to still have access to certain campus resources although it’s unclear if they’ll have access to student fees. Talk to me a little bit about what the feeling is like on campus right now surrounding that debate.

Professor Maroja: I think that’s very controversial. I talked to a couple people in the College Council themselves and they – this particular person I talked to – voted in favor and was – she immediately realized how that would backfire. And there, again, is desire for protecting groups that they perceive as the most marginalized groups. So, in this case –

Nico: Like the Palestinians?

Professor Maroja: Yeah, Palestinians would be the protected group. And a lot of hateful things were said against Israeli’s in the group of students that wasn’t even recorded to my knowledge in the College Council. So, there’s definitely an issue and Maude has since actually stated that the group will have all the benefits.

Nico: Oh, good.

Professor Maroja: So, the statement ratified in saying that the group will have all of the benefits. So, that was very good. I do not know if Maude has the power of asking the College Council to revote on the issue or not. I don’t think that has been done, but perhaps because the College Council is an independent organization from the administration. So, yeah, we’ll see how that goes.

Nico: We’re coming to the end of the semester I’m presuming if you’re on semester systems. When do students generally go home for the summer?

Professor Maroja: This Sunday – the last exams are either Sunday or Monday – so, soon. They’re starting to leave now.

Nico: And is there a hope that, with the summer, will come sort of a reset? Tensions will die down and that next semester perhaps will be better? What do you think the future holds?

Professor Maroja: Oh, there is definitely a big hope for that! I think all the professors are hoping for a calm summer and hopefully that things don’t get quite reset in the fall. A lot of the students that are very vocal are actually graduating and leaving campus. Of course, there are many who remain here. So, we’ll see what waits for us.

Nico: And as far as the re-writing of the speaker’s policy that the president set up that committee to draft, any word on when that new policy will go into effect and whether it will be speech protective or not?

Professor Maroja: We haven’t heard back yet. It should be by now – like sometime in May that they are going to report back. Their charge was limited. So, I’m not sure that they will come up with a full rule or a new – some version of the Chicago statement. I don’t think so. I think they will come up with recommendations of what would be best for the college to do.

Nico: Got you. All right. Well, any parting thoughts here, Professor Maroja, on what you’ve been seeing or what you hope to see moving forward?

Professor Maroja: Well, I hope to see reason winning this and more free speech and more ability for us to discuss topics without being afraid of speaking out. So, we’ll hope for it.

Nico: All right. Well, very good. It was very nice meeting you when I was at Williams in April and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Professor Maroja: Yeah, thank you so much.