Students at Western Michigan University (WMU) are freer today thanks to a concerned alumnus who wrote to an open-minded university president about an unlawful policy in place at the school. After FIRE named WMU’s sexism policy its March 2007 Speech Code of the Month
, WMU alumnus Brian Akers wrote to WMU President Diether Haenicke to express his concern over the policy. Akers’ compelling and articulate letter is worth reprinting here in its entirety. Akers wrote:
Dear Dr. Haenicke:
Please accept this note of interested concern from a WMU alumnus (B.A. 1979; M.A. 1981), regarding the WMU Sexual Harassment Policy, especially its prohibition on “sexism,” which is cited on the website of FIRE (www.thefire.org). My voice joins those respectfully raised in objection to such a policy.
I am sure you are aware of the curtailment of free speech, thought, and expression such a policy must inevitably portend. No doubt others have articulated this problem better than I can. There are many things clearly wrong with any such attempt to police personal viewpoint, from many perspectives—it is something right out of some Orwellian novel of a nightmare dystopian future world masquerading as an exercise in benevolence. Conscientious objections to “sexism” are one thing. But a policy that invites accusations and official investigations pertaining to it is something else entirely, and—in my humble opinion—should have no place whatsoever on any campus, especially that of a public university in the United States. I doubt there is, or can be, any valid instrument for detecting whether someone, or something they have said, is “sexist” in any reasonably objective sense. It is purely a matter of opinion, and thus belongs squarely within the realm of fair and open debate. Placing it anywhere else only invites abuse of power by those who wield it, against less powerful parties selected for bullying. I strongly doubt the architects of this policy have ever experienced the kind of ideological harassment a policy against “sexism” seems to endorse.
I got to know WMU and many of its offices well during my time there as a student, and I have always been proud of my history with the institution. One reflection of this is the following quote, which appears in a book I had published last year by University Press of America: “…assistance with translation was provided in 1982 by anonymous staff at the Language Center at Western Michigan University. I would add that although the Center’s service fee was my own expense, the University provided me with stipends in the form of a Graduate Fellowship and Assistantships, through the Anthropology Department” (p. xiii, The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico: Assorted Texts). I can also speak for FIRE, an organization which has addressed many problematic policies such as this one, and always from a non-political, constitutional basis. The proliferation of such policies on campus has been an alarming and disturbing trend in recent decades. I hope you will see fit to consider redressing the Sexual Harassment policy at WMU so it will no longer be at odds with our fundamental rights, not only as academics, but as citizens of a free country.
Thank you for your kind consideration,
Brian P. Akers, Ph.D
Within a week, WMU President Diether Haenicke wrote a prompt, honest, and thoughtful response to Akers’ letter. Haenicke wrote:
I share your concern. I was not aware of the policy and have given instruction to our VP for Legal Affairs and our VP for Student Affairs to re-work the text.
A revised version will be brought to our Board soon. I am particularly unhappy that we want to “punish” the “perception” of any offensive speech.
It will be changed.
Kudos to President Haenicke for recognizing the issues at stake here and for taking quick action to remedy this policy. If more administrators shared his understanding of free speech, FIRE would have a whole lot less work to do. Our collective hat goes off to him. And our deepest thanks also to Brian Akers, without whose excellent letter this policy change might not have happened.