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What We're Reading: December 2020

Our readings this month include action by the Department of Education and a state legislature to intervene in campus free expression issues, and news of a Senate bill with bipartisan co-sponsors to support the teaching of U.S. civics. We also bring you accounts of student protests in reaction to administrators’ statements and social media posts.

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Campus Happenings

Students Demand Accountability Following Instagram Post 

Elizabeth LaCroix, Ellie Wolfe, and Amelia Keleher | Bates Student | November 6, 2020 

“The Bates Communications Office posted a slideshow online featuring eleven students who were voting in their first presidential election… All but one of the eleven students featured in the series belonged to either neutral or left-leaning student organizations.” The exception was a post featuring the president of the school’s College Republicans, quoted as saying that the club was “a space where you can support a Republican candidate without… being baselessly labeled as hateful.” In response to that post, the student government organized a protest, which drew hundreds. Protesters presented five demands, including a required “commitment from all affiliated Bates student organizations to anti-racism work.” Bates President Clayton Spencer initially defended the post with a statement: “Any attempt to filter out certain voices is unacceptable, particularly in a campus community that should prize free and open discourse.” However, Spencer later appeared at the protest and apologized for “the added harm, fear, and feelings of unsafety inflicted on the Bates community.” “It was incredibly insensitive of me to speak out about the election without taking that into account,” Spencer said. 

Statement on Faculty, Free Expression, and Diversity 

Robert J. Zimmer | Office of the President, University of Chicago | November 29, 2020 

The University of Chicago administration reaffirmed its commitment to academic freedom and free expression in the wake of an open letter responding to a tenured professor’s YouTube videos—since removed—arguing that the department discriminated against white and Asian candidates in admissions and hiring. The open letter calls for graduate students to be released from his supervision and undergraduates to be released from his courses, as well as nine other measures. President Zimmer asserts that “no individual member of the faculty speaks for the university as a whole on any subject… In turn, the university will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas.” Over 12,000 have signed a petition in support of [the professor’s] free speech rights.  

Faculty Letter Petitions Georgetown to Develop Accountability Criteria for Outgoing Trump Officials 

Guilia Testa | The Hoya | December 3, 2020 

“Faculty in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service drafted an open letter calling for university leadership to implement accountability standards to consider former officials from President Donald Trump’s administration for campus invitations and appointments… The letter appeals to the necessity of developing these criteria by claiming the actions of many officials who had served in the previous administration were incompatible with Georgetown’s values.” Over 200 faculty, alumni, and students have signed the letter, the stated purpose of which is not “to advocate for a general ban on Trump administration officials” but to “highlight the need for a critical examination of speaker invitation policies by university administrators.” The Georgetown document follows the example of a similar measure from Harvard University. 

State and Federal Policies 

Sens. Coons, Cornyn Introduce Landmark Legislation to Invest $1B Annually in Civics Education  

Press Release | Office of Senator Chris Coons | December 1, 2020 

U.S. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Senate version of the Educating for Democracy Act, the companion bill to H.R. 8295 being considered in the House. “The Educating for Democracy Act would create a variety of grants to states, non-profits, institutions of higher education, and civics education researchers to support and expand access to civics and history education in schools across the country. It would also strengthen policymakers’ understanding of young Americans’ achievement in civics education by increasing the frequency of and encouraging participation in the National Assessment of Education Progress exam.”  

Campus “Free Speech” Bill Banning Free-Speech Zones Heads to Gov. Mike DeWine 

Jennifer Smola and Anna Staver | Columbus Dispatch | December 5, 2020 

The Ohio Legislature has passed Senate Bill 40, which “bans ‘free speech zones,’ security fees for speakers and official warnings about potentially triggering content. Certain time, place and manner restrictions would be OK so long as school officials provided ample options based on ‘content-neutral criteria.’ And students could be penalized for harassing event attendees under harassment policies that are required for schools.” 

Education Department Blasts “Culture of Censorship” at Colleges, Sets Up Free-Speech Email Hotline to Report Violations 

Melissa Korn | Wall Street Journal | December 8, 2020 

The Education Department has set up a hotline where students and staff can report concerns about free-speech violations on college campuses, the latest effort by the Trump administration to ensure conservative or otherwise unpopular views are respected at schools they say can hew too liberal. …The new hotline will be an email account monitored by Education Department attorneys and provide an outlet for those who worry their opinions are being silenced by classmates, colleagues or others, in violation of the First Amendment. 

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Campus Free Speech: A Cultural Approach 

Adam Kissel | American Enterprise Institute | November 2020 

Legislation, lawsuits, and enforcement of the law have their place. Without internal cultural change, however, conservatives will continue to correctly see most of higher education as inhospitable to viewpoint diversity. …[A] culture of empowerment, self-determination, and personal responsibility can prepare students for the rough-and-tumble world after college.” The author identifies four areas where meaningful policy changes can improve campus climate: admissions, residence life, the curriculum, and administrative responses to free expression crises.  

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In? 

Jessica Bennett | New York Times | November 19, 2020 

The author profiles Smith College Visiting Professor Loretta J. Ross and her courseCalling In the Calling Out Culture. Professor Ross is described as responding to call-out culture [that] has taken conversations that could have once been learning opportunities and turned them into mud wrestling on message boards, YouTube comments, Twitter and at colleges like Smith, where proving one’s commitment to social justice has become something of a varsity sportThe antidote to that outrage cycle, Professor Ross believes, is ‘calling in.’ Calling in is like calling out, but done privately and with respect. Professor Ross is quoted“Some people you can work with and some people you can work around. But the thing that I want to emphasize is that the calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.” 

Self-Censorship in the Academy 

Aaron Kunin | Arc Digital | December 1, 2020 

The author considers how calls for inclusivity in teaching may impact faculty academic freedom. He writes, “I don’t insist on the rightness of my argument. I insist only that there is a disagreement in the field of literary studies [about the meaning of inclusive teaching]… As I see it, there are two ways to proceed. One way would threaten our professional ethic of free inquiry. If I must revise my teaching to conform to a popular view of inclusivity that I do not share, then my freedom of inquiry has been unfairly limited… The other way would be to use the disagreement as an opportunity to do intellectual work. We have given ourselves an assignment. Every voting member of the faculty has to study the uncertain, controversial problem of inclusivity. If we put our brainpower into studying the problem, we will come up with some interesting answers, but we won’t all come up with the same answers, and we won’t always like the answers that our colleagues give. 

Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction 

Jonathan Kay | Quillette | December 1, 2020 

The author chronicles the chain of events that culminated in a strike by many students and faculty after a heated, school-wide Zoom meeting where many criticized an email from Haverford administrators urging students to stay away from protests in nearby Philadelphia over COVID-19 and other physical concerns. The author concludes, During the strike, every Haverford student was being monitored by two separate surveillance regimes generating publicly reported data: (1) a COVID-19 testing regime administered by the school, and (2) a crowdsourced peer-to-peer ideological testing regime administered by students themselves… The process of sifting through these events at Haverford has convinced me that the ideological crisis on American campuses is a crisis that is going to have to be addressed, if at all, by students themselves.”