At Williams, a Funny Way of ‘Listening’

A mob kept disrupting a speaker I invited to campus. The president calls that a success.

 
 

At Williams, a Funny Way of ‘Listening’
PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
 

Williamstown, Mass.

‘You’re a racist white supremacist!” a Williams College student shouted at Christina Hoff Sommers, after she finished a recent campus talk on feminism.

To their credit, a handful of students responded to Ms. Sommers’s talk with challenging questions and cogent criticisms. But insults, rants and meltdowns consumed the majority of the question-and-answer session. As president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that invites controversial speakers to campus, I did my best to moderate.

After one student activist shouted “f— you!” at the speaker, an administrator seemed to affirm the heckler’s veto, signaling to me with a timeout gesture that it was time to end the event. In an effort to give as many students as possible a chance to engage the speaker, I approached the administrator and negotiated another 15 minutes for questions. But the remainder of the Q&A consisted mostly of bellicose rhetoric and long-winded stories of personal trauma, many of which had little to do with the topic at hand. Ms. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and critic of third-wave feminism, endured such “questioning” for more than an hour.

As a college senior eager to engage in lively debate, I’m disappointed in students who used this event as an opportunity to taunt and disparage a speaker who made every effort to engage in good faith. Although many student activists at Williams seem hostile to conservative ideas, I believe all of my peers are capable of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

But college administrators aren’t much help. Since Ms. Sommers’s talk at Williams, my college’s president, Adam Falk, has characterized the event as a success. He wrote in the Washington Post this week that “our students listened closely, then responded with challenging questions and in some cases blunt critiques.”

That grossly misrepresents what happened. During Ms. Sommers’s talk, many students did not “listen closely.” Instead, they acted disruptively by mocking her and snickering derisively throughout her entire speech.

For each “challenging question,” there were at least five personal attacks, directed either at her or at me for inviting her. One student started yelling aggressively, blaming me for his parents’ qualms about his sexual orientation. His rant lasted for at least five minutes. Other students stood up and exclaimed that they were better than the speaker because she was “stupid, harmful, and white supremacist.”

Shortly after the event, I heard from several friends that many members of the Black Student Union want nothing to do with me or other black students associated with Uncomfortable Learning. I expect this kind of recrimination. But I can’t speak for other students who’ve told me they worry about how their interest in my group may affect their relationship with their black classmates.

Ignoring the attacks directed at controversial speakers and the students who invite them propagates the misconception that Williams, and other American colleges, welcomes intellectual diversity. Things won’t get any better until college administrators like Mr. Falk honestly confront the threats to open debate at the institutions they lead.

Mr. Wood is a senior at Williams College.

3 responses to At Williams, a Funny Way of ‘Listening’

  1. cliff ganschow November 17th, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Insightful article. Our colleges need more students like Me. Wood, and fewer presidents the likes of the so-called intellectual now running the show at Williams.

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  2. Gonzalo Munevar November 18th, 2017 at 1:24 am

    People like you are the hope of our country, Mr. Wood. Hoff Summers is about as fair minded as they come. But being fair minded when you give a talk is the equivalent of “hate speech” to the left-wing fascists.

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  3. R.W. Schwab, Williams '63 November 18th, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    The Oscar-winning movie will be called The Passion of Lemmings. There will be annual sequels.TED will feature stunning analyses, Charlie Rose will host a cineaste and they will fall into a frenzy of mutual nodding and finishing each other’s sentences. The Ghost of Williams past, inexorable and unforgiving, will appear on the roof of Morgan Hall with every full moon. All hope will have been long abandoned.

        Reply

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