At Williams, a Funny Way of ‘Listening’
‘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.
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.