BY HANK REICHMAN
Although, in a victory for academic freedom, the administration of Trinity College acknowledged last month that Professor Johnny Williams’s controversial social media posts “were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity College policies,” a July 31 message to the campus from President Joanne Berger-Sweeney suggests that the school’s administrators still do not fully accept their basic obligation to defend academic freedom. Williams, readers of this blog will recall, was placed on involuntary leave after reports on the website Campus Reform about his Facebook posts were followed by threats of violence against him, his family, and the college, resulting in a one-day closure of the campus. The AAUP had urged the Trinity administration to lift Williams’s suspension.
In her message yesterday Berger-Sweeney discusses several “effects” of the events surrounding Williams’s posts. First, she reports that “16 students in the incoming Class of 2021 have withdrawn and cited this incident as the reason.” However, she quickly acknowledges, “we remain on track to meet our enrollment and revenue targets and are ahead of where we were at this time last year.” Second, Berger-Sweeney writes, “a number of past contributors also chose not to donate to the College this year in response to the controversy,” yielding a loss of about $200,000 in revenue. Nevertheless, she adds, “overall giving exceeded $28.6 million, which was a 28 percent increase over the previous year.” This means that the $200,000 loss amounted to less than 1% of a total that still remained more than $6 million above that of the previous year.
In other words, although about half of yesterday’s statement was devoted to bemoaning “the financial cost of this incident,” Berger-Sweeney must still acknowledge that such cost has been minimal, if not inconsequential. The remainder of the email touts Trinity’s ongoing commitment “to provide space for civilized discourse about issues that divide us.” The president expresses hope that “we will engage the entire Trinity community, both on campus and off, in discussions of race and racism, academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the challenges of holding productive, respectful dialogue across deep differences.”
This is all fine and dandy, but it is grossly insufficient simply to encourage “discussion” of academic freedom and freedom of speech — it is essential for colleges to vigorously defend and promote these principles. Nothing in yesterday’s message suggests that Trinity is committed to doing so. The same goes for discussions of race. While it is surely desirable to foster an environment where frank and honest conversations may take place, one would hope that racism too would not merely be discussed but also opposed.
In short, what Berger-Sweeney fails to say in her statement is far more important than what she does communicate. This point was made concisely and eloquently by the Trinity College AAUP chapter’s executive committee in a one-paragraph response, also issued yesterday:
President Berger-Sweeney’s statement confirms our suspicion that the administration’s primary concern has been the bottom line, rather than the protection of scholarly inquiry and academic freedom. We remain troubled by the continued failure by the administration to actually defend Professor Williams from outside attack, or to acknowledge their own mishandling of the events. Given that the administration continues to publicly admonish Professor Williams’s speech, and reduce this attack to a monetary crisis, we remain unconvinced that they will strongly defend our campus from such attacks in the future. In this statement, President Berger-Sweeney again fails to explain and defend the academic importance of controversial speech, to become a leader in defending academic freedom, and to unequivocally defend her faculty.
It seems the administration of Trinity College has a few things still to learn about principle.