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Philo. Prof. Steven Gerrard branded "Enemy of the People" for supporting Free Speech

Because we are champions of the Chicago Statement (also known as Chicago Principles), we are citing Philosophy Professor Steven B. Gerrard on this #FacultyFriday. In 2018, he pushed for Williams to adopt it


On two successive days in September 2019, Professor Gerrard published two pieces for Bloomberg, The Rise of the Comfort College and How Comfort Conquered College, both available by subscription. In the first, excerpted here, he details the challenges he faced in introducing the principles to the Williams faculty.


I was cautiously optimistic. Like many liberal arts colleges, Williams had gone through a free-speech crisis — and survived. In 2016, our then-president canceled a talk from a conservative writer (the first presidential cancellation since 1865, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barred from speaking on campus); he also ordered that a mural of the school’s founderbe temporarily boarded over because of objections to its depiction of Native Americans.


. . . So it was with all this in mind that I went into a faculty meeting to present the free-expression “pledge” with the idea that we would have a productive discussion. Then reality hit.


As I stepped up to the lectern in one of the college’s elegant Federal-style halls, students marched into the room, bearing a letter naming me an “Enemy of the People.”


In the spirit of liberal openness, I read their letter aloud. This is what it said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” The letter reserved special scorn for liberalism: “Liberal ideology asserts that morality is logical — that dehumanizing ideas can be fixed with logic and therefore need to be debated.” But, it added, “dehumanization cannot be discussed away.”


The letter finished, I started to reply. But a group of younger faculty in the front row demanded that I be quiet and let the students speak. And the students did. They had almost nothing to say about free speech; instead, they testified to the indignities they suffered at Williams. The dean of the college, who was in attendance, praised the students for their passion.


Kudos to Professor Gerard for not just reading, but reading aloud a student letter criticizing him and his approach. Alas that "a group of younger faculty" silenced him.


This professor attempted to do what was for many of us the essence of a Williams education: to consider opposing arguments and respond in a rational and thoughtful manner, in short, to engage with his intellectual adversaries.


No, Professor Gerrard is not an "enemy of the people." His support for free speech, his willingness to engage with his critics embodies the essence of a liberal arts education, the essence of Williams College.

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