Editor's note: This letter from NAS president Peter Wood was sent on October 15 to Scripps College chairman Linda Davis Taylor and to all the members of the Scripps board of trustees.
Dear Ms. Taylor,
The decision by Scripps College to dis-invite George Will to speak at the ninth annual Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program has struck many of us in higher education as alarming.
We have been through a season in which a number of colleges and universities across the country have stumbled in a similar way. Brandeis, Haverford, Smith, Rutgers, Harvard, Howard, Azusa Pacific, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California at Irvine are among them. It is not an honor roll. And one would think that the sharp criticism these colleges and universities received from across the political spectrum would have given President Bettison-Varga pause before she decided to put Scripps College in such a position.
I write as the president of the National Association of Scholars. We are a 27-year-old group, made up mostly of senior faculty members. Though we are often characterized as a “conservative” body, we are non-partisan and are mainly devoted to advancing academic standards. One of those standards is open dialogue on campus: dialogue that allows people of diverse views to speak in their own voices and to be heard. NAS supports reasoned inquiry, which often requires self-restraint on the part of speakers as well as audiences. In principle, when someone addresses a controversial issue, the institution should act as if the jury is undecided, even if it is plain that prevailing opinion goes against the speaker’s views.
That is a large part of what we mean by academic freedom. Liberal learning depends on our willingness to listen, even to things we may not want to hear—especially to things we do not want to hear.
In her October 7 letter to the Scripps community, President Bettison-Varga’s explained why she supports the college’s decision to dis-invite Mr. Will. Her stated reasons:
Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue…and it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy. For that reason, after Mr. Will authored a column questioning the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students, we decided not to finalize the speaker agreement.
Her statement is puzzling. When she says “sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue” she seems to imply that sexual assault is or should be above politics. Indeed, liberals and conservative both abhor sexual assault, as they abhor, say, murder; but they tend to define the acts and their causes differently and so tend to favor different remedies. These are important political and philosophical differences of just the sort to be debated at college. It is no favor to Scripps students to shield them from conservative critiques of the current liberal orthodoxy on sexual assault.
Not everyone accepts the validity of the broad definition of assault put forward in the White House report Not Alone or embodied in various actions by the U.S. Department of Education. The widely repeated claim that one-in-five college women is sexually assaulted has been sharply disputed by conservatives on the basis of both crime statistics and examination of the studies used to substantiate the claim. Liberals and conservatives also differ on matters such as the standard of evidence that should apply in campus tribunals on sexual assault; the need to protect due process; the need to maintain a division of authority for investigating, counseling, and adjudicating claims; and the proper role of the police and the courts. “Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue,” as President Bettison-Varga says, but these matters related to sexual assault clearly are points of divergence between conservatives and liberals and belong squarely in the realm that the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program was meant to address.
In her statement, however, President Bettison-Varga suggests a different reason why Mr. Will is unwelcome at Scripps. It is because he is a “celebrity” and will “trivialize” the issue. Why being a “celebrity” (by which I assume she means “well known”) disqualifies him is not clear. Or perhaps “celebrity” implies that Will is intellectually unfit to advocate a serious position on the subject. Whether Mr. Will’s column “trivialized” sexual assault is an open question. There are many readers of the column who disagree with President Bettison-Varga’s judgment on that point. But no one doubts that the issue of sexual assault is, as President Bettison-Varga writes elsewhere in her statement, “complex, serious, and personal to Scripps students.” That indeed is a compelling reason why Scripps students should have been able to hear Mr. Will express his views directly. She ends with a final reason: that the “sexual assault” case Will described in his column is similar to ones that have occurred at Scripps. The implication seems to be that because Will downplayed the seriousness of such “sexual assaults” and argued that the prosecution of offenders violated their civil rights, he is accusing Scripps of behaving unjustly. How does President Bettison-Varga respond? By saying, in effect, ‘We are not behaving unjustly because I said so.’
The cancelling of his invitation has the additional consequence of effectively silencing those Scripps students who could themselves have engaged Mr. Will. When Scripps shuts out a figure such as Mr. Will, it effectively cocoons its students in an environment where they never have to face real disagreement on premises. Having faced the storm of adverse publicity that resulted from this decision, the Scripps administration and board are, I expect, in no mood for further controversy. But there is only one right way out of this situation: Scripps should admit it made a serious mistake and re-invite Mr. Will. An about-face may not save face, but in admitting its mistake Scripps would be living up to the standards of the liberal arts.
I urge you to take this course.
National Association of Scholars
Image: "George WIll" by Gage Skidmore // CC BY-SA