Many students, myself included, feel that Roth’s advocacy and authority on free speech and campus protest do not line up in reality given his record of activity concerning these topics at Wesleyan, using his perceived advocacy to both profit himself (such as the release of a book that addresses his advocacy for his brand of free speech), as well as Wesleyan itself. Let’s take a look at his and Wesleyan’s record in recent times.
You have worked, implicitly and explicitly, directly and indirectly, to make Wesleyan a hostile environment for people of color, students with disabilities, trans students, survivors of sexual assault and pretty much any student who does not fit into your image of the “conservative oppressed by the liberal arts.” What’s more, you have repeatedly refused to engage with students in any meaningful way about the ways in which you’ve created this hostile environment. So I have resorted to engaging with you on your own terms: in a blog post.
photo by Jonas Powell ’18
Every few months, it seems, another one of those articles surfaces about how political correctness or trigger warnings or “social justice” is ruining the country or the educational system or everything. Our own President Roth reminded us a few weeks ago that “there is no right not to be offended.” These arguments typically suggest that because a few of us are so fragile and oversensitive, everyone is losing: words are banned, jokes are less funny, debates about important issues are diluted or even curtailed.
While I’m really not concerned if racist jokes lose their appeal, I agree that we need more, not less, conversation. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and indeed, often worsens them. If we can’t talk about the systems of oppression that plague our society–racism, heterosexism, misogyny, classism–we’re going to have a hard time dismantling them. Sometimes frustratingly, we have to be able to talk about these issues not only among our own identity and affinity groups, but with people whose ideas are vastly different from ours. So yes, I agree that trying to shut down conversations about sensitive topics is problematic. (Which is not the same, please note, as removing oneself from a conversation because of personal history or trauma.) More speech, please.
The thing is, though, the targets of these arguments–the oversensitive college student, the person who can’t take a joke, the “social justice warriors”–hardly ever seem to be asking for less speech. Perhaps there are exceptions, but I cannot think of a single anti-racist activist who wants people to stop talking about racism. When we ask that certain words not be used or that our histories be treated with understanding and respect, we are not questioning whether these conversations should happen, but how. To worry that such efforts are ruining free-spirited debate seems, to me, to be missing the point.
Newsweek used this photo in their article to contrast the liberal values
that the school likes to think it has with the conservative mindset it actually practices.
Maybe Wesleyan University learned a lesson today: Not all press is good press.
Today’s in-depth and certainly unflattering Newsweek article by Katie Baker (who wrote that Jezebel piece in May ridiculing the administration for its medieval Tour de Franzia threats) asserts that “Wesleyan seems to be slinking away from its weird and activist roots to attract rich students and even richer donors.” What could the school have done to deserve this sort of criticism?
As we are quite aware, the answer is: a lot. Baker’s article (following on the heels of two Autostraddle and Youngist articles) begins with the issues over degendering bathrooms, with several trans* students speaking up about their not-so-welcome experiences on campus, both from other students in the bathroom (“Wrong bathroom, fag!” one gender nonconforming student heard) and from the administration as a whole. After the group Pissed Off Trans* People organized students to remove gendered bathroom signs and replace them with “All Gender Restroom” signs, the Student Judicial Board singled out three trans* students (claiming they were the only identifiable ones) and charged them with property destruction, at the cost of $157 per sign— $5,245 total.
After a four-and-a-half hour hearing, the board lowered the fine to $451 and gave each student three disciplinary points (10 earns a suspension or dismissal). “The SJB action was taken because vandalism occurred,” Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Whaley said in a statement. “The board does not strive to determine the legitimacy of a protest/action, only whether such protest/action is done in a manner that violates our community’s standards.”
The three students tell Newsweek they feel they were unfairly singled out for actions committed by many but were most concerned with the symbolism of it all: This was the first time anyone knows of that the administration had punished individuals for LGBT activism.
“We’re talking about economic sanctions on activism at a school that profits off a reputation of being a progressive, activist-friendly space,” says Ben, a Wesleyan junior. “Being trans and fighting for trans justice is not profitable or shiny or appealing.”
As you may know if you read the Argus or are just generally more well-informed than the slackers over at The Wesleyinger, the WSA recently passed a resolution advocating for an end to the chalking ban that’s been in place since 2003. Read the article itself for a quick-and-dirty history of the events that inspired the 25-2 vote a couple weeks ago. You can see the resolution itself here, courtesy of sponsor and WSA member Scott Elias ’14, until the WSA uploads it to their website, but be warned – there’s a prominent date error at the top of the document that may or may not irk you. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to see the typical format for WSA resolutions, by the way, you may find the writing here amusing, infuriating, or both. Oh well!
WSA resolutions, if you’re wondering, have no binding “legal” force on the University, but as presented to administrators often are used to further discussions or enact real policy changes in accordance with the resolution (yes, real changes do actually happen because of resolutions). So, y’know, optimism and all that. Check out some words from Elias (you may recognize the style) on why this matters to some people (continuing under the cut):
I think most students when they hear that there is a chalking ban think its insane. So our purpose was to create a consistent communications policy that won’t preemptively restrict student speech, that will be more consistent with our institutional priority of advancing social justice, and that will put an end to the exorbitant cost of enforcing a broad ban– an easy and logical way to curb costs in an era of austerity in which we terminated need-blind admissions.
It is incumbent upon the Wesleyan Student Assembly to reflect the fervent desire of many for a more inclusive campus culture and improving areas in which we, as a community, have fallen short. And our policy on chalking is one example of an area in which we can improve. So it will be interesting to see what kind of leverage this resolution will have with the administration. I’ve met with various administrators and they definitely understand where we are coming from, but they fear that past concerns will manifest again, which, as I understand it, is their main reservation. But let’s not kid ourselves. The chalking ban isn’t the last bastion of social justice the university wants us to think it is. It brushes oppressions and micro-aggressions that occur at Wesleyan under the rug and is thus inconsistent and antithetical to our university’s institutional goal of advancing social justice.
Almost eleven years ago, President Bennet banned the process on Wesleyan’s campus known as “chalking.” Almost immediately, students tried to pressure the administration into lifting the ban to no avail, mostly by recommending that people just chalk anyway (and maybe also by bringing a flood of chalking violations to the SJB) and arguing that the chalking ban was morally and practically unadvisable.
Chalking has seen a resurgence starting last spring, around the ten-year anniversary of the ban, followed by a forum on chalking later that month. Last fall, the need-blind movement used chalking, which swiftly became a goal of its own, including two “legal chalk-ins,” one controversially blocked by President Roth.
Eric Stephen ’13, in a substantial Argus article published today, analyzes the chalking ban from a new perspective: that the chalking ban actually violates free speech rights protected by Connecticut state law, and should thus be reversed on legal grounds. A condensed version of Eric’s argument is posted below:
In today’s issue, The Argus will be publishing an article that critically examines the legality of the chalking moratorium imposed by President Douglas Bennet in 2002 and maintained by Michael Roth after he took over as the University’s President in 2007. The article argues that Wesleyan’s chalking ban is unenforceable because it violates free speech rights that are legally protected by Connecticut state law. However, the Argus article is designed to provide legal detail for a series of arguments supporting and opposing the chalking ban; for students who are not interested in the minutia of law, Wesleying has offered me the opportunity to give a brief review of the article for their site.
In case you haven’t heard from your critical theory-lovin’ friends, noted post-structuralist Judith Butler is coming to campus this Wednesday (4:00pm in Memorial Chapel), speaking in a pumped-up, academic-celebrity installment of the Center for the Humanities’ Monday Night lecture series. There was widespread excitement about her visit long before the topic of her speech was announced. But Butler, who once taught at Wesleyan, now has a new and quite different project underfoot, one that deals with an aspect of her own identity apart from gender: the difficult questions of Jewish identity and the Israeli state.
When she arrives here, she’ll still be hot off the heels of a controversy at CUNY-funded Brooklyn College, where prominent pro-Israel Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a “battalion of New York lawmakers” threatened to cut the campus’s funding if the president refused to capitulate on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions panel at which she was speaking, according to Salon.
Fortunately, with the blessing of many significant political figures, including Mayor Bloomberg, Butler ended up being allowed to speak after all on February 8th, but she modified her words to address the controversy. Butler is a professor of rhetoric as well as comparative literature, and she added to her speech remarks addressing the not-already-converted:
Earlier today, Evan Bieder ’15 and A-Batte, the two students documented by Public Safety in last Saturday’s confrontation with President Roth over “legal chalking,” received confirmation that their actions were totally kosher and not in violation of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct. In celebration, Daniel Plafker ’15, the student who filmed (part of) the incident, invites you to chalk about the passion up and down Church Street sidewalks, with no fear of disciplinary action. Facebook event here, more info below:
Wesleyan rejoice! This Friday, a massive legal daytime chalk-in will take place on the Church Street sidewalks outside Pi Cafe at 12:30 pm. Join your community for a carnival of free-expression, resistance, and art. Demonstrate that administrative intimidation won’t silence student voices being exercised in a civil, legal manner, on public streets where chalking is not banned. Wanna protest the lack of administrative transparency, give a shout-out to that cutie in your Anthro class, oppose class discrimination in our admissions process, do a lame Banksy imitation, raise questions about our rapidly crumbling relationship with this city, get high and draw flowers? Let’s do it together! Let’s make Church Street beautiful!
This is not about any single cause or issue. This is about reclaiming the right to shape our public space democratically as a community.
Chalk will be provided. Bring it if you got it.