Free Inquiry vs. Social Justice at Brown University
I am a professor at Brown University. The WeTheInternet (WTI) video describes events at that will alarm anyone who cares about higher education and, especially, those of us who care deeply about Brown. The central conflict presented is roughly (and, I would say, purportedly) between the values of free inquiry and social justice.
At Brown, as elsewhere, each of those values has a long and complex history. The recent events at Brown did not come out of nowhere. Different people might tell the history that led to these events in sharply divergent ways. I would like to share my perspective on recent events at Brown. By sharing my story, I hope to help readers of this blog deepen their understanding of the events described in video. I welcome others to tell their (different) histories of the story too.
About 12 years ago, two idealistic Brown juniors, one a committed Democrat, the other an equally committed Republican, came to me with a proposal: they wanted to create a high-profile lecture series that would pair speakers with opposing ideological perspectives. They proposed to call it the Janus Lecture Series (for the Roman god with two faces).
In the spirit of ideological pluralism, we decided to form a Janus Steering Committee, drawn from a politically diverse range of undergraduate groups. The Committee would have sole responsibility for proposing topics and speaker pairings for Janus lectures.
Through the years, our student leaders successfully hosted pyrotechnic pairings: Catherine MacKinnon and Harvey Mansfield on Gender; Ambs. John Bolton and Richard Holbrooke on the UN; John Yoo and Larry Cox on Torture; and many more. These were great intellectual events at Brown- though, since they caused no controversy, few people outside Brown ever heard about them. For many years, the student leaders of Janus, through their string of quiet successes, have made me proud to teach at Brown.
The WTI documentary describes events and policies that directly challenge the ideal of cooperative and open inquiry on which the Janus Forum was founded. For example, the year that Ray Kelly was shouted down, the Janus group’s slogan was: “Ask Tough Questions.” Thus it was no accident that the carefully scripted opening line of the shout-down, captured in the documentary, was: “Asking Tough Questions is Not Enough.” Did that declaration strike you as strange? For insiders at Brown, it was not. The students had been well-prepared. They knew to aim at the heart of Janus with their first volley.
Unlike the Ray Kelly lecture (which was not organized by the Janus group), Wendy McElroy came to speak at Brown as a guest of Janus. This means that, as with all Janus events, McElroy was invited to campus to share the stage with a speaker holding a rival view (in this case, Jessica Valenti, a prominent defender of the thesis that America is a rape culture). So when a group of angry students objected to McElroy speaking on campus, they were not merely objecting to McElroy. Instead, they were objecting to a conversation about rape culture occurring on campus, one in which more than one thesis would be presented.
The WTI documentary opens with a tense conversation between top Brown administrators and a group of angry students. That axis of conflict -- administrators vs “radicalized” students -- has become a mainstay of media narratives of campus events across the country. Fair enough. But my experience has been different.
The axis of conflict that is most vivid, and most tragic, to me has been the one that runs between the students. In the documentary, a young woman reports that her fellow Brown students called her a “white supremacist” when she tried to attend the Ray Kelly lecture. Over the past couple years, idealistic leaders of Janus have been called “racists” by their classmates, something unthinkable just five years ago.
Even students of great talent, and good faith, seem increasingly unable, or unwilling, to talk with each other. To me, that is the real tragedy.
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