OP-ED: Letter to F&M Administration from anonymous coalition of students & alumni, recent campus climate

To the Administration and Board of Trustees at Franklin & Marshall College:

We, a group comprised of students and alumni have become aware of a list of demands published in The College Reporter by the self-described “Underrepresented Minority Students at Franklin & Marshall College… and allies”. This list is in response to Halloween costumes worn by five Franklin & Marshall College students that were deemed “cultural appropriation” as well as a racial slur that was etched into an Asian student’s door. We empathize with those who have been hurt, offended, or outraged by the disgraceful acts of said students. We passionately condemn all racially targeted acts that are intended to demean, belittle, or threaten any individual.

Simultaneously, the protection of the First Amendment and Freedom of Expression at Franklin & Marshall College is our primary concern. The preservation of our constitutional First Amendment rights are, in fact, an essential facet of the protection of minority and marginalized groups. We believe that certain points in the aforementioned list of demands pose a direct threat to the state of individual freedom and speech on campus. Our responses to said points are as follows:

  1. In response to section 1B, the implementation of comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum and training:
    1. We urge the Administration and Board of Trustees at Franklin & Marshall College to act in proportionate response to issues. The isolated acts of a handful of students at the College should not be construed as the beliefs of the College as a whole. Certainly, given the eight million dollar budget deficit, the response of the administration should not be to allocate limited college resources disproportionality in determining programming.
    2. Via the Protest Tree students have expressed that “sensitivity training clearly does not work.” Simultaneously, students demand that said sensitivity training is necessary and must be implemented with swiftness. Before the College decides to implement said training, the effectiveness of said training in decreasing acts or statements of bias should be evaluated and determined in a quantitative fashion.
  2. In response to section 1C, the implementation and funding of the Bias Reporting System:
    1. The College aims to ameliorate the eight million dollar deficit, and creating another bureaucratic system will prolong current budget issues facing the College. We strongly believe that a bias reporting system will have detrimental effects on Franklin & Marshall College’s Statement on Freedom of Expression.
    2. Bias is difficult to detect and even more challenging to define. Students at Franklin & Marshall College are challenged to uncover bias within any scholarly work that they read. Bias may be easily uncovered if you are in disagreement with the author of a scholarly work, but recognizing the bias of an author with whom you already agree poses a unique challenge. Given that bias, by nature, is often subtle and indirect, how can the administration expect to make sound, empirical decisions when evaluating reports from the bias-incident reporting system? We urge the Board and the Administration to carefully consider this question.
    3. We are concerned that the bias reporting system could be misconstrued by members of the campus community to silence speech that they find disagreeable or offensive. The College reserves the right ​to “restrict expression that violates state or federal law or College policies on nondiscrimination; that constitutes slander, threats, or harassment; or that is directly incompatible with the functioning of the College” as is stated in the Franklin & Marshall College’s Statement on Freedom of Expression. Given that members of the campus community would be given the agency to report any speech or actions that they dislike, the words of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in the case of Cohen v. California are extremely relevant: “one man’s lyric is another man’s vulgarity.”​ The bias-related incident policy is ambiguous, and could potentially be used by campus community members to dampen dissenting opinions. Potential abuse of the bias-incident reporting system would be antithetical to the College’s Statement on Freedom of Expression. The College’s current Statement on Freedom of Expression has earned Franklin & Marshall College a “green-light rating” from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the highest rating an institution can earn for “free speech climate” on campus.
    4. The bias-related incident policy violates the ideals of a liberal arts education. Exposure to a diverse array of viewpoints is at the cornerstone of a liberal arts education. Diversity should be upheld not only from the standpoint of culture, religion, race, gender, or orientation, but also from the standpoint of thought. Diversity of thought in a liberal arts college produces graduates who are critical thinkers. To state Franklin & Marshall’s Statement on Freedom of Expression once again, it should be recognized that “the spark of truth often comes forth only after the clash of differing opinions, we view freedom of expression as highly valuable because it encourages multiple opinions, allows them to coalesce and/or clash, and opens them to the community’s reflections”. We hold that exposure to dissenting ideas, be they political or philosophical, are critical for members of our community to gain a more well-rounded worldview. The implementation of a system that can shut down dissenting ideas simply because they are offensive would potentially create a false sense of reality, essentially preventing members of the college community from having the difficult, yet crucial conversations necessary to further their intellectual development.
    5. We urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees to carefully consider the potential consequences of a bias-incident reporting system at Franklin and Marshall.It is our concern that students may be less likely to offer controversial dissenting opinions if they fear being reported.
  3. In response to section 1D, the implementation of a campaign for all Greek Letter and Athletic Organizations to combat racial injustice:
    1. A select few members of Athletic Organizations at the College were involved in the costume incident, but most of these individuals were not members of Greek Life. We believe the implementation of mandatory bias and cultural competence training for only certain organizations unfairly and unjustly targets them. As we have stated previously, the isolated hateful acts of a handful of students should not be attributed to the beliefs of a large group. The widespread response and condemnation of the costume incident is proof of this. To institute bias training simply dismisses and belittles the members of our community who have spoken out against bias and racism, essentially insuitating that ​all ​of them are culturally incompetent. Any sort of bias and cultural competence training should be applied to all members of the college, or none of them, and on this issue we take the latter stance. It is a rational response to institute mandatory workshops for members of the college who are directly involved in perpetuating racial bias, but to insist that all members of the college participate in these workshops is simply a disproportionate response.
    2. Athletic organizations provide an environment in which athletes and coaches of all racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds interact while building lifelong bonds. To attack and target athletic organizations fails to recognize the value of cross-cultural bonds formed among those athletes and coaches.
  4. In response to both section 3A, the creation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office staffed with at least three officers of color; and section 3C, the broadening of the racial composition of counselors in the Wellness Center:
    1. The hiring of staff or faculty on the basis of race is unlawful inasmuch it violates Section 703 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
      “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer… ​to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
      As well as Franklin and Marshall College’s Notice of Nondiscrimination:
      “Franklin & Marshall College does not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, genetic information, family or marital status, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other protected class in its programs, activities or employment practices.”
    2. Despite the well-intentioned nature of this particular demand to increase the racial diversity of faculty and staff, it is a violation of both federal law and current policies of the College. Any employee of the Franklin and Marshall College should be hired solely on the basis of merit and qualification.
    3.  To demand the resignation of Dean Marion Coleman insinuates that she was somehow involved in the individual racist acts of six community members. We believe it is unjust to pin the actions of a few individuals on Dean Marion Coleman. To hire a new Dean of the Office of Multicultural Affairs will be disruptive to the campus community and effectively slow the very process that the aforementioned “Underrepresented Minority Students… and allies” wish to accelerate.
    4. Franklin & Marshall College is deeply in debt and should not seek to hire additional bureaucrats who will effectively serve to restrict the rights of campus community members. We urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees to direct funding towards academics and employee salaries.
  5. In response to section 3D, the promise of continuous sit-ins at Old Main, negative media coverage, and the protesting of open houses:
    1. We do not believe that issuing ultimatums to the College is a productive or effective way to enact positive change in our community. We urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees not to succumb to the demands of students when they issue ultimatums.

In addition to the above responses, we have an additional list of concerns regarding the aforementioned incidents:

  1. On safety concerns and the public condemnation of students whose behavior is deemed offensive:
    1. A multitude of minority community members on campus have expressed that they feel unsafe due to the aforementioned incidents of racial bias. From a standpoint of safety, Halloween costumes, and even a racial slur etched into a door, may not an immediate or tangible threat to the physical safety of minority community members. We wholly recognize that these incidents were deeply offensive to many members of our community, and caused them to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or hated on campus. We urge these members of our community to take comfort in the massive congregation of support they have received from the administration, staff, faculty, and students alike. At the same time, a differentiation must be made between “safety” and “intellectual discomfort or offense”. To quote Franklin and Marshall College’s Statement on the Freedom of Expression: “it is not the proper role of the College to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, uncivil or even deeply offensive. Rather, members of the College community should be encouraged to act according to the principle that the best response to ideas that they find offensive is speech, not censorship”
    2. As described on the College website: “The F&M Department of Public Safety works round the clock to maintain a safe atm​osphere for faculty, staff, students and visitors”. We wholeheartedly believe that the safety of campus community members is of utmost concern to the college. Death threats, intimidation, and harassment of campus community members—all of which have been faced by the offending individuals in recent incidents—are indisputably of greater concern to student safety than any nonviolent acts of racial bias or hatred. Any member of our campus community that engages in or has engaged in issuing death threats, harassment, intimidation, or violence towards other community members should be subject to disciplinary action of far greater severity than individuals who commit nonviolent racially targeted acts. These types of threats pose a true threat to the safety of campus community members, and cannot be viewed as justifiable under any circumstances. As a campus community, we simply cannot respond to acts of hatred with further acts of hatred. To appropriately quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “​Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.
  2. On cultural appropriation:
    1. The issue of cultural appropriation is a difficult one, because culture is everywhere, and is by nature constantly being borrowed and exchanged. How do we define cultural appropriation? Where do we draw the line on what is and isn’t offensive, or a targeted act of malicious intent? Who is given the agency to decide what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, and who is given the agency to police it? Certain instances have been deemed cultural appropriation and sparked outrage by members of the College, such as the most recent, and others, such as an incident of a student dressing as a Jewish rabbi for Halloween last year, have not. Given that there is no widely accepted definition of what cultural appropriation entails, we urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees at Franklin & Marshall College to consider these questions deeply and carefully. If the Administration is given the agency to police individual expression and decide what is and is not cultural appropriation, such as certain Halloween costumes, an individual’s Freedom of Expression becomes infringed. It is our concern that this would potentially beget further infringement of the College’s already excellent statement on Freedom of Expression.

We thank the Administration and the Board of Trustees for reading this letter and carefully considering all of the points we have brought forth. We want to reemphasize our empathy to those who have been hurt, confused, or offended by the racially targeted actions. We understand the outrage on campus, and we realize why they are demanding action. We too, condemn any racially targeted or otherwise hateful act that is meant to demean, belittle, or make any member of our community feel unwelcome. It is certain that changes must and will be made to the College’s policies to ensure that all members of the Franklin and Marshall community feel safe and welcome as they pursue their education. To recap: we urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees to act proportionately in response to issues. We believe that the installation of a bias-incident reporting system will negatively impact the climate of free expression on campus. We believe that cultural competence or bias training workshops should only be implemented for those who carry out targeted acts of hatred or discrimination, not for the entire campus community. We hold that to hire any employee on the basis of race is a violation of both federal law and campus policy, even if it is well-intentioned in the name of diversity. We urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees not to succumb to ultimatums issued by students. We seek to ensure that the College appropriately defines true threats to campus community member safety and enacts disciplinary measures as appropriate. Most of all, we hope to ensure that all members of our community feel encouraged to exercise their freedom of expression without consequences, and in doing so foster a campus climate at Franklin & Marshall College that is abundant in diversity of thought, welcoming, and safe.

Signed,

Anonymous

Authors decided to remain anonymous. Please direct any questions to reporter@fandm.edu.

Note that this article is not attributed to Young Americans for Liberty as a national organization, nor is it attributed to F&M’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty in any way.

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