By Benjamin Pontz, Managing News Editor
As part of its ongoing listening tour, the Freedom of Expression Workgroup held a campus-wide town hall in the College Union Building Ballroom Thursday at which more than 125 students, faculty, and administrators — including large contingents from College Life and Musselman Library — came to hear a presentation on how the workgroup developed the draft philosophy it released last month and how the process will proceed to the ratification stage.
The town hall opened with a presentation in which each of the workgroup members outlined a different part of the process that led to the philosophy draft.
“The most important part of this for us has been the process,” said Dr. Jennifer Bloomquist, Associate Provost for Faculty Development, Dean of Social Sciences & Interdisciplinary Programs, and Chair of the Freedom of Expression Workgroup.
To that end, Dr. Scott Boddery, a judicial scholar from the political science department who was not on the committee, discussed the legal framework in which the panel worked, noting specifically that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution says “Congress shall make no law” and does not necessarily bind private institutions such as Gettysburg College.
Dr. Hakim Williams, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and a member of the workgroup, discussed the institutional context relating to freedom of expression, focusing specifically on the college’s mission statement, which mentions the importance in “free and open exchange of ideas,” “the worth and dignity of all people,” and a “diverse and inclusive learning environment.”
Pat McKenna ’20, Chair of the Student Senate Policy Committee and the student representative to the workgroup, recapped the listening tour.
“We viewed our role as facilitators, not as writers of this statement.” – Pat McKenna, Student Senate Policy Committee Chair and Member of Freedom of Expression Workgroup
From there, the discussion shifted to the development of the statement’s text; Dr. Ivanova Reyes, Assistant Professor of Economics and the Faculty Council’s representative to the workgroup, discussed the detailed content analysis she undertook of each message the group received either at one of its open forums with students, faculty, or the Board of Trustees or through its Google Form. Each of the messages was classified and fell into one or more of 58 categories, the top ten of which were: freedom, education, clarity, policy, respect, different views, diversity and inclusion, external speakers, critical thinking, and hate speech. As she unpacked themes from the input the workgroup received, she highlighted the recurring suggestion that clarity is a key in developing this institutional philosophy.
“We need a philosophy so we have clarity,” she said.
Finally, Associate Vice President of College Life Jeff Foster outlined the next steps as the college moves towards adopting this institutional philosophy, which include a feedback period that extends to February 15 (members of the campus community can submit thoughts through this Google Form) and then votes by Student Senate, then faculty, and finally the Board of Trustees at its May meeting, assuming the previous groups ratify the statement.
The workgroup then opened the floor to questions and comments, and six students weighed in during the 35-minute comment period.View Fullscreen
Among them was Nick Arbaugh ’20, a student senator and officer in Gettysburg College’s chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom.
Arbaugh thanked the workgroup for facilitating an open and transparent process in drafting the statement and for making him feel like a valued member of the campus community before moving into an impassioned defense of freedom of expression and critiquing parts of the statement that, in his view, open the door to future restrictions on students’ freedom to debate issues freely.
“We have a moral responsibility as citizens of the republic,” Arbaugh said. “Freedom of expression and freedom of thought are the lifeblood of how we get things done … I worry that we are detaching ourselves from those moral responsibilities.”
Specifically, Arbaugh mentioned part of the draft statement that says the college “may seek to restrict expression that … violates state or federal law or College policies on nondiscrimination.”
“That’s a big caveat,” Arbaugh said, noting that the college is free to write expansive policies on nondiscrimination that could be used to stifle free expression. “To cut at the edges [of freedom of expression] … is grossly irresponsible.”
He cited an opinion passed by Student Senate on freedom of expression as what he hoped the institutional philosophy would reflect, but he said that the draft does not reflect that Senate opinion, and, accordingly, he hopes his colleagues on Student Senate will join him in voting no when the opinion comes to the floor.
Bloomquist thanked Arbaugh on behalf of the workgroup for his passionate engagement throughout the process and noted, “Diversity and inclusion do not exist at odds with freedom of expression,” going on that conservative students are a group whose views need to be considered diverse perspectives along with more traditional conceptualizations of diversity.
She noted her wish that the statement would permit controversial speakers of all ideologies.
“I want a philosophy that allows Angela Davis and Robert Spencer,” she said referring to a 2013 lecture by activist scholar and civil rights leader Angela Davis and a 2017 lecture by director of Jihad Watch Robert Spencer.
Li Jianrui ’19, an international student who contrasted his experience attending Valley Forge Military Academy and Gettysburg College as being opposite ends of the spectrum that have helped him better understand the diversity of thought within the United States, expressed his desire to engage in further discussion around pressing public issues and his intent to start a College House next year where he hopes to foster such philosophical discussions.
Another student asked whether the raw data from the input the committee received could be made available, and Reyes said she would be willing to put together a more detailed presentation if people were interested.
The final discussion point in the open forum section centered on how the institutional philosophy would inform future college policy making.
Foster called the statement a “guiding document” that will not necessarily be turned into policy, while McKenna suggested that if students are concerned existing policies do not align with the statement, they should raise that concern in an effort to change the policies.
In concluding the town hall, Gettysburg President Janet Morgan Riggs thanked attendees and members of the workgroup for the “tremendous time, effort, and thought” they have put into the process.
“They have been in the hot seat many times on behalf of the institution, so I just want to acknowledge their tremendous efforts,” she said.