The Corner

Vassar Loses Its Compass

If the administration of a prestigious liberal arts college cannot recognize a violation of civil discourse when it sees one, what hope can we have for its students?

Last Friday a group of Vassar students interrupted a visiting lecture by Alex Epstein, President of the Center for Industrial Progress and an opponent of the fossil-fuel divestment movement. Their leader read a statement attacking Epstein, after which he and about 30 other students (and perhaps some non-students as well) walked out of the talk. This was a single moment in a longer tale of political correctness run riot, which I related earlier today in “What’s the Matter With Vassar?”

In the course of researching this story, I contacted Vassar’s administration and asked for a comment on the walkout, on the tearing down of ads for Epstein’s talk, and on a threat by a student to do physical harm to himself during the talk as a gesture of protest. Although the problems at Vassar I detailed in my earlier post go far beyond these incidents, I thought it would be instructive to hear what Vassar had to say about a few concrete violations of the principles of civil discourse at an institution of higher learning.

In response to my inquiries, a spokesman for Vassar forwarded a formal statement on the walkout by Vassar’s acting president, Jonathan Chenette (which I reproduce in full at the end of this post).

Chenette’s statement amounts to an extended apologia for the interruption of Epstein’s talk, which I find troubling. Although Chenette begins by saying that he approves only of protests that don’t infringe upon the rights of others, nowhere does he acknowledge that interrupting a public lecture does in fact infringe upon others’ rights.

Chenette emphasizes that the interruption was brief and that Epstein took it in good stride. True, but that’s not the point. For Chenette, the protesters only deprived themselves of a chance to interact with Epstein. Yet there’s more to what happened than that. It’s fine to protest and carry on outside a lecture, but the practice of interrupting a speaker has no place at an institution dedicated to civil discourse in pursuit of higher learning. The protesters’ interruption violated the rights of others who’d come to hear the talk, and there was another harm as well. That was to the understanding of all students at Vassar about what constitutes a civil exchange of opinion.

If I were a Vassar student planning to break in on future speakers with whom I disagree, I’d be completely untroubled by Chenette’s response. In fact I’d take it as a green light. So will the next interruption last longer? Will the next speaker be untroubled? And how will Chenette’s green light for interruptions at public lectures play into the entrenched climate of politicization and intimidation I described in “What’s the Matter With Vassar?” I’ve argued that the climate of fear that inhibits intellectual exchange at Vassar stems from the misplaced vision of its faculty and administration. Chenette’s statement would appear to confirm this.

And what about the tearing down of ads for Epstein’s talk, and the student who threatened to do physical harm to himself to shock Epstein’s audience and disrupt his lecture? Chenette hasn’t yet addressed these issues, and perhaps that’s not surprising. Vassar’s administration seems to be in denial about the problems of political indoctrination and intimidation on campus — and the trouble goes way beyond these three incidents. When it comes to civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas — the core of a college’s proper mission — Vassar has very evidently lost its compass.

Here is Chenette’s statement:

Vassar welcomes healthy debate and exchange, including protests that do not infringe on the rights of others. Alex Epstein engaged the audience in a give-and-take format, and many people in attendance participated in the discussion. About a half-hour into a program that lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes, one student read a one-minute statement which ended by inviting people to an alternative event. Epstein took the interruption in stride, and the discussion went on as planned. Many people stayed in the room, several left.

The free exchange of ideas can be messy at times, but the students’ protest was a brief episode in an event that illuminated the debate around divestment, energy, and climate policy. That said, by exiting rather than engaging after making their statement, the group of students lost an opportunity for exchange and questioning on an issue they care about deeply.


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