Remarks by President Katherine Bergeron at the March 25 community forum

I am very pleased to see so many of you here this afternoon, and to able to continue, in public and in person, a collective conversation about an issue that has been discussed in private and online for the past few weeks. Thank you all for coming.

I want to say a few words about why I think we are here and what I hope will emerge not only from the conversation today but also from our work as a community in the weeks and months to come.

Let me begin by outlining the context, and the events that have brought me to this moment. On the weekend of February 28, I opened an email from an alumnus, now residing in Jordan, which referred to some disturbing comments that had been found on the personal Facebook page of a Connecticut College professor. The letter did not quote those comments, because the professor’s post — originally published in August — had by then been removed from the Facebook account. It did raise questions, though, about what such comments meant for the Connecticut College community. After reading the email, I did what I would normally do: I took immediate steps to learn more about the situation.

On the following Monday, March 2, I saw the alumnus’s letter again, but this time it appeared in the pages of the College Voice, along with two other letters to the editor discussing the same concerns. I also saw, for the first time, a fragment of the offending post, which, despite having been deleted from the original Facebook page, was somehow still in circulation. 

When I read the post, I was, quite frankly, surprised and disappointed by the language. The paragraph analogized the situation in Gaza to a violent and rabid animal — an image that seemed to be referring not just to a political situation but also, by extension, to a whole population. I realize that the passage may have been taken out of context. But, reading only that one paragraph, as I did, I was taken aback as much by its central image as by its vehemence. At the very least, the intervention seemed to show poor judgment. It was not in keeping with the level of discourse that I have come to expect from the Connecticut College community and, in particular, from its faculty.

I know that my reaction was not unusual. That the paragraph elicited similar responses from others across the campus has been evident from the many comments published in a host of online venues over the past few weeks. The difficult campus dialogue that has ensued, even during a two-week spring break, resembles some of the controversies that have erupted in recent weeks across the country: at Oklahoma; at Penn State; at Northwestern. In all of these cases, there has been an instance of speech that crossed the line of acceptability; a reaction by those who encountered it; and petitions calling for the condemnation of the speech and, in some cases, of the speaker.

Let me say outright that I am not here to respond to a petition, although I have no objection that one may exist. But among the things that I would like to state — very clearly — is that freedom of speech is absolutely essential to the integrity of a college, like ours, that operates according to fiercely held values of academic freedom and shared governance. No institution should abridge the right of students, faculty, and staff to express their views freely and openly. All our rights are better protected when free speech is the order of the day. This means that, just as everyone has a right to speak, everyone has the right to speak against, to confront speech that they consider destructive or inappropriate. Let me say it again: everyone has the right to speak against. And yes, I will absolutely stand by any one of you who is moved to express dissenting views or to speak out when you see injustice. Yesterday, as I toured the new Shain library, these words of Kurt Vonnegut, delivered at Connecticut College in 1976, greeted me as I mounted the stairwell: “Our freedom to say or write whatever we please in this country is holy to me,” he wrote. It is holy to me, as well.

But, let me emphasize: as we exercise that freedom, we must also bear in mind another equally important set of values: our principles of community. The two value systems exist in a kind of opposition. Competing with the right to say or write whatever you please is a parallel responsibility to sustain and enhance our community and the quality of its discourse. All who joined this college, in fact, signed an implicit contract to govern their speech and actions according to certain principles designed for the collective good. These involve: creating a climate of civility; affirming diversity as a central value; fostering inclusivity; and — very importantly — expressing ideas, arguments, and points of view in a respectful manner. In moments of frustration or anger, we can say and do things that break that trust, things that divide us in ways that are difficult to recover from. I have been troubled to learn about a number of exchanges in recent weeks — some not related to the current incident — that have demonstrated just how divisive such acts of speech can be, and how much ongoing work it takes to recover. 

I commend the valor of the students who responded to these incidents by exercising their own right of free speech with confidence and intellectual acuity. They have put their learning into action in the most expedient way. Those who would argue that colleges should protect students from ever having to exercise these rights are misguided. Yes, we are obliged, as a college, to advance and sustain an environment of learning that nurtures and benefits all people — an environment in which all people feel safe and respected. This I take to be the highest responsibility of my office. But we also have to acknowledge that, even in providing such an environment, the moments of difficult, or even painful, disagreement may produce the deepest results and the most learning.

An act of apology, too, represents a kind of learning and an important community affirmation. Who in a community will not make mistakes? Of course, words of contrition alone may not immediately repair the breach of trust born of divisive words, but it is worth remembering that any community devoted to learning has to include a space for forgiveness.

So, where does that leave us? This meeting is not about forgiveness, no, but it is about addressing the work we have ahead of us to achieve our aspiration to inclusive excellence. Such work involves both dialogue and action. Today is focused on continuing the dialogue of the last few weeks in an open place that will allow for deeper and more engaged listening. As for action, the campus conversation has already led me to take several concrete steps — some large, some small — that I would like to summarize now as a way of concluding:

(1) First, I have asked the Dean of the Faculty to work with the appropriate bodies to review our social media policies to ensure they include appropriate advisory language about respectful expression. 

(2) Second, I have asked the Dean of Students to update our protocol for bias incidents so that those who come forward under these circumstances are well served by the process.

(3) Third, I am committed to finding a new dean of institutional equity and inclusion who will help this community advance in the important work of education about diversity. We are, as you know, in the middle of a search for that position. Because that search is not likely to be concluded for some months, I have decided to appoint someone immediately to this role on an interim basis, in order to help guide our work forward from today.

(4) And finally, I would like to find a more regular forum in which issues that are of concern to the whole community can be aired and discussed. This would not be the FSCC, or the SGA, or the SAC, or the alumni council, but a broader body — a kind of community council — that includes representatives from all constituent groups. In the coming weeks, I will be having discussions with these groups and with members of the senior administration about the form that such a council might take and how we might best proceed.

Let me end now by reiterating my thanks to all of you for being here, for your courage to speak, and your willingness to listen. I, too, will be listening, very deeply, to what you have to say. I truly believe that the work we are doing here is among the most important work that Connecticut College can do to ensure that it is fulfilling its mission of education for action: producing women and men with the capacity to imagine and to create a better and more just world. This is hard work; it is ongoing work; in many ways, it is work that is never complete. I am grateful and proud to belong to a community that has the will and the confidence to take it on.