Dear President Bradley,
On Oct. 25, you sent out a message to the Vassar community “to help prepare” the students, faculty and administration “for tomorrow.” While you oddly included two additional and unrelated events in your message, the sole reason for “preparing” was the lecture to be given the following day by William Jacobson, professor of law at Cornell University. It was only for this event that you were “made aware of the very real and legitimate pain that students are feeling.”
A student group named “Healing to Action” (H2A), clearly the group that instigated your message, planned and held “a community gathering in the Library” to “be a place of healing and peace.” In addition, your office “worked closely with the Wendy Freedman and Coun- seling Services at Vassar to be sure adequate emotional support staff are present all evening.”
What was the cause of all this childish caterwauling? A lecture. A lecture by a law professor. A lecture by a law professor from Cornell. A lecture by a law professor from Cornell on free speech. A lecture by a mainstream, right-of-center law professor, falsely accused by H2A of affiliation with white supremacists and neo-Na- zis. You knew all this, and yet you still stoked the fires of “real and legitimate pain” when there was absolutely nothing real or legitimate about it.
There are two problems with your message in addition to the obviously false accusations against Professor Jacobson on which it was based. The first is your acceptance, endorsement, and encouragement of the infantilization of the Vassar student body. For $68,110 per year, students deserve better than to be treated as preschoolers. In the end, this produces nothing but resentful, angry, and closeminded graduates, ashamed of their own inability to engage in cogent argument and discussion, and unable to cope with the real world. It is a terrible disservice to the lives of these young people.
The second problem is your embracement of H2A, who you profusely thanked for their “excellent and compassionate work” and for working “tirelessly and creatively to develop safety teams and plans.” What exactly is H2A, and what are its princples? We need look no further than the group’s own words, written in The Miscellany News on Nov. 1:
“We also recognize that although we connected the event’s legitimization of hate speech to the expected presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis on our campus, we should have more clearly explained the links between free speech and white supremacy. Demands for the protection of free speech under the First Amendment are based on the assertion that all voices are given equal weight in society and they all need protection from censorship. This is objectively false in our white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist society. These demands fail to acknowledge systems of oppression that give power to privileged people (those who are white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy and/or able-bodied) at the expense of the ‘others’ of society. The Constitution was created to justify genocide of indigenous peoples and institutionalize chattel slavery. It is inherently racist, and is currently used to justify modern day acts of racism. Hate speech is a violent tool used by oppressors to preserve white supremacy, the patriarchy, etc., and any rhetoric that serves to protect it is inherently linked to this violence. We wish to alter the framing of this issue altogether. The issue at hand is not about one’s individual, legal right to free speech, but is instead about the collective well-being of all members of our society. Healing to Action is premised on the idea that what affects one individual affects us all. Speech, whether it is legal or not, can be and is violent. We have a collective responsibility to stand up for those in our communities who are harmed or disenfranchised by speech, whether it is technically legally permissible or not.”
Every single sentence in this statement is utterly reprehensible. Compare and contrast the position of H2A with the position of Mr. Jacobson. Professor Jacobson is no provocateur. Not a single utterance in his lecture was outside mainstream legal or constitutional thought. I challenge you to find a single word in his lecture that you even disagree with, let alone ones that could inflict “real and legitimate pain.”
You sent out the message, loud and clear, that while Mr. Jacobson and his ideas are, at best, to be grudgingly tolerated, H2A and its ideas are to be encouraged, supported, and thanked. This is shameful coming from any faculty member, and egregious coming from the president of the College. Now more than ever, the students of Vassar need to hear the ideas expressed by Professor Jacobson. It should have been you who personally invited Professor Jacobson to speak. You should have personally endorsed his message, and you should have personally asked the Vassar community to attend.
To the eternal shame of Vassar, it appears that not a single member of the Vassar faculty or administration publicly supported Professor Jacobson or his free speech message. It also appears that many, like you, actively supported H2A.
In their silence and actions, the faculty and administration at Vassar have clearly learned a lesson from Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale University. This couple dared to speak truth to power, and it cost them their careers.
You owe Professor Jacobson a public apology, and you owe the Vassar community a statement thoroughly repudiating H2A and its ideas.
Paul S. Mansour ’87