The following is on op-ed submission from Bates Alumnus Roy Mathews
At private schools, like Bates College, free speech is on life support if not already underground. Activists have raised the cost of engaging in free speech to a level that most students and faculty would rather stay silent than speak out.
I arrived as an undergraduate at Bates College several years ago, ready to be challenged and expand my horizons at school. I expected my papers would be graded strictly and for professors to question, critique, and edit my work to make me a better writer. I did not know it then, but I had entered a college, much like others, where students did not ask questions, but dictated to professors what their views were and dared the instructors to challenge them.
These past few weeks have seen college campuses erupt in anti-Semitic celebrations of terrorism in the Middle East, with Jewish students and faculty alike being struck by the inhumane attitude of Hamas-supporting undergraduates. Students at Northeastern University in Boston called for a lecturer to be investigated by the administration due to his denunciation of Hamas’ terrorist attacks. At Columbia University in New York, a student was assaulted in a dispute over Israel and Hamas posters. With such uncontrolled rage spilling out onto the campus quad, why aren’t faculty stepping in? I can tell you firsthand that it is because the adults in academia are not in charge of campus anymore, the activists are.
Many U.S. universities promise to uphold freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, and academic freedom to ensure students and faculty question and research any subject that piques their interest. Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, only 36 percent of Americans trust institutions of higher education. When I read about the targeted harassment of Brett Weinstein at Evergreen State College and his eventual resignation in September 2017, I considered myself lucky I just entered a school that would be a bastion of intellectual rigor and free inquiry. Little did I know that Bates College consistently ranked in the bottom forty of the 427 universities studied by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expressions (FIRE) in the last five years.
I eventually saw firsthand why Bates ranked so low. Just a year after graduating, I was alerted to a mob of students that called for a guest lecturer in Bates’ geology department, Keith Taylor, to lose his job over a disagreement. The lecturer simply asked a student to provide evidence for their assertion that Bates was “anti-black and based in white supremacy.” Taylor later resigned after the Dean of Faculty, Malcolm Hill, held a mock hearing in Taylor’s classroom where activist students voiced their accusations of racism and silenced other students, who wanted Taylor to finish his class because of upcoming final exams. I was not at all surprised that an individual lecturer was targeted for simply asking a student to provide some examples to back up their assertion. However, an earlier incident during my time at Bates was a warning to everyone, professor and student, that voicing opinions outside of accepted orthodoxy would result in your social death.
During the contentious 2020 election year, my chapter of Bates College Republicans was asked to issue a statement from Bates about why it was important to go vote in the election. Not only was the student who published the statement socially ostracized, but multiple people accused him of wanting to physically hurt them after encouraging students to vote. The Student Government, alongside several supportive faculty, held a rally under the hashtag #WeCannotCoexist to oppose College Republicans inclusion on Bates’ social media. Students brandishing the Antifa flag became a regular scene on campus and Bates’ President, Clayton Spencer, retracted a statement defending free speech after more backlash.
These two incidents made me one of the 64 percent that does not trust higher education. I wonder if any free speech at Bates College is salvageable. FIRE’s “red light” Rating for Bates comes across as an understatement when professors feel they have to email students in private about how concerned they are about Bates’ enforcement of orthodoxy, or limit their protestations to their email signatures. Just this week, anti-Semitic messages were left on sidewalks and buildings on Bates campus. You will not see any faculty or administrative action from Bates to hold those anti-Semites accountable.
Nadine Strossen, the first woman to lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), asks the question, “Are we allowed to still speak freely?” in a new documentary from the Free To Choose Network entitled Free to Speak. My experience on campus leads me to answer that question with a resounding “no.” However, there is still hope for public universities across the country, as the Constitution and Bill of Rights are on the side of every student at those universities. As for private schools like Bates, free speech is almost eradicated. Students and faculty would rather play along than face the mobs who silence them.
Roy Mathews is a Writer for Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College, Fulbright Alum, and 2023 Publius Fellow at The Claremont Institute.