Jon Western, Gregory White: Fleitman column was filled with hyperbole

Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To the editor:

In his June 2 column, “Closed minds on campus,” Jay Fleitman cites the decisions by three prominent commencement speakers to decline their invitations in the face of protest as evidence that U.S. colleges and universities are intolerant places.

He makes a sweeping conclusion that the problem is that “Students have a tacit license on campus to shout down or otherwise disrupt speakers with opinions that they do not like” and that college administrators and faculty have allowed and encouraged this to happen. He even compares students engaged in this behavior to “brown shirts.”

The analogy to the dreaded paramilitary wing of the Nazi party is not only highly offensive. It is also simply not true. We speak from experience. In our combined 40 years of teaching at nearly a dozen institutions in the Five Colleges and beyond — in all of our professional contacts and visits to other colleges and universities over many years as well as our collective efforts in organizing hundreds of lectures on campuses by speakers from across the political spectrum — we object to Dr. Fleitman’s characterization.

The Five Colleges, in particular, is a vibrant and diverse intellectual environment. Every year, the students, faculty and administrators from the five institutions host hundreds of speakers. These events often encourage and provoke spirited discussion, debate and argument — sometimes with heightened passions. Occasionally, speakers may be interrupted briefly from the audience, but this is extremely rare — and not limited to college campuses, as President Obama found in a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress.

We were both disappointed that Christine Lagarde ultimately declined the invitation to speak at Smith’s commencement in the face of protest by some students and faculty. But that regrettable turn of events hardly merited Dr. Fleitman’s unsubstantiated hyperbole.

Jon Western, Gregory White

Jon Western is the Five College Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College and director of the Five College International Relations Program. Gregory White is professor of government and faculty director of the Lewis Global Studies Center, Smith College.


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