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Remembering a Campus Free Speech Fight

In the 1990s, the culture wars did not always drive us apart: sometimes we learned to respect each other more

On June 10, 2018, Doug Bennet, a historian, political aide, assistant secretary in the State Department, former president of National Public Radio and—most importantly to me—president of Wesleyan University, died at the age of 79. It’s rare that you see someone bring such a rich background to the executive office of a liberal arts college, but after a lifetime as a Washington mover and shaker, Doug—an alumnus—decided to make our campus the last stop of a career devoted to public service.

Doug had a great sense of humor: I considered him, and his wife Midge, to be friends. In 1997, when I was receiving the university teaching award at graduation, I burst into tears as I approached the stage . He looked—as any good WASP would—horrified. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as I took the award. “My father is dying and I wish he were here to see this.” At which point, Doug pulled me in for a long hug as the students cheered. Later, at a low point in my career, he helped me in a way we always hope people in authority will, but rarely do. I will never forget it.

Doug’s obituary in The New York Times noted that his presidency was “not without controversies.” While that is true, I honestly can’t remember any of them, except the one that is mentioned in the article. On October 3, 2003, after a few tense months, Doug sent an email to the campus declaring a moratorium on chalking political statements on the sidewalks around campus. A liberal, in the pre-1990 sense of the word, Doug had taken this stance because the struggle between queer students, whose chalkings had picked up on the highly sexual ACT UP zeitgeist, and counterchalkings by offended students, had escalated dramatically. If you are interested in the details of that controversy, as I understood them a few years later, you can read an article I wrote about it that was uploaded here.

In the 2012 interview below, done by my former student Zach Schonfeld, now a senior writer at Newsweek, I talked about the complexities of this free speech controversy. What is astonishing to me in retrospect is how our disagreements about free speech cut across political lines on the faculty, with liberals, radicals, and conservatives finding themselves allies against, and in support, of the moratorium (which has not been lifted, fifteen years later).

 I republish this interview about it today as a tribute to my respect for Doug Bennet, to our friendship, but also to a moment in history when speaking across our differences often led to greater, not less, respect for each other. Doug was a man of great character, conviction and decency.

I will miss him.

ZS: What was the role of chalking on campus when you first arrived at Wesleyan? How did you feel about it?

CP: The purpose of chalking in its early years was to get a message out to the community quickly and concisely, often in an interrogatory form that provoked or encouraged the reader to think outside of the box. That “box” for Wesleyan was that the campus was a diverse and open community where racial and sexual minorities were accepted and happy. As a queer faculty member I was well aware that students who had come into the community under this assumption struggled with bigotry, usually as individuals. So to the extent that chalking reflected a kind of collective action on the part of students, and before we used the term, a form of civic engagement, I was enthusiastic about it. And I do think that it is important to say that chalking was relatively uncontroversial for many years when it functioned mostly as a form of community formation, group bonding, and visibility. Some faculty, and some students, resented it. Despite that, the administration thought it was best left alone, and I think this was wise.

ZS: From a faculty perspective, at what point did you become aware of administrative displeasure with chalking?

CP: Administrative displeasure with chalking was linked to the escalation of verbal violence used by chalkers, and a shift from the declarative to the transitive. You know, it went from “I’m gay, Mom!” to “I fucked your Mom!” From “I love blow jobs!” to “I gave your Dad/roommate/brother/son a blow job!” So I would have to say that administrators were not alone in their concerns: university support staff were distressed at what they regarded as intimidating obscenities in their workplace. Faculty who supported chalking were concerned at the turn things were taking, and one of my conservative female colleagues—who had publicly opposed chalking—began receiving pornography through an anonymous email account. Really. Not. Cool.

ZS: How did that progress to the moratorium?

CP: I recall things escalating really, really fast, with the chalking actions finding one more boundary to cross that would provoke even more vicious responses by other students. I think it’s important to emphasize that it was other students who raised the flag first, not administrators. Other students went out and counter-chalked; many of the things they chalked were homophobic, racist, and intimidating. Although I supported the right to chalk, I also saw things heading in a direction that was hard to understand as a student strategy for change—there were no demands, no leadership, and no sense of what policies the pressure was supposed to affect. It’s worth noting that this is the generation that produced Occupy Wall Street, and that these organizing theories have been refined since.

So the initial concern for Doug Bennet [’59], the president at the time (and you would have to check this with him), was the rapid decline of a civil atmosphere among students. It was not about the reputation of the university. The guy had worked for the State Department, and he believed deeply in civil discourse as an alternative to violence, verbal or physical. In retrospect—and this may seem like an odd comparison—Bennet had been intimately involved with monitoring the crisis in Rwanda, during the Clinton administration, where verbal violence preceded calamitous physical violence and genocide. I think he may have had concerns that verbal attacks could escalate into physical confrontations between students.

ZS: Some of the alums I’ve spoken to claim that Bennet’s moratorium was less about civil discourse and more motivated by the way the university was perceived for purposes of fundraising and college rankings. What’s your evidence for arguing against this view?

CP: Well, I would ask what their evidence is for assuming that what President Bennet said was all a thin disguise for an exercise in re-branding. He was, and is, a very sincere man, and was not given to manipulation or evasion. I really liked that about him, and I regretted that in my role as a teacher I felt I had to side with the students and against him on this. But I did.

I think that the alums may not have the longer perspective on student protest that some faculty did. The nature of chalking changed dramatically—it turned very ugly, very fast, in my view, and the lack of a queer student organization meant (in the analysis of Max Mishler, a student of mine at the time) that literally no one was accountable for any harm that might result from these confrontations. I don’t think Bennet’s concerns were in the least misplaced. I also think he was doing his job: what if one of those chalking encounters had produced physical violence or a workplace harassment suit from an employee? Those were things that were spoken about at the time and I think they were real possibilities.

ZS: You mention that students were (counter-)chalking “homophobic, racist and intimidating messages.” Given your opposition to the moratorium, how did you (or would you have) advise(d) Bennet to respond to this situation? Similarly, how do you think chalked attacks on specified individuals should have been moderated, if at all?

CP: My view is that attacking individuals is rarely, if ever, just. I think that when you do politics in a democracy you have to be restrained in relation to individuals no matter how foul you think they are. You need to focus on the structural and institutional questions that can really allow you to articulate your grievances as issues of rights, broadly applied. To clarify, as I recall it, Bennet was also troubled because these attacks and counter-attacks were anonymous, and he felt anonymous attacks were particularly insidious. Queer students, as I recall, felt that they were entitled to anonymity because they were more vulnerable which, in retrospect, I think put them in a politically weak position.

But chalking was also a sign of immense frustration with university processes that had stalled practically every progressive initiative. I think that queer students and students of color had legitimate grievances—lack of health and emotional health service providers who were attuned to LGBT issues—and the university should have addressed them.

ZS: In what ways were there “no demands, no leadership, and no sense of what policies the pressure was supposed to affect”?

CP: The students who were doing the chalking—working on an anarchist model—were adamant about the non-hierarchical nature of their activism, their refusal of formal organization and leadership roles, and their purposeful anonymity. This meant that there was no one to negotiate with, and there were no formal demands being made—except that the chalking moratorium be lifted. Unfortunately, chalking went from being a means to political action to being an end in itself.  I think the students painted themselves into a corner and in a way, so did the university. I think appointing mediators might have helped, but not if the students refused to reveal themselves or participate in a structured exchange to hash out the issues that made their actions necessary to begin with.

ZS: You mention in your essay on chalking that postering preceded chalking. At what point did this shift into chalking take place?

CP: It was in the mid- to late-1990s, and was in part prompted by student awareness that they were creating a lot of unnecessary work for the maintenance staff who had to scrape the posters off the ground and walls. Some faculty also resented having the posters slipped under their doors, some of which targeted individuals for criticism on homophobia, but I don’t recall students caring much about that.

ZS: You wrote in a 2002 letter that you opposed Bennet’s (and the WSA’s) notion of “community standards” for expression. Have your views on this changed at all since 2002?

CP: My views on “community standards” have not changed. Historically, community standards tend to represent the views of those in power and silence those who are not. Perhaps one of oddest Supreme Court decisions ever is Miller v. California (1973), which tried to get around the First Amendment precedents that allows communities to set their own standards as to what is, or is not, obscene. What that means on a practical level is that sex businesses end up concentrated in economically and politically powerless neighborhoods, whether they want them or not, and communities can block a lesbian bookstore or a gay diversity curriculum because it violates the “values” of the majority. So it puts citizens in the minority in the position of watching their neighbors vote their rights away—which, of course, has happened in states that have passed referenda opposing gay marriage.

ZS: What was Bennet’s reaction to the (majority) faculty stance against the moratorium? Did you ever confront faculty who supported the ban?

CP: I think Bennet thought the faculty was wrong, and that he was president, and that chalking was a moment where he needed to take a leadership position even if it was not fully supported. I also think faculty votes like that have a strange quality—a lot of people who might have voted against that resolution were not at the meeting.  The people who were at the meeting were an unusual coalition of liberals, a few radicals, and a significant number of people who I would characterize as libertarian conservatives. This latter group gives up no rights without a fight, particularly ones that might have bearing on faculty speech and intellectual work, which this one clearly did.

ZS: Did your outspokenness on this ever cause you tension in your professional life? Were Bennet or other faculty bothered by the stance you took?

CP: I don’t recall more than one or two unpleasant exchanges with other faculty, who (at Wesleyan) tend to be pretty restrained in expressing their differences with each other openly. Doug Bennet was always respectful to me, in all things, and I tried to match that—we also really liked each other, which helped. And I think it is fine for people to disagree strongly on something of this nature and still understand that they can have a lot of other things in common. I think it’s one of the weaknesses of contemporary politics that people tend to write each other off when they disagree.

ZS: Any other interesting anecdotes that come to mind when you reflect on the chalking debate?

CP: In the midst of the controversy, I was chatting with one of Doug Bennet’s family members about what was at stake, and this person started to laugh and said, “You do realize he’s a prude, don’t you?” I look back on this fondly, because it added a very human dimension to his frustration. But I also realize how much he restrained himself, over and over again, as students insulted him and his wife in the most graphic and inexcusable ways.

A last word: as a historian, I think the chalking ban was very different then than it is now, although I’m not on campus to really gather my evidence. It’s different in all kinds of ways, but one thing stands out for me. In my recollection, Doug Bennet was really not concerned about the university’s image. He was concerned about the nature of community and how anonymous attacks on unspecified, or specified, members of the community created ruptures in a place dedicated to liberal thought and intellectual progress that did not exist. Students who chalked felt the opposite: that those ruptures did exist, and they were just exposing them. For a variety of reasons that I do and do not understand, Wesleyan manages its image very closely now, and so it’s harder to have this potentially more fruitful discussion.

Claire Potter, who taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, from 1991 to 2011,  is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on TwitterThis interview was originally published at Wesleying, a Wesleyan student publication, on November 26, 2012, and has been edited for accessibility and length.

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