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April 24, 2024

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Encouraging Open Dialogue on Campus

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Re: “Make Us Feel Safe Here” (opinion, April 17)

To the Editor: 

Thank you for your open letter to Provost Kotlikoff entitled, “Let Us Feel Safe Here.” In it, you ask the question “Will you pay thousands to an anti-trans speaker and then have me arrested if I speak out in the Q&A to defend myself when the speaker decides my question is not worth hearing?”

It’s an important question and, as a co-host of the event to which you are referring in your letter, I would like to set the record straight. No one was, or will ever be arrested for asking questions during a Q&A, even if those questions are critical or harsh.

That does not resemble what happened at the Ann Coulter event on April 16. At the beginning of the event, there was a clear warning alerting all attendees that disruptions would lead to arrests. Later, during the Q&A, the assistant professor in question took their opportunity at the microphone to deride Ms. Coulter and the audience about their racism. There was no question asked. The professor then disrupted Ms. Coulter’s attempts to answer subsequent questions posted by other audience members. Eventually, after several disruptions, the professor was removed from the venue and arrested.

This recent event, the protests around the Israel-Hamas War and the talk several months ago with Michael Knowles have led to some significant tensions on campus. Such tensions underscore the challenges we face in engaging with ideas that diverge from our own. However, it is precisely in these challenging times that we must champion the cause of free speech, particularly in an academic setting where we are all — students, faculty and administrators — exploring complex worldviews.

Next week, we are honored to host ex-Philosophy Professor Kathleen Stock, who has also faced considerable controversy for her views. Formerly a faculty member at the University of Sussex, Stock is regarded as a gender-critical feminist, a stance which led to her resignation under intense pressure. Her previous lectures at Cambridge and Oxford were marked by serious protests (in one case a student glued themselves to the floor) yet they also provided vital platforms for discussion.

I do not agree with everything Stock has to say, but I am interested to hear her concerns that some transgender rights impinge upon the hard-fought rights of cis women. I think she will welcome serious and hard questions, and I may have some myself. 

She will be joined in conversation by Rhodes University Philosophy Chair, Rebecca Tuvel, who has also faced controversy and cancellation for ideas she expressed in an academic setting. In 2017, an article she published in the feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, faced a backlash from over 400 academics. 

Their visit represents an opportunity for us all to engage with contentious issues surrounding trans rights. These debates are particularly relevant to today’s evolving society and demand our attention and engagement. Furthermore, it is a great way for all of us to hear what two well-respected philosophers have to say about a very current social issue. 

I believe that exposing our community to a variety of beliefs — including those we might vehemently disagree with — is essential for a truly educational experience. As we navigate these divisive times, let us come together as a community to listen, debate and grow.

I look forward to seeing many of you at Professor Stock’s lecture on Wednesday, May 1, at 5:30 p.m., where we will continue the important work of fostering dialogue and understanding.

— Prof. Randy Wayne, integrative plant science

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