I teach at Evergreen State College. Early this spring I became alarmed at the rapid deterioration of collegiality and respect for dissent on campus, and I drafted a letter which I hoped to circulate for signatures—but I sat on it. I thought: not enough faculty would be willing to sign and this would just expose how isolated I was in my concern. Or: the letter would only add to the momentum for polarization, since, despite its protestations, it wouldn’t be seen as simply a statement about democratic norms. Or: the timing wasn’t right, and I should hold onto it for a more propitious moment. Or: maybe I was just looking for excuses.
So for what it’s worth, which isn’t very much at this point, I’m posting it here. This draft was dated April 3, 2017, a bit shy of two months before the outbreak of student protests.
* * * * * *
This letter is prompted by the perception that the atmosphere at Evergreen is being poisoned by political and communication processes that are antithetical to the principles this institution was created to uphold. In particular:
1. A number of recent email exchanges have been highly inappropriate. A public distribution list should not be used for lengthy threads intended to “resolve” a contentious issue. It should not be used to impugn the character of any member of our community, nor should it use praise for community members as a signal that dissenting views are to be viewed as personal attacks. We should all bear in mind that ignoring a post you regard as misguided is always an option and usually the best one.
2. One of Evergreen’s five foci is “learning across significant differences”. It is normal that there should be significant differences among us on nearly every issue we face, and it is normal that they should be expressed in a variety of venues. By all means, we should make reasoned arguments for positions we support, but closing off or even discouraging the expression of dissent should play no role. This principle holds not only before decisions are taken, but also after: that’s democracy.
3. Even though we often disagree deeply, we owe each other the presumption of good faith. This institution cannot prosper on any other basis. We are all vulnerable to misperceptions due to unacknowledged biases, but this is not a reason for not listening to one another or failing to treat each other as colleagues.
4. In seminar students often have to cope with heated differences of opinion, and sometimes their comments are out of line. We try to respond constructively, without suggesting that anyone be ostracized or points of view withheld. We owe the same consideration to our colleagues that we expect students to extend to their peers.