Scripps College’s decision to disinvite conservative columnist George Will from speaking at the Malott Public Affairs Program has met mixed reactions from students and faculty members alike.
News of the cancellation of Will’s engagement was published by the Claremont Independent on Oct. 6. Speaking with the Independent, Will attributed the disinvitation to his June 6 column in The Washington Post, in which he criticized the Obama administration’s efforts at sexual assault prevention on college campuses as well as what he called “capacious definitions” of sexual assault itself.
The Public Affairs Program, established in memory of Elizabeth Hubert Malott SC ’53, was designed as an opportunity for both liberal and conservative viewpoints to be expressed on Scripps’ campus. In an Oct. 7 email to Scripps’ student body, following the Independent‘s article, Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga wrote that Will’s political views were not the cause of the decision to rescind his invitation.
“Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue,” Bettison-Varga wrote. “And it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy. For that reason, after Mr. Will authored a column questioning the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students, we decided not to finalize the speaker agreement.”
Some students, however, disagreed with the college’s reasoning.
“I was upset that it was entirely the administration’s decision,” Sophie Mann SC ’18 said. “Those who adamantly disagree with him and want to pose their questions—that is what this is about. Scripps wants to provide a basis for us to think critically, which is really important in this era, but if you filter out the people who offer a different opinion, you’re not really teaching critical thinking; you’re teaching ideological indoctrination.”
Among those who share Mann’s view is Steven Glick PO ’17, who argued that disinviting Will could potentially undermine intellectual discourse of controversial topics.
“There’s no denying that Mr. Will’s opinion on sexual assault is a stark contrast to that held by much of our community, but this topic is irrelevant to the content of his lecture,” he said. “Bringing George Will in to give a talk would push people to think critically outside of their comfort zone. The fact that many students don’t share his same beliefs on one particular issue does not make the decision to rescind Mr. Will’s invitation to speak any less of a disservice to our intellectual community.”
However, not all students believe that disinviting Will was necessarily detrimental to the college’s intellectual growth. Alice Flood SC ’17 emphasized that the strong negative reaction to Will’s column would impede an open discussion if he came to Scripps.
“I went to the speaker they brought in last year, Peggy Noonan, who was super and very smart and worked with Reagan,” Flood said. “It was a great conversation. There were no politics until the very end when people asked questions. George Will is also very successful; however, if he were to come, the same conversation wouldn’t have been able to be had because this article is so controversial.”
The debate has stretched beyond the student body to the faculty of the Claremont Colleges. Claremont McKenna College’s associate professor of government Frederick Lynch disagreed with Scripps’ decision.
“His article was really needlessly offensive and provocative,” Lynch said. “At the time I sent it around to colleagues and said, ‘This is going to get him in trouble,’ and it did. But again, the idea of a liberal arts education is to listen to different points.”
Lynch, noting that he personally disagrees with Will on many topics, called the author “very bright and articulate.”
“I’d come down on the side of free speech and have him out and have a question-and-answer period and say, ‘If you were writing this today, would you change your mind?’” Lynch said.
Scripps has yet to announce a new speaker for the Malott Public Affairs Program.