Presidents Speaker Series installment embroiled in controversy
THE SANTA CLARA
October 15, 2015
A visiting conservative columnist created a stir on campus when he engaged in vigorous discussions with Santa Clarans about his controversial opinions on sexual assault at college campuses.
On Oct. 8, George F. Will, who contributes political commentary, most notably to The Washington Post and Fox News, was invited to campus as the first speaker in the tenth annual President’s Speaker Series. Will’s visit included an informal question and answer session open to students, a formal speaking engagement in which he addressed a near-full Meyer Theatre and a brief Q&A session facilitated by law professor Michelle Oberman following the talk.
Political science professor Elsa Chen moderated the first Q&A session, which drew a crowd of around 50 people — a mix of students and university staff. Although the talk was entitled, “Ethics and Civility in Journalism,” students opted overwhelmingly to challenge Will on controversial comments he made in the past surrounding sexual assault.
The comments challenged the most were from a 2014 column Will wrote for The Washington Post. In the article, he said that colleges and universities are working too hard to prevent students from experiencing microagressions, which he said are “often not discernible to the untutored eye (and) are everywhere” and “that when (colleges) make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”
He also wrote that the sexual assault rate on campuses is lower than 20 percent, a number he said is demonstrated by simple math.
In the days leading up to Will’s visit, a Change.org petition titled “Inclusion of George Will violates spirit and intent of SCU President’s Speaker Series,” was created and began circulating online.
In the petition’s text, which has 344 online supporters, a user under the screenname “Speakerseries Letter” raises concerns about Will’s comments on sexual assault as well as climate change and the Pope. The petition called Will’s invitation to speak on campus a contradiction to university values.
“We find Will’s flatly dismissive statements about sexual assault, climate change and the Pope not only disrespectful, but contrary to the very spirit of a speaker series dedicated to ‘engaging people and ideas that shape our world,’” the final lines of the petition read.
Following the buzz surrounding the petition, University President Fr. Michael Engh, S.J., sent out a campus-wide email on Oct. 7, which said that the decision to invite Will to speak on campus did not imply that he or other university administrators approved of his views on certain topics.
“Like many members of the university community, I disagree with Mr. Will’s commentary on violence against women, climate change and Pope Francis’s environmental message,” Engh wrote. “A review of the speakers in the past six years reveals a number whose opinions differed strongly from my own. These speakers, nonetheless, brought to campus views widely held in our broader society, views that we must engage as committed citizens.”
However, this did not quell student anger. Chen appeared visibly uncomfortable at times as the discourse between Will and student attendees grew tenser during the Q&A. At various points, she stepped in to allow other students with raised hands to engage with Will.
Not all questions addressed the controversy. One student posed a question about the diversification of college degrees and another asked for his thoughts on the current turmoil within the House of Representatives as Republicans try to elect a new Speaker of the House.
Following the Q&A and before his formal speech began, approximately 30 student protesters gathered on the lawn across from Mayer Theatre holding signs that read, “SCU is no place for bigotry,” “Quit giving misogyny a voice,” “We need a better leader than George Will,” among other sayings. They chanted “Rape is not a privilege,” as attendees filed into the sold out event. Protesters came from student groups ranging from Santa Clara Community Action Plan, Feminists for Justice, Together for Ladies of Color and Be Legit.
“It’s clear that George Will isn’t interested in colleges educating, you know, the whole person, when it comes to the area of sexual assault or micro-aggressions, or climate change for that matter,” said junior Desirée Fletcher, who participated in the protest.
Although many eventgoers walked past the protesters with perplexed looks, not all disapproved of the demonstration.
“I think it’s great they’re out here. It’s nice to see students speaking their point of view,” said event goer Judy Pisano.
The student protest did not come as a surprise to the administration — paperwork had already been filled out to prevent it from being shut down, and senior Chiara DeBlasio, the protest’s organizer, began working with the Center for Student Leadership a week beforehand, said Tedd Vanadilok, director of campus programs in the Center for Student Leadership.
“The students involved in the protest weren’t involved in creating the petition,” DeBlasio said. “The petition was to get him uninvited, but we felt – the students felt – that it would be better to protest the ideas that he’s bringing to campus and the beliefs that he’s representing.”
Will began his formal speech and started building a rapport with the crowd early on, inciting laughter as he shared an anecdote from the 1976 New York Senate election between incumbent James Buckley and Daniel “Pat” Moynihan, both of whom he referred to as “good friends of [his].”
Pacing the stage, rarely returning to the podium to reference his notes, Will began by describing America as he sees it: a welfare state. He discussed in depth his perception that the government has a tendency to run deficits, a habit that he says will not be able to sustain the country forever.
“There is a permanent incentive in democracy for the political class, no matter which party is in power, to run deficits. That is, to give the American people a dollar’s worth of government goods and services and charge them 65 cents for it, borrowing the rest,” he said, continuing, “This is, to be blunt about it, decadent.”
As he gave his analyses on issues including the overuse of the healthcare system, income inequality, the disintegration of the family structure, the inflated government and the Senate immigration bill currently being debated, Will took every opportunity to include a relevant Major League Baseball anecdote to prove his points, touting his extensive knowledge of the subject.
Towards the end of his talk, he said the country still works well despite massive gridlock in Washington, arguing that the federal government was designed to place safety above efficiency.
“We can get better by choosing to get better,” he said before concluding with a baseball analogy that garnered an eruption of applause.
In the ensuing Q&A session Oberman moderated, Will was again asked to defend and discuss his comments on sexual assault, leading to a heated back and forth exchange between the two. The audience, seemingly fed up by the discourse that failed to arrive at a resolve, became agitated. Grumbling ensued, and one person in attendance shouted, “Come on! Let’s get on with it! Ask another question!”
After answering more audience-submitted questions, Oberman opted to end a lighter note by asking Will what he thought the Chicago Cubs’ chances are this year, as Major League Baseball teams head into the postseason.
“I think the Cubs, with a little luck – and luck is part of life – the Cubs can do it,” he said, before the crowd erupted into applause, a few even giving Will a standing ovation.
According to Margaret Avritt, the director of marketing in the Office of Marketing and Communications, speakers for the President’s Speaker Series are selected by an advisory group composed of alumni, faculty and university employees that meets annually or biannually to suggest potential speakers for the series, but ultimately, the university president confirms the final selection.
Avritt said Will was selected to speak because he is a “person who was thinking about many of the important issues of our day.” She added that the university aims to bring speakers to campus who cover the whole political spectrum, but generally they lean towards choosing speakers more sympathetic to the left.
“It definitely engendered some conversation,” she said. “A university is a place where we should feel safe to discuss all kinds of different ideas and, you know, as students and faculty and staff, we should be able to discuss varying points of view and be exposed to varying points of view, while still being civil and respectful and for the most part, I think that is what happened during George Will’s visit.”
Contact Jenni Sigl at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.