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Campus speakers

I realize that some of my friends and students [1] will disagree with me about the topics I raise in this essay. I also realize that I usually stay away from political issues. However, this issue touches enough on teaching and learning that I find it worth addressing.

Suppose Grinnell had a speaker on campus who, thirty years previous, had been convicted of murdering a police officer, had served their time, and was now speaking about ways to address the divide between officers and the communities they serve. Would you be okay with them speaking on campus? I would. I’d argue that they had something useful to say and that they had served their time for their act [2,3]. I’d also be upset if people interrupted the talk to rant about the crime they had committed, or used question and answer time to focus on that crime than on the subject of the talk.

I’d also be willing to allow a member of the Bush cabinet to speak on campus, even though I’d be likely to disagree with them politically, because we’d have the potential opportunity to learn something about decisions that were made and why [4].

Why is this relevant? Well, a few days ago we had Ken Adelman ’67 on campus. Adelman was Secretary of Defense under Ford, was US Ambassador the United Nations, and served in other positions. While I would probably not agree with him politically, I think our students interested in politics would want to hear his perspective.

As you might expect of a member of the Ford administration, it sounds like Adelman was also a typical privileged white male of the 60’s, and acted that way. He was socially expelled [5] from Grinnell in the spring of his senior year for harassment of a bi-racial couple, one of whom also appears to have been visually impaired. His behavior was clearly awful. However, it was also about fifty years ago.

What happened when he was on campus? When students were supposed to be talking to him about Practical Political Education in the Spencer Grill, they instead asked him about that harassment. You tell me: What’s more useful? Hearing about how one makes decisions about arms control, or rehashing a stupid college incident [6]. At his talk on Reagan at Reykjavik [7], students held up a sign that read Unwelcome then, unwelcome now. I wasn’t at his talk, but it sounds like protesters also disrupted the Q&A session. If I’d been a student or faculty member who had attended the talk to listen, rather than to protest, I would have been disappointed at the lost opportunity to learn, or to challenge him on Reagan policies, or to hear his opinions on the current administration.

What did all of the protest accomplish, other than depriving students of the right to learn a bit more and to remind us that some folks have been scummy at some points of their lives? I’m not sure. When I’m 70 or so [8], I’d much rather that people talk to me about CS education, or arts computing, than raise the issue of some stupid thing I did while in college [9].

Do I think protest is inappropriate? Certainly not; protest is valuable. But I think protest should be focused, and that protesters should consider their own impact on others.

Do I know the whole story? Certainly not. I’d likely feel differently if either of the students that Adelman and company harassed complained, or raised concerns. But I can’t tell any such thing from the _S&B article [10].

So, that’s my take. I’m sure that I’ll hear that I completely misunderstood the situation, or that I’m inappropriately addressing the issue because I speak from a position of privilege.

[1] And possibly family members.

[2] Yes, I realize that it’s not fair that the officer’s family loses them forever, while the perpetrator gets to continue to live their life. However, we as a society have agreed that once people have served their sentence, they have been rehabilitated.

[3] Yes, I realize that some people get unfairly convicted. We’re working on the assumption that this person was appropriate convicted.

[4] We also have one faculty member who served as Senior Staff Economist under Reagan.

[5] Not expelled, but banned from campus.

[6] I am not trying to minimize the incident. It was clearly awful. But you don’t really learn anything by asking about it, and you don’t really teach him anything, either.

[7] A summit that helped end the cold war.

[8] I really hope I make it to seventy or so. I even hope that I make it to 90 or so.

[9] Nope, not revealing that here.

[10] I will not comment in public about that article, other than to reference it. I’m sure one of my students who work on the S&B will, though.

Version 1.0 of 2017-03-03.