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November 28, 2023: Responding to community concerns, questions, and needs

Email from President Sarah Bolton to the Whitman campus community on November 28, 2023:

Dear Whitman Community,

Our campus includes people from more than seventy nations, and we are a community with a wide range of opinions, identities and experiences. That breadth of perspectives is one of our greatest strengths, and engaging meaningfully with differing views is crucial to the learning that happens here. Our values commit us to both freedom of expression and intentionality about the ways we speak, listen, and hold one another’s humanity.

In recent weeks, many at Whitman have been struggling with the catastrophic violence in Israel and Gaza. And across the United States, there is a rapid rise in acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Events such as the recent shooting of three Palestinian-American college students in Vermont and the threats of violence made against Jewish students at Cornell University are raising broad concerns. While we have not seen any violence in our own community, many are feeling deep pain and fear about what is taking place both in the United States and in Israel and Gaza. Some are engaging in protest to express their desire to see change. Others are engaging with the issues through their teaching, their personal studies, or their faith communities.

As we navigate these challenging international issues, several important concerns and questions about our own campus have arisen. I want to take a moment to address them, and to describe new resources that we are bringing to bear.

In the letter to campus on November 12th, I noted some recent reports of harassment, and other instances have been brought to our attention since then. Harassment of any kind is unacceptable and a violation of Whitman’s policies. Where we have the names of individuals who are alleged to have violated college policies, we are following up through the conduct process. We also have received credible reports about activities on campus where names are not known, but which either may violate harassment policies or otherwise be unacceptable ways to treat others in the community. And so I feel it is important to clarify those here.

  • It is not acceptable to harass someone in ways that substantially disrupt their access to a positive living, learning or working environment at the College. For example, it is not acceptable to shout at, harangue, or demean someone for staying in class, working in an office, studying in the residence hall, accessing campus services or otherwise participating in campus activities while others are protesting.
  • It is not acceptable to try to intimidate or humiliate someone to make them say or do something against their wishes. This includes requiring or intimidating someone to say certain words, vote a certain way, or participate in a protest or other activity.

These examples are grounded in our policies that provide all students the right to live and learn in an environment conducive to learning, and provide faculty and staff the right to work in an environment free from disruption, harassment, and intimidation. They are also important in ensuring that each person has the right to act and speak in ways that are true to their own conscience, respecting a community that holds diverse perspectives.

There have also been multiple concerns raised about antisemitism on our campus. We have received concerns from students, faculty and staff, and see significant impacts on the well-being of a number of Jewish members of our community. This is deeply troubling, and we must act to address it. Antisemitism has no place here. The same is true for Islamophobia and other forms of bias and discrimination. We are steadfastly committed to providing a safe living, learning and working environment that is genuinely welcoming for all, and we will continue to accelerate work across our campus to fully realize it, including through new efforts described at the end of this letter.

We have heard concerns that faculty and staff speaking to issues about Israel and Gaza could experience impacts in their professional standing, and I want to address those directly. Whitman College is committed to academic freedom because the free exploration and exchange of ideas is crucial to an excellent education. In addition to the freedom of faculty to teach and conduct research, our policies also support the right of all campus community members to voice concerns and engage in respectful protest. These commitments are made by choice. As a private entity, Whitman College is not bound by the First Amendment, which ensures freedom from censorship by government entities. Instead the college is free to choose policies which reflect its own commitments. Academic freedom is a value we explicitly choose, and it is one we reaffirm and will continue to enact through our policies, procedures, and practices.

Our strong commitment to academic freedom is paired with policies to protect the educational rights of all students. These policies state that “Every student has a right to conditions that are conducive to learning and favorable to the pursuit of higher education. Any conduct that infringes on these rights or disrupts the educational mission of the college is prohibited.“ and “Obstruction of the educational environment or disruption of teaching, research, administration ... is prohibited.” Our policies are rooted in our academic mission and our shared commitment to respect one another, and we will uphold them. They underlie other policies of the college, such as policies on posting, facilities usage, and listservs.

While our responses to campus concerns are directed by our policies, we also want to build proactively to meet our community’s needs and build our strengths—now and for the future. Guided by the need to deepen our collective capacity for meaningful and respectful dialogue across difference, we are undertaking a new Dialogue and Dignity initiative. The initiative will be co-lead by the Provost, the Dean of Students and the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, who will convene a small group to help build capacity on campus for fruitful and sustained dialogue on contested issues. The group will start with a focus on Israel and Gaza by bringing speakers and programs to campus that offer multiple perspectives on the conflict. Through this group, as well as in other ways, campus leaders will work with outside experts to advance ongoing efforts to address the related issues of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Building from the initial work on issues connected to the crisis in Israel and Gaza, the Dialogue and Dignity group will develop recommendations to advance the practice of meaningful campus dialogue on a wide range of issues, making the most of learning in an inclusive community of diverse perspectives and experiences.

Whitman College is an extraordinary place, full of people who are focused on making a positive impact. As we navigate this moment and future challenges, we must hold strong to our values and to each other. For those who may wish to access support, counseling resources are available for our students through the Counseling Center and Uwill Teletherapy. Faculty and staff can connect with a counselor through Canopy, our employee assistance program, which has put together special resources based on the current situation. Interfaith Chaplain Adam Kirtley (kirtleam@whitman.edu) and Director of the Intercultural Center Tebraie Banda-Johns (bandajot@whitman.edu) are both available for individual conversations or support for any member of the campus community, and Director of Equity and Compliance and Title IX coordinator Cassandre Beccai (beccaic@whitman.edu) is also available to anyone who may wish to report a concern about identity-based harassment or harm. We are working to expand the resources available to the community based on the current needs, and will provide updates related to those additional supports when they are confirmed.

My thanks to everyone for all you to do to support one another and to advance our mission of learning and growth. I wish you all the very best for the final weeks of the semester.


Sarah Bolton

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