This past Wednesday, alumni of this university joined to author a letter condemning the administration’s alleged abuse of transgendered students, and calling for it to drop its controversial SJB case against trans* students.
I respectfully dissent. This is not an easy stance to take. For one thing, it is unpopular among the Wesleyan community to be on the perceived wrong side of gender issues. For another, I remain concerned about the persistent degree to which the administration has selectively ignored the idea of due process when dealing with students, a problem that goes back to my years at Wesleyan, and which I vividly remember complaining about in the pages of this paper. Nevertheless, I must express my total disagreement with the letter sent by my fellow alumni, for the following reasons.
1. I believe the letter is needlessly exclusionary in its language.
2. The letter evinces an understanding of the administration’s role that is, if possible, even more damaging than the administration’s itself.
3. The letter’s position on student expression is incoherent at best, and hypocritical at worst.
Firstly, there is the issue of exclusionary language. The letter begins with the words “We, progressive Wesleyan alumni.” Did the authors really believe that only progressives would be concerned about the administration staging a trial of students for something there is (charitably speaking) only weak evidence they actually did? I am afraid they must have, despite the fact that the idea of a fair and consistent rule of law is part and parcel of conservative ideology, and has been since the time of Edmund Burke. This willful ignorance of potential allies speaks poorly of the authors’ strategic sensibilities, as well as their supposed tolerance for diversity.
Speaking of the rule of law, this brings me to my second point. The letter appears to be entirely unconcerned with the administration’s blatantly illiberal treatment of the students involved as “guilty until proven innocent.” In fact, it seems to agree with the administration in presuming their guilt, which it tries to recast as heroic behavior in the face of oppression. This is an absolutely irresponsible position to take. If the students in question are guilty, then the administration is completely within its rights, both morally and legally, to punish them as severely as it can. Whatever one’s agreement with administration policy, vandalism and destruction of university property are crimes, and Wesleyan ought to have no tolerance for them as a form of activism. More to the point, while the instinct to sympathy on the part of progressive alumni is understandable, even the noblest act of civil disobedience by definition involves an acceptance of consequences for one’s disobedience.
Advocates for the students may point to the issue of chalking as a predecessor. But unlike the case of chalking, in which real student speech was being suppressed in order to save the minimal cost of cleaning up campus, here the students inflicted actual damage on university buildings, which is a more serious violation. What is more, where there was grey area about chalking as expression, this act is legally equivalent to someone expressing a belief in need-blind admissions by running a squatting ring for homeless people out of a dormitory: optically unhelpful, immature, and clearly criminal.
Finally, even if you concede the premise that students ought to be able to deface university property at whatever cost in the name of free expression, the letter’s philosophy is still illiberal. To illustrate this, imagine the situation were reversed, and gender-conforming students had ripped down signs declaring bathrooms gender-neutral and replaced them with gendered signs. How would the authors of the letter react?
Or, to be less speculative, how have students at this school reacted in the past when this sort of treatment is accorded to less politically sympathetic targets, such as the Wesleyan chapter of Beta Theta Pi? With protests against an administration that treats any liability to its reputation as de facto evidence of guilt while hiding behind anonymous accusations? Or with victorious triumph at the persecution of less progressive groups? I don’t need to cite Wesleying to know the answer.
In short, my reason for dissenting is simply this: I do not believe my fellow alumni want to protect free expression, but instead the “right” of specific, anointed groups to disrupt campus life and vandalize the school, while using their presumptively underprivileged status as a form of extralegal privilege. This is not how the world works, nor how it should work, in Wesleyan or out.
Holt is a member of the class of 2010.
This article was corrected on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. Previously, the fraternity here written “Beta Theta Pi” was incorrectly named “Theta Beta Pi.”