Sophomore Rae Sullivan is used to other students being surprised when she lists the Knox Conservatives among the clubs she participates in. She’s also seen conversations quickly stall after this introduction.
“I believe that I recently lost a potential friend when I said the list of my clubs. This person did not want to continue talking to me after that … and have been avoiding me ever since,” she said.
Sullivan considers this kind of closed off interaction a problematic element of the campus culture. Senior and Student Senate President Leonard Monterey has also identified restricted speech on campus as an issue he wants to use his role to address.
“There has to be some sort of discourse in order for people to learn and understand more about each other,” Monterey said.
Sullivan feels that even some Knox professors make their classroom less welcoming to discourse, suggesting that they are too quick to make assumptions about what students believe or dismiss opposing viewpoints.
“I have definitely experienced a professor mocking anyone who’s not an atheist, for example, when there were definitely several students in the room who ascribe to a religion that believes in deities,” she said.
Sullivan said she attempts to be open about her conservative viewpoints, both in class and in discussions with friends. While she’s had a positive experience with a professor who encouraged her to challenge his viewpoints, Sullivan has felt rebuked by other instructors.
“I feel like other professors shut that down once I’ve said something,” she said. “They won’t call on me again, and they’ll only call on other students who they know will agree with them.”
Professor of Political Science and Knox alum Karen Kampwirth says she does attempt to encourage healthy discussion within her classes.
“We all try hard to create opportunities for people with different perspectives,” she said. “I often will play devil’s advocate if I feel certain perspectives aren’t in a particular debate.”
Kampwirth sees the political climate at Knox as simply following national trends. While she would like to see more conflictual discussions in her classes, she does not see an appropriate way for the school itself to address the issue.
“If the problem is that people are timid and don’t want to say anything they think someone would disagree with … I don’t know how in the world you can or should try to change campus culture,” she said.
Monterey acknowledged not knowing in what capacity Student Senate should involve itself in dealing with this dynamic, but does believe it to be part of the body’s role as the representative of all students’ views.
“This isn’t something that’s going to be solved in one year and I know that,” Monterey said. “I want to dedicate myself to some small victories here and there to hopefully change people to be more understanding for everybody.”
Monterey acknowledges that people should be accountable for the comments they choose to make, but feels that more students should see the benefit of learning from each other and be open to the idea that views can evolve.
“When I look at myself back as a first year I know that I’m disgusted at the things I used to think and used to say,” he said. “If I can change like that and it was only through talking and learning about people’s experiences, well then it’s possible.”
Monterey also acknowledges the other side of the issue — that students students of color and LGBTQ students may feel genuinely threatened when certain political viewpoints about them are expressed.
“People legitimately feel victimized, feel hurt by that, those are their lived experiences. You can’t take those away from them,” he said.
Monterey wants to balance making sure students feel safe on campus, while still making sure all students feel comfortable to speak their views. He does believe that in certain areas progress has been made in people understanding each other.
“I feel like people are understanding pronouns before they even get here. Cause I know when I got here, I had no idea what pronouns were … this year when I met the freshman class, I don’t know that there was anyone who didn’t know about pronouns,” he said.
A specific idea Monterey has had is organizing a free speech summit at Knox. While he cautions that this is just an early idea that he is not certain will come to fruition, he has begun reaching out to ACM schools to see how they feel about their campus climate.
“We’re in a position now to be more involved with the students, to be in the conversation — me personally, I want to see if what we’re experiencing here, if other schools feel the same way,” he said.
Kampwirth stated there are concerns among faculty about Knox continuing to allow a wide range of discourse. As an example, she pointed to the proposed guidelines on guest speakers from the diversity committee, written in response to the FBI controversy last school year.
These guidelines include suggestions such as keeping in mind that certain speakers could make students feel alienated and bringing in speakers with a variety of perspectives.
“The idea of getting approval from campus diversity committee seems inappropriate. I think many members of the faculty reacted to this as an effort to micromanage speech on campus. But that may not have been the intention,” she said.
Kampwirth supports Knox exposing students to a wide range of views from speakers, but does not believe it should be the responsibility of other groups themselves to bring in speakers of multiple perspectives.
In regard to controversial guests like last school year’s visit by an FBI agent, Kampwirth supports such visits to campus if there’s interest, but added that the value of free speech goes both ways.
“It doesn’t mean because the FBI is invited that people who object to the FBI can’t protest. They should protest. Let them scream at the FBI if they want to,” Kampwirth said.
Sullivan and the Conservative Club have been interested in bringing in speakers who reflect their viewpoints, noting that last year they invited a Republican official and a Tea Party activist. However, Sullivan stated that they are conscious of how the campus may respond to certain speakers.
“Especially if we found someone with a more high profile name, we don’t want to cause violence, we definitely don’t want to encourage that. We want it to be productive, so we definitely have to balance that,” she said.
Monterey thinks the campus would gain from listening to more distinct voices on political issues, framing this as not just about listening to conservatives. He says for example that students often don’t think to ask international students for their political perspectives, or students of his own ethnicity.
“When was the last time someone asked an Asian person about what they thought about race and politics today? They don’t … My own personal experience is we’re not included in that story,” Monterey said.
Monterey did acknowledge some fear, both personally and from other Student Senate executives, about making public statements about free speech issues. His concern is that his intentions could be incorrectly perceived by other students.
“When you say free speech, it automatically implies a million things. A million things. It can get reduced. You lose the nuance. You lose what you actually said,” he said.
Kampwirth connected these speech issues to her time at Knox as a student in the ‘80s, a time when she says Knox College was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Kampwirth says during this time, free speech issues came up when she and other students organized protests against apartheid, which involved building a controversial shanty on school grounds.
“Then this big movement developed about free speech. It was very distressing because we were trying to talk about apartheid, and it all suddenly became an aesthetic thing like ‘I don’t want that ugly thing on my campus,’” she said.
Kampwirth cited this as an example of Knox upholding the value of free speech. Despite displeased students, calls from parents and even some administratives who disliked the visual of the shanty’s placement in the middle of campus, the school allowed the public protest to continue and the shanty to stay.
“It would be so tragic if Knox today gave up on those fundamental valuesÉ because today you might be censoring someone you don’t like, but tomorrow they might be censoring you” she said.