Inclusivity and Academic Freedom Efforts Continue


Three events the week of March 18 and a new membership in a Council of Independent Colleges initiative show ongoing investment in education and skills for faculty, staff, and students.

portrait of Bryan Fair

Bryan Fair is a University of Alabama law professor who will be on campus March 19 and 20, meeting with students, giving a public lecture, and providing a workshop on free speech and inclusion for students.

Is freedom of expression or fostering an inclusive society more important?  

Thanks to ongoing high-profile incidents on college campuses, a narrative has developed that these two bedrock values of American life and higher education are opposed to one another, that supporting free speech means endorsing hateful content or that ensuring safe spaces for all people requires shutting down certain ideas. 

But a key point made at the campus free speech and inclusion workshop facilitated by PEN America for Washington faculty and staff in January was that, far from being in opposition, both are core values of higher education that require each other. 

Lara Schwartz talking at PEN America workshop
PEN America facilitator Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civic Dialogue at American University, speaks to Washington College faculty and staff during a January workshop.

“Trying to understand is the purpose of dialogue, higher education, and freedom of expression. Free speech is the engine of inclusiveness,” said Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civic Dialogue at American University and PEN America workshop facilitator. “Academic freedom exists to ensure freedom to engage in knowledge production unfettered by censorship, not to prevent having standards. Academic freedom and the First Amendment are a floor, not a ceiling.”   

Schwartz explained that higher education uses free speech and academic freedom to develop and test ideas in search of truth, which means ideas the community believes are wrong should be confronted through respectful dialogue that illustrates how those ideas don’t meet the standards of academic work. 

Schwartz and her co-facilitator—Neijma Celestine-Donnor, associate dean for diversity, equity & inclusion at the University of Maryland School of Social Work—also advocated for early and ongoing efforts to educate students, faculty, and staff about free expression and inclusion, work that began before their visit and continues this semester. 

It will next be addressed on Tuesday, March 19, in Decker Theatre in a public lecture, “Free Speech/Hate Speech: Legal and Educational Perspectives,” to be delivered by Bryan Fair, the Thomas E. Skinner Professor of Law at the University of Alabama.  

Fair is being brought to campus by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion and will not only provide the lecture, but he will also be on campus for two full days - visiting four classes, meeting with students, and delivering a student workshop, “Free Speech & Inclusion: Practicing the Rules of Engagement.” 

“Professor Fair is a constitutional law professor and 2019 Washington College honorary degree recipient. He specializes in race, the First Amendment, and inequality in the legal system," said Alisha Knight, associate provost for diversity & inclusion and senior equity officer. “Professor Fair's visit is intended to complement the PEN America retreat that was held in January, but unlike PEN America, his visit will focus on our students.” 

Following Fair’s visit earlier in the week, a joint program from Hillel and the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) initiative at the College will be held Friday, March 22 on “Mitigating Antisemitic (Micro)aggressions.” 

The activity-based workshop will focus on helping people learn how they can, as bystanders, recognize, interrupt and address microaggressions, which can range from subtle comments to overt acts of discrimination. All students, staff, faculty, and administrators are invited but must RSVP by emailing by noon on Wednesday, March 20.   

Sarah Arradondo, chemistry professor and JEDI director, said her volunteer team began collaborating with Hillel a year ago on the session, which emphasizes learning and practice, the approach JEDI has taken in the 40 workshops it has provided at Washington since forming in 2021.  

“We're trying to introduce people to the fact that these conversations or these topics are challenging and we're all on our own path. So let's just be better together,” Arradondo said. “I want somebody to be able to come to a JEDI session that has never done this before and be able to have a workshop experience and be better at the end of it. You facilitate that by saying that this is practice. We deserve, as people, to practice things that are challenging instead of expecting that everybody is good at it all the time. The more you practice, the more you see, the better you are.” 

New Resources for Faculty & Staff Support Efforts

Arradondo is currently enrolled in a microcredential course through the Council of Independent Colleges’ Belong Initiative, in which Knight and Provost Kiho Kim enrolled the College earlier this year, largely because the credential had data showing its impact: 98 percent of course-takers reported it helped their professional practice,  82 percent reported more positive beliefs about inclusive teaching, and even the 34 percent of course-takers with 20+ years of experience reported deep learning. The program tracks how confident its students are in each of its subject areas before and after the course, showing improvements of more than 50 percentage points in all categories. 

Six staff and faculty will take the course each year, which offers programming on implicit bias, microaggressions, and impostor phenomenon and requires people in the course to apply what they’re learning in their work before they complete the course. In addition to Arradondo and Knight, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Success Tricia Biles is in the first cohort to take the class. 

“I give Alisha a lot of credit for being intentional,” Biles said, noting that she has already passed on some information to the Bias Education Response Team she chairs, just as Arradondo has shared with the JEDI facilitators. “This is in combination with PEN America, with Bryan Fair, with efforts in intercultural affairs. There are layers of efforts that are happening.” 

Ultimately, ongoing staff and faculty training, consistent programming for everyone on campus and in the community, and a shared commitment to an environment of consistent learning and respect will maintain the culture of inclusion important to everyone.  

As powerful and targeted as the Belong microcredential course may be, it is not the only or even the primary benefit of the College’s new membership in the Belong Initiative. There are also short webinars and videos on relevant topics, a library of curated resources, and opportunities to learn from other members. 

Anyone at Washington College can access the Belong Initiative resource library, and Arradondo, Biles, and Knight all said the resources can provide deeper understanding, concrete tools, and improved skills for anyone at the College engaged in bringing about a more inclusive community. 

“This program is also speaking to the ways in which certain populations of students have experienced bias, either implicit or explicit discrimination. It is trying to help those who have been, I'll say, minoritized in higher education,” Knight said. “But when we think about providing support to students so that they are embraced by their program or department, it creates this open environment that is absolutely good for everyone.” 

— Mark Jolly-Van Bodegraven