My Wellesley

Point of College Conversation

Jan 25, 2019

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, at 5 p.m., in the Alumnae Hall Ballroom, the Freedom Project will be sponsoring a conversation between Stanley Fish, currently visiting Professor of law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, and Alice Dreger, a scholar-activist who works as a writer, journalist, and local news publisher.

Their topic is a timely and relevant one on campuses today: “What Is the Point of College?” Stanley Fish and Alice Dreger are well qualified to address this question. Both are renowned public intellectuals, critical of but loyal to the goals of the academy, one as a long-term faculty member and administrator at several different institutions who has condemned academic mission-creep and the other as a gadfly who renounced a full professorship at Northwestern University’s medical school in protest against censorship and corporate branding. Their unusual and complementary careers—and their outspoken views about academic freedom and the role of the university—are what drew us to invite them on this topic.

Both have recently published provocative essays on the point of college (Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities, Take Back the Ivory Tower, and Why I Escaped the "Intellectual Dark Web"). I’ve been rereading their writings, and I’m humbled planning my role as moderator of their conversation. Their areas of agreement and disagreement (Fish imposes limits on “free speech,” whereas Dreger is wary of such limits; Fish would banish “politics” from the classroom, whereas Dreger sees teaching as inevitably political) should lay the groundwork for a stimulating discussion of higher education at a time when its very purposes are up for question. Both are widely published—highly regarded, if occasionally for being over-argumentative (even exasperating), more often for their thoughtfulness, integrity, and deep expertise. Initiatives like the Freedom Project that bring alternative perspectives to campus are sometimes criticized for giving a platform to recycled ideas that audiences could easily find online. In contrast, Stanley Fish and Alice Dreger have never held a stage together, and it’s anyone’s guess right now what their meeting of minds will yield.

But Dreger has been on our campus before, just last year, and we can guess that her return engagement will prompt objections, perhaps even excite protest, as it did last year on a different topic. Already, as the current director of the Freedom Project, I have been asked, “Why would you invite again someone whose ideas you already know some members of the Wellesley community find disrespectful?” I want to address this question forthrightly. My intention was not to sow division at Wellesley, especially in my first year on the job, but I am aware that the “optics” of this event might make it seem so. While I consulted with other faculty members in the Freedom Project, it was my decision to invite Dreger back to Wellesley, even as I knew her appearance might raise eyebrows. I need to stand ready to answer the question, “why?”

And, yes, part of the reason I invited her was our campus’s response last year. I don’t want this side-issue to distract from the aims of this February’s event (that would not be fair to either speaker). But, frankly, I was taken aback at the reaction against Dreger a year ago. Even knowing that her work had made her some enemies, I did not expect to find them on our campus. Objections to her are deeply ironic, as she is best known as a staunch defender of the rights and humanity of sexual minorities, an area of research that has dominated her career, and she has publicly, strongly, and unequivocally expressed her support for transgender and intersex rights many times, including during her talk at Wellesley (her full remarks are on our website; see also her recent article in The New York Times on intersex athletics).

Alice Dreger first became controversial in transgender circles when she defended the academic freedom of a colleague at Northwestern University, a psychologist who supports transgender rights but who also adheres to a theory of male-to-female-transgenderism that remains offensive to some. Even under intense pressure including internet harassment and a campaign of disinformation (including falsified social media accounts), Dreger has never disavowed her colleague’s research. Her careful investigation of it, published first in a scholarly journal and later in her acclaimed book Galileo’s Middle Finger, gave her no reason to and would have undermined values for which she has stood steadfastly for decades: independent research regardless of whom it offends, unflagging activist support for oppressed sexual minorities, brutally honest resistance to corporate interests.

The point of the conversation, on “the point of college,” between Stanley Fish and Alice Dreger on February 13 is to explore such academic values—and by exploring to affirm them. I know that I am not alone at Wellesley in cherishing academic freedom. I hope that the conversation between Fish and Dreger will be an occasion of celebrating this value—of listening and learning from each other—not of moving apart. In that spirit, Alice Dreger and I would like to invite any concerned students or other members of our campus community to meet with us at 11 a.m. on Feb. 13 in the Academic Council Room (earlier on the day of her conversation with Fish) so that we can hear your thoughts and worries directly—and talk together. Then we hope many people will come to the main event at 5 p.m. and take part in the discussion.