From the Goucher Quarterly, Fall 2009

Thank you for the need-based grant awarded to my daughter for this coming year,” began the e-mail I received the other day from the father of a rising sophomore. “It comes as a surprise and allows her to continue her studies at Goucher this year with much less worry.”

His message was addressed not only to me, but also to several members of the college’s staff who had paid attention a few months earlier to this man’s news of how the recession had suddenly devastated his family. I was glad to have received his e-mail, relieved that it did not get blocked by all the filters put in place by Goucher’s exceptionally talented information technology people to keep unwanted messages away.

As you might imagine, I get quite a bit of e-mail every day: the usual quotient of junk mail offering me improved health, financial windfalls, and enhanced companionship of various sorts; invitations to attend student-recruitment fairs and to promote Goucher in the most unlikely of places; announcements of seminars and “webinars” and hootenannies of all kinds that, if only I or one of my colleagues took part, would enable the college to achieve immediate perfection.

I get some good stuff out of cyberspace, too, of course— news headlines and information from bulletins, blogs, and listservs tailored to keep me up-to-date on issues where I have relevant background and genuine interest. I allow a few establishments and institutions to hector me at regular intervals, just in case I might come across some product or service or event that I cannot possibly live without. Naturally, we also conduct a great deal of the college’s business online, and I entertain the belief—perhaps it’s really a fantasy—that this helps avoid unnecessary phone calls and meetings. To be sure, there is the occasional scathing or vituperative e-mail from some member of the extended Goucher community, whose author probably never would have sent it had he or she paused to think about it for a minute. But more frequent are the unsolicited messages I get from parents like the father who thanked us for his daughter’s need-based grant, or from our remarkable students. These notes arrive at all hours, sometimes from a residence hall across campus, sometimes from one of Goucher’s study-abroad locations around the world, and various points in between, and they help me learn a great deal about the issues before us and, hopefully, do my job better.

One of those came late in the summer, from a very thoughtful science major who was outraged to learn that we would have a visit to campus this fall by Karl Rove, the mastermind of President George W. Bush’s political campaigns and policy formulation. My experience of Goucher students is that they are both principled and articulate, and while this young man was not the only one to object, he did so with particular eloquence. A few faculty members and alums also sent e-mails protesting Rove’s invitation; such a confluence of reactions always makes me think harder about what we are doing at Goucher and how we are explaining it.

The objections landed in my e-mail box this time, though, just as I was working on the annual revisions to the syllabus for my fall freshman seminar on free speech—to be taught this year with John Bond, immediate past chair of our Board of Trustees. I was reminded of my own principle that we cannot get into the business of drawing a thick line in the sand between those who are appropriate to invite and engage in discussion and those who are not. If we did, who would keep the lists of acceptable and unacceptable speakers? Should it be a committee? How would its membership be chosen? Do we want to hear primarily from those with whom we agree? Would the committee or the community vote on every speaker? Would there be a provision for appeals? The process of filtering out unwelcome views (without the aid of sophisticated computer algorithms, no less) might be at least as thorny and divisive as certain guests, renowned or reviled, who might offend our sensibilities while challenging our perspectives.

The dialogue has continued, though, and it is lively. We can afford to carry on this discussion on a rather high plane and test our boundaries, even in these tough economic times, because we have a fund from an anonymous donor that permits us to host some controversial speakers without having to dip into the college’s precious resources. (Other students, by the way, have praised the invitation of Rove, saying he will be a welcome change—thus proving just how hard it is to come up with a single, universally accepted standard for deciding whom we would like to hear and meet.) Another key difference at Goucher is that many of Rove’s stalwart critics on campus will be able to look him in the eye and challenge him while he is here.

It seems amazing to some of us who can remember sending letters home from college through “snail mail” and talking only occasionally to family members and friends on the phone, but all of these issues—the good, the bad, the hotly contested, and the humanitarian—are dealt with today at breakneck speed through technologies that are shifting all the time. We have to be agile as well as wise. As we launch our celebration of Goucher’s 125th anniversary, it is important to recognize how very much has changed about the way we communicate with each other, and, at the same time, to use all the new instruments at our command to honor, rather than subvert, the unchanging values of this splendid college.