The Place of Dialogue
From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2006
In the fall of 2002, Robert Ehrlich was elected Maryland’s new governor, and I invited him to speak at Goucher. To my surprise and delight, he accepted; this would be the first visit by the governor-elect to any campus in the state. To my shock, however, I suddenly received a torrent of protest e-mails from students and others. How dare I invite someone, they asked, who took positions on the issues of the day that were so different from “ours”? Didn’t this constitute an endorsement of his views? We should be standing aside, they seemed to say, refusing to have anything to do with Maryland’s new conservative Republican governor, whom they did not like.
This quickly became what is widely known in our line of work as a “teachable moment.” Wouldn’t it be useful to see Ehrlich up close, I wrote back to the protesters, to hear what he had to say and, if so inclined, to challenge him personally and directly? He would be the only governor we’d have for the next four years, I explained, and Goucher, a recipient of state aid to independent higher education, would certainly need to have a working relationship with anyone in that office.
When the event came -- on a nasty, blustery morning in December -- the Goucher community, of course, rose to the occasion. The soon-to-be governor spoke to a large and polite, if initially skeptical, crowd in Heubeck Hall. Several of the doubters sat in the front row and asked articulate questions; if they weren’t satisfied with the answers, they followed up. To this day, I believe, Governor Ehrlich remembers it as a fine exchange, and so do we at the college. Indeed, our hospitality and openness have served us well. We have enjoyed excellent access to the governor and his staff for the past four years.
I tell this story now, charming perhaps for its triviality, because it came back to me in March, when we went through a little free-speech crisis at Goucher. A student group had invited Anna Baltzer, who might best be described as a pro-Palestinian activist, to speak on campus. Certain elements in the Baltimore Jewish community exploded in outrage. They made absurd accusations against the college and mobilized subscribers to their e-mail list to write or call me in protest. An advertisement ran in the Baltimore Jewish Times, repeating and elaborating their charges and publishing my phone number and e-mail address.
Few readers of this column would find it easy to imagine what ensued: Goucher was attacked as an allegedly anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic institution. I was personally denounced as a disgrace to the Jewish people and told I was aiding and abetting terrorism against Israel and America. I was asked when we would be inviting the American Nazi Party to speak on campus. Alumnae/i and others (some utterly unknown to us) wrote to say that unless we canceled the event or re-organized the program, they would withdraw their financial support of the college, and would certainly never attend an event here again.
Needless to say, we at Goucher did not consider for one moment canceling the program that had provoked the uproar. If we yielded to this assault on free speech, what would be next? Objections to certain politicians -- say, Governor Ehrlich? As I had asked at the time of the protest over his appearance, if we were to start down that slippery slope, who would compile the lists of which speakers were acceptable and which ones were not? Who would keep the catalogue of “our” opinions that couldn’t be challenged, and who would update it from time to time? What a boring place Goucher would be if we listened only to those who fit within a narrow band of the political spectrum.
We did our best to contain the damage caused by this unwarranted assault on Goucher’s values and integrity, as well as fundamental American precepts. We took out our own response ad in the Baltimore Jewish Times, signed by 17 people, including leaders of the Baltimore Jewish community, which set the record straight. I wrote a column for the same newspaper, explaining Goucher’s perspective on the issue. (Both are available on our website.) We also wrote to all alumnae/i in the Baltimore area about the matter.
The Baltimore Jewish Times published an apology for its own name having mistakenly and improperly appeared in the attack ad against Goucher. The executive director of one of the organizations that sponsored the ad called to express his regrets; he said that members of his staff did this without his authorization. Despite these welcome and responsible retractions, however, we are still fending off inquiries from people who saw only the original allegations.
There are many legitimate questions to be asked in the aftermath of this episode. What has caused the decline of civil discourse in America, and what can we do to reverse the process? Has confidence in our institutions really eroded to such a point that people will readily believe the worst and attack before asking for information? Does anyone really believe that controversial ideas, or just those different from one’s own, will go away if not given an audience?
As one might expect, Baltzer’s appearance on campus took place largely without incident. When the event came -- on a mild, breezy afternoon in March -- the Goucher community again rose to the occasion. Students asked excellent questions, as they did of Robert Ehrlich and everyone else who has appeared here recently. As it has for 120 years, dialogue continues at this college, and we are trying to find new ways to approach difficult issues. That is, and should be, the Goucher way.