By Grace Apostol
The Washington College community received notice via email on Monday, Sept. 4, of Princeton University Professor of Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy Dr. Robert George’s attendance at WC for a “Freedom of Expression” talk on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 4:30 p.m..
According to the email, sent by Dr. Joseph Prud’homme, The Burton Family Associate Professor in Religion, Politics, and Culture, the talk would include “a discussion of the importance of free and open discourse during college of the great questions of human life.”
Several other departments and cohorts on campus also responded to the initial email regarding Dr. George’s arrival to campus.
President of the club “Encouraging Respect of Sexualities,” Noelle Punte, emailed the President of the College, Dr. Mike Sosulski, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, regarding the event.
“I, along with many other LGBTQ people and allies on campus, feel very unsafe with this man on campus,” Punte’s email said. “If you value diversity and inclusion here at Washington College, I implore you to cancel this event.”
Following requests like Punte’s for the cancellation of Dr. George’s talk, President Sosulski sent a campus-wide letter via email.
“There have been calls from some to cancel his appearance,” the letter said. “While I understand this desire, doing so would not be consistent with the core values of liberal learning to which this institution is dedicated.”
Dr. Sosulski’s letter discussed how topics of free expression are common at colleges but that it does not mean any beliefs of speakers invited onto campus are adopted.
“It is incumbent upon us as a community to create and maintain an environment in which everyone feels safe to share their ideas, even those that may be controversial or offensive,” the letter said.
The President’s reference to potential stress of the community is in regards to documented statements from Dr. George towards the LGBTQ+ community and women.
These quotes were taken from the “Public Discourse” article published July 3, 2009, where in response to the publication’s editor asking Dr. George about the “struggle over the legal recognition of same-sex unions,” the professor at Princeton responded in length.
“[Those seeking to redefine marriage] ’s goal was to win official approbation for sodomy and other forms of sexual conduct that historically have been condemned as immoral and discouraged or even banned as a matter of law and public policy,” Dr. George said. “…So, it is not really about benefits. It is about sex.”
A tweet, published on June 10, 2023, at 9:24 p.m., discussed views on abortions. “We must not offer our beloved sisters the ghoulish pseudo-compassion of abortion, but rather the healing balm of genuine compassion—compassion born of love that provides not a quick, but deadly, “solution,” but rather an open-ended, open-hearted, self-sacrificial commitment,” the tweet said.
Following the email from President Sosulski, members of the WC student body handed out flyers in Hodson Hall regarding a gathering against Dr. George’s talk. Included was a photo of Dr. George saying he is an “avid homophobe, transphobe, and anti-abortion/uterine autonomy professor & speaker.”
There was a call for the campus community to “join the Students Against Trans/Homophobia” in Hodson at 4 p.m., Sept. 7, to “show [Dr. George] what the Flock thinks of queerphobia.” The author of this flier is unknown at this time.
“The idea of canceling the event never once entered my mind,” Dr. Prud’homme said.
On Thursday, Sept. 7, prior to the events to take place, WC’s Student Affairs sent an email to the campus community in preparation for events, encouraging students to express their feelings “in ways that you can be heard but do not interfere with the same right of self-expression of other members of our community.”
At 4 p.m. the same day, College community members gathered together on the Cater Walk and outside of Hynson to hear several protesters of the Dr. George event. Faculty, staff, and students listened to each other on why this protest meant something to them.
Speaking through bullhorns, several campus members took to the stairs outside of Hynson to address the community.
Clifton H. Miller Dean of Library and Academic Technology Mary Alice Ball joined in speaking to those on the Cater Walk. Ball discussed the freedom of academics, as well as her own identity and beliefs.
“I’ve grown a lot in three and a half years,” she said. “I’ve evolved. You’ve come to Washington College, this is your chance to evolve, to find your truth, to be your authentic selves, and in that finding also learn how to speak your truth to others and respect them when they speak their own truths.
Some freshmen also in attendance at the protest were initially upset upon hearing the news of Dr. George’s presence on campus.
“It was just disappointing, as it was another person who teaches the nuanced topic of culture and religious culture, and is propagating bias that is associated commonly with religion,” freshman Connor Cordwell said.
Freshman Liam Siobhan Luckey felt angry with the College for permitting Dr. George onto campus. “I’m much more mad at just the College and at whoever is letting this happen,” she said. “Because it doesn’t make me feel comfortable at this school.”
Also in attendance at the protest was Antoine Jordan ’12, Director of Student Engagement, “to support the students in their right to protest.”
Jordan and other Student Affairs staff aided in setting up activities for members of the community affected by the discussion in Hynson Lounge.
“Myself and the rest of our Student Affairs staff wanted to make sure students who disagreed with today’s speaker and some of his viewpoints had a safe space to gather and be with one another and support one another,” Jordan said.
Concurrently, Dr. Robert’s talk began at 4:30 p.m. in Hynson Lounge with Professor Prud’homme introducing the discussion and series sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture, an academic program “rigorous study of religions’ historic and continuing contributions to political and corporate life.”
Dr. Robert went on to discuss how differing views are sometimes addressed within higher education.
“…for many institutions across the country, a much greater threat is posed by what I’ll call the politicization of the academy,” Dr. George said.
Dr. George also discussed the “unwillingness of many members of college or university communities to entertain or even listen to arguments to challenge opinions” that certain universities of colleges withhold.
As he continued his speech, Dr. George was cut off by the College community protesters climbing the Hynson steps and entering the event at 4:57 p.m., roughly 25 minutes after the it began.
Entering with posters, flags, and other objects from the protest, community members approached listeners of the Hynson talk.
With the two events now intertwined, protesters and forum members spoke to one another in a heightened scene.
As protesters conversed with attendees of Dr. George’s talk, other, unnamed protesters talked directly to the staff of the College.
“You know how many … death threats I get for being trans,” one protester said to Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator Greg Krikorian during an inaudible conversation between the two.
Another interaction between a student, a part of the protest who is unnamed, and Dr. George ensued with the student.
“You answer the question, what do you think about trans people,” the protester said. “If you tell me you ‘love trans people’ I will leave right now, I will walk out that door now.” There was no auditory response from Dr. George.
After roughly 15 minutes of meeting between the two groups, Dr. Prud’homme took to the front of the room to address the audience. “Our speaker has asked to leave,” he said.
Following this decision, protesters and event members left the venue, and Dr. George was escorted out.
President Sosulski responded to the events on Thursday, Sept. 7, with an email to the campus community, including intent on “disciplinary action” on students involved in the protest taken into Hynson.
“This is not the Washington College way,” the email said. “The small number of students who chose to disrupt the lecture violated our clearly articulated community standards and with it the Washington College Student Honor Code,” the email said. “As would be the case with any violation of the Honor Code, they will be held accountable for their actions.”
Dr. Prud’homme also responded to the events, saying that the outcome of the discussion was something Dr. George “never once in his 39 years as a professor and public intellectual speaking on campuses worldwide” had experienced.
More is to follow regarding the College community’s response. Tune into The Elm weekly for potential updates.
Photo Caption: Signs were hung outside the speaker event in Hynson Lounge.
Photo by Grace Apostol