Statement on convocation from President’s Office draws skeptical response from faculty

Andy Monserud

In an email sent to members of the student religious group Hillel-Shalom on Oct. 24, President George Bridges asked members to help create “a set of principles” for future convocation speeches. His email led faculty members to issue a statement objecting to possible infringements on academic freedom.

President Bridges’ move to create a set of “simple goals” for future speakers was in response to controversy surrounding this year’s convocation speech by Associate Professor of History Elyse Semerdjian. In her speech, she compared the U.S. persecution of Native Americans in the Walla Walla area to the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The faculty has presented a united front on the topic, with a general agreement that no matter the content of a speech, academic speeches such as those at convocation should be restricted only by academic courtesy and accuracy. Chair of the Faculty David Schmitz, with the support of Division Chairs Nicole Simek, Mark Beck and Bruce Magnusson, sent a response on behalf of the faculty to President Bridges in which they expressed concern that these guidelines would limit academic freedom.

“We firmly believe that the president’s offer to the group to submit ideas for ‘a set of principles for convocation speakers’ is a mistake and that the establishment of such a document would violate academic freedom,” said Schmitz in his email to President Bridges.

Semerdjian’s speech has drawn fire from some Whitman students and parents, including some members of Hillel Shalom.

“It wasn’t welcoming to Jewish students, and it wasn’t a balanced presentation of ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said junior Eliana Schwartz, a member of Hillel Shalom. “I think the general consensus is that we were upset about the fact that the speech was given at Convocation, more so than the fact that we disagreed with the content.”

According to Associate Professor of French Languages and Literature and Humanities Chair Nicole Simek, the objective of the convocation speech is to introduce first-year students to the critical thought processes they will be expected to follow in college.

“I think that we have to be mindful that the Convocation speech is not just ceremonial,” said Simek. “It’s a chance for a professor or a speaker –– any speaker –– to really try to push the community to think about important issues, to try to model a kind of critical inquiry; [it’s about] raising questions, even uncomfortable questions, as long as it’s done in a respectful way.”

According to Schwartz, Hillel-Shalom members have discussed Bridges’ request in meetings, but any suggestions to Bridges are likely to be made on an individual basis rather than coming from the group as a whole.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding going on right now,” said Schwartz. “People think that Hillel students are interested in censoring and silencing pro-Palestinian voices, and that is entirely not the case.”

In a statement to The Pioneer, Bridges said that he had worked in collaboration with Hillel Shalom’s interim adviser James Winchell to give students an opportunity to voice their concerns about the speech.

“Convocation provides a specific context for introducing new students and their families to the College. Just as our faculty routinely seek student reactions to and evaluations of their classes, I routinely seek students’ views and assessments of many different programs and policies at Whitman, including those they feel particularly passionate about,” he said in an email. “How the College then chooses to respond to their concerns and suggestions, as always, would be handled with thorough consideration by and consultation with all affected parties. In the case of Convocation, this would include faculty leadership.”