Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Praxis in Practice: Dialog at Whitman

Following clashes between Hamas and Israel, student groups at Whitman have led difficult conversations about the conflict. Whitman Students for Justice in Palestine has held multiple teach-ins and faculty have posted letters in student listservs highlighting their differing perspectives on the events. 

The college highlighted an email listserv moderation policy in a ‘Tech Tip’ in the Oct. 17 Whitman Today newsletter.

A listserv is an email list including all members of a certain group on campus — except those that choose to opt out. Some examples include a students listserv to all students and listservs for specific classes based on graduating year.

According to the policy linked in the newsletter, posts that demean individuals, disrupt education or threaten safety are not allowed. The college also says they are not meant to amplify personal viewpoints.

“These lists are not platforms for personal viewpoints or an appropriate space to attack or accuse individuals or groups. Whitman has other mechanisms to address concerns and grievances as needed,” the policy said.

Senior Alissa Berman is Whitman Students for Justice in Palestine (WSJP)’s Head of Communications. She talked about the issues WSJP has faced with sending information about faculty teach-ins, events and statements out to the student listservs. 

“It all started about a month ago, with an email about one of our faculty talks, which is a series that SJP has been planning all semester. We were like, ‘you know what, no big deal’ … We thought it was a glitch,” Berman said. “Last week, when we started sending out a lot more information, we noticed that emails weren’t going through. We had some emails that just didn’t make it to students with no response from administration, some emails that were returned with a message, ‘your message has not made it through,’ but were later sent. And then some that got that message and didn’t go through.”

Berman referenced the lack of a pattern WSJP has seen with the types of messages that are not being sent through. 

“It’s been a really confusing pattern, because there isn’t really one, as far as we can see; it’s not a consistent pattern, the way things aren’t being published,” Berman said. 

Gina Zandy Ohnstad, Vice President for Communications at Whitman, emailed The Wire a statement about the moderation policies for email listservs on campus. Ohnstad described the function of the listservs as a mechanism to share information. 

The listservs were created to share information about college and community announcements. They were not created to share viewpoints on current events and moderating the lists is done without regard for the viewpoint represented,” Ohnstad said. 

Berman described the types of documents and information that WSJP was unable to get through the student listserv.

“Some of the important things that haven’t been sent through are an aid document that myself and another student SJP made that was a list of aid organizations in Gaza, and also a couple of methods of direct action for students who wanted an alternative method of supporting Palestine. Also a letter that Alanna and I wrote and was co-signed by a lot of Jewish students didn’t get sent out,” Berman said.

Ohnstad continued to describe the function of the lists in service to the Whitman community. 

“For example, because one function of the lists is to promote student-organized events, we would allow these promotional posts within the guidelines regardless of the viewpoint represented by the event,” Ohnstad said. 

Alanna Sherman is a senior sociology major who is also a member of WSJP. Sherman referenced the blocked statement crafted with Berman and co-signed with other Jewish students regarding recent events in Gaza. Recent faculty statements about the conflict have been seemingly posted on the student listserv without any issues; this frustrated Sherman. 

“In general, it’s important for student voices to be heard. And it’s really frustrating how consistently student voices are being blocked. I felt frustrated [with] faculty being able to make statements and students consistently being blocked. There’s a huge difference there,” Sherman said. 

Ohnstad explained that because listservs have human moderators, mistakes have been made. 

That being said, the lists are moderated by humans and that means that errors do happen. I can think of at least one email in recent weeks that should not have been published to the listserv, but went out by accident. Communications staff try to be extremely thoughtful to avoid inconsistencies in listserv moderation, but mistakes do happen,” Ohnstad said. 

On Oct. 11, Associate Professor of Art History Lisa Uddin and Associate Professor of Politics Jack Jackson signed a letter as officers of the Whitman College Chapter of the American Association University Professors (WCAAUP) in their roles as president and vice president of the Whitman chapter, respectively, emphasizing the importance of academic freedom on campus.

The letter was not written directly in response to the email policy and predates WSJP’s more recent emails.

They referenced existing faculty code and a statement by the national AAUP chapter highlighting the importance of freedom of expression, inquiry, association and press on college campuses.

“It is not the proper role of the College to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and practices they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive. While the College affirms a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility shall not be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas,” the letter said, quoting directly from faculty code. 

In an emailed statement, Jackson reaffirmed the importance of free expression as described in the letter.

“Academic freedom in the United States is under threat from a variety of sources, and it is important for faculty to clearly and consistently defend it,” Jackson said.

In an email to The Wire, Uddin talked about the timing of the letter in light of recent debates among students and student coalitions regarding events in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. 

The Oct. 11 letter was written out of concern for the ability of students to freely process and address the war in Israel and Gaza without being formally or informally disciplined by Whitman community members who are in a position to do so,” Uddin said. 

Uddin expressed the concerns of the WCAAUP within the context of current discourse she’s seen more broadly. 

Our chapter has also been concerned with what we see as the redirection of many current debates and events towards certain apolitical (even managerial) discourses of diversity and care in higher education more broadly. We think students know and deserve better. These are some of the contexts,” Uddin said.  

The letter emphasized that not all speech and behavior is protected on campus.

“Behavior from any member of the College community that substantially disrupts the mission of the College denies other members of the community the ability to learn and pursue truth. Such behavior undermines the principles of academic freedom,” the letter quoted from faculty code.

Senior Amy Heitstuman won a Rabinowitz award for a planned forum between college students from each of Walla Walla’s three colleges (Whitman, Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College) to exchange ideas about hot button issues.

Heitstuman spoke to the importance of free speech broadly.

“If we are not able to have a conversation with each other, we’re not going to move forward socially and politically and we’re just going to create a deeper divide,” Heitstuman said.

Heitstuman also saw the letter as speaking to the importance of free speech on campus.

“[The letter] speaks definitely to those ideals, that in our free nation and especially in our first amendment right, there’s a right to free speech and that’s important in any environment,” Heitstuman said.

Baker Weilert-Pekar is the Director of Debate and Forensics at Whitman College. He recently helped co-host an event with the Intercultural Center and Office for Religious and Spiritual Life called “From Discord to Unity” on Oct. 18.

Weilert-Pekar said the purpose of the event was to provide students with mechanisms to facilitate fruitful dialog on campus.

“Oftentimes when we see conversations devolve, it happens because we are allowing ourselves to view the other person not on the same level or as less than human,” Weilert-Pekar said. “I think [the event] did what it was supposed to, which was provide a mechanism for students to learn how to have conversations [and] to recognize what type of conversation they’re in.”

As students and faculty continue to engage with recent world events and challenging conversations about conflicts, controversy exists about the best way to facilitate this dialog.

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