Recently at Yale, there has been considerable controversy surrounding an email urging students to think about the messages being sent by their Halloween costumes and the Silliman College Master’s response to the email. The email stressed the difficulty in determining offensive cultural appropriation and encouraged the students to either ignore or confront those wearing costumes that strike them as offensive. Many Yale students felt that the response was inappropriate and made them feel unwelcome in Silliman College. Applying this controversy to Princeton, the Editorial Board continues to support free speech and dialogue on Princeton’s campus; however, in order to be consistent with those goals, we urge University officials to maintain neutrality in official communications related to campus controversies where open debate exists.
College campuses, by their nature, foster debate and discussion on issues ranging from academic subject matter to national controversies and social movements. These debates can often become contentious because of the controversial nature of many issues. When administrators comment on ongoing campus debates, it is imperative that they do so in a way that does not bias discussion and debate. Taking a position or side in a campus debate while speaking in an official capacity is harmful to campus dialogue because can create the impression that the institution the person represents has taken a position on the issue. This can, in turn, lead to the marginalization and alienation of those who disagree because the very institution that is tasked with providing a free and open space for debate has failed to remain neutral towards their position. This makes a fair conversation difficult.
In order to address this concern, the University administrators should maintain neutrality in official communications relating to open campus debates. By official communications, we are referring to emails and other communications sent by administrators and staff members on an official basis to groups such as all students at the University and students in a particular residential college or class year. Determining what constitutes a neutral message is undoubtedly difficult and could itself be disputed in some cases. However, it should be the responsibility of administrators and staff to use their best judgement in order to maintain a norm of neutrality in official communications. When students believe that the University has failed to maintain this norm, the appropriate response should not be yelling at administrators or calling for their resignation. Students should demonstrate to the University, through informed arguments, why they disagree with an administrator's take on an issue. It is important to emphasize that this should not be construed to constrain the ability of administrators to express their own, personal views in other places, such as in academic work, on personal blogs, personal discussions, or in publications such as this paper. Additionally, University organizations such as the Fields Center or the Women’s Center have far more freedom to take positions than, for instance, a dean who has authority over students. In other words, the issue here is not the ability of University officials to express their views in the campus community, but rather the medium through which it is expressed.
Neutral messages from administrators can be simple and open to discussion. The email sent to students in Rockefeller College by the Director of Student Life before Princetoween addressing Halloween costumes is a good example. It encouraged students to think and be mindful of the impact their costume selections could have by providing questions students could ask themselves in order to understand the potential effect a costume could have on others.
However, it refrained from taking an explicit position on what constituted objectionable cultural appropriation and instead left it up to students to reflect on their choices independently.
Issues in our society and on college campuses cause students to think critically and engage with peers, faculty and administrators. However, in order for a campus to truly have free and open debate, the institution itself must avoid unduly inserting itself into debates in a way that unfairly prejudices one side. In light of recent events at Yale, we urge the University to keep this in mind as the Princeton University community debates important issues in the future.
Allison Berger ’18, Paul Draper ’18 and James Haynes ’18 abstained from the writing of this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-in-Chief.