“The Isaac Sharpless quote … is a charge to each and every one of us to be an independent and critical thinker and actor. It is a charge to the Haverford Community and to Haverford leaders to do the right thing as individual conscience dictates. It is a stricture against following the crowd or acquiescing to peer pressure and a powerful affirmation of the value of each individual and the inner light in all of us. The quote and the Quaker values it reflects are core to Haverford’s unique character to this day.”
—Charles G. Beever ’74, Chair of the Board of Managers, upon the presentation of the Sharpless quote to Wendy Raymond at her inauguration as Haverford College’s 16th president.
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I am a Haverford graduate. The major factors that attracted me to Haverford were the Honor Code and Haverford’s Quaker heritage principles, along with the excellent liberal arts education and the caring community. Sadly, if I were now facing the decision of where to attend college, I would no longer be able to consider Haverford.
You see, I would no longer be able to sign the Honor Code.
The Honor Code is a student produced, adopted, and administered document that evolves continuously. The strength of this document is its relevance to both current students and the historical values of the college. It has always changed, and it should never remain static.
Sadly, if I were now facing the decision of where to attend college, I would no longer be able to consider Haverford. You see, I would no longer be able to sign the Honor Code.
The spring plenary of 2020 adopted a version of the Code that, to me, makes unacceptable limitations on students’ freedom of speech and thought — and forces them to adhere to one particular political ideology. Personally, I could not sign this pledge, nor would I. I believe the current Code needs to be amended by students, and that the faculty should also guarantee freedom of thought and speech at Haverford.
At Haverford, as most readers already know, a strike occurred in the fall of 2020. I learned about it somewhat later, after reading a news article, “Schools Must Resist Destructive Anti-racist Demands,” by John McWhorter, a Professor at Columbia University. The article described a student strike at Bryn Mawr, and made reference to a strike at Haverford. Unaware of the details involved, I set out to learn more about what had happened.
I started to read articles in the various Haverford news sources: The Clerk, the Bi-Co News, and Haverford Magazine — the alumni periodical. From there I expanded my sources and read accounts in broader, legacy media outlets, like the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then I started to have direct conversations with various members of the Haverford Community, people who actually experienced the strike and could share their perspectives and insights with me. These contacts included current students, recent graduates, current administrators and faculty members, current parents, members of the Board and other alumni.
These interviews confirmed the validity of the published accounts. Every person agreed that there were some very valid concerns raised by the protestors, and that addressing those particular concerns was positive. However, many people also gave specific details about the troubling tactics used, threats and intimidation levied against students who were not “all-in” on the strike. Many were concerned about the cancellation of classes for two weeks and the loss of academic, subject-related learning that occurred as a result. Most thought that while some of the goals of the strike were laudable, the strike itself was not. Many expressed that the methods used during the strike were “un-Haverfordian” and violated community standards and the protected rights to free speech, sanctity of conscience, and free association.
Following the strike, students approved changes to the Honor Code. These changes now require all students to adhere to so-called “anti-racist” ideology and make speech that is objectionable to someone in the community a punishable offense.
The spring plenary of 2021 which produced these changes was unique. As The Clerk noted: “While Fall Plenary did not happen in 2020 due to the campus-wide … strike, Spring Plenary … happen(ed) asynchronously and virtually over a two-week period at the end of April and the beginning of May.” During a period of stress and disruption, and through a modified Plenary, students adopted amendments that are incommensurate with Haverfordian community values and the college’s official policies on free expression. These changes to the Honor Code earned Haverford a "red light" rating by FIRE, a civil liberties organization, indicating that the Honor Code “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Freedom of speech is a right that Haverford College commits to upholding as an institution. In the Dean’s Handbook, the school promises: “Haverford College holds that open-minded and free inquiry is essential to a student’s educational development. Thus, the College recognizes the right of all students to engage in discussion, to exchange thought and opinion, and to speak or write freely on any subject.”
As FIRE explains, private colleges have an obligation to make good on these promises:
While private institutions are not directly legally bound to uphold the Constitution, those that promise debate and freedom are morally bound—and may be contractually bound, depending on the circumstances—to uphold the fundamental principles of free speech and of academic freedom, principles that underlie the First Amendment.
The ACLU, another civil liberties watchdog, has long emphasized the importance of free speech, and describes what used to be common sense at Haverford: “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.” Haverford, a liberal arts educational institution, was founded by Quakers, whose religious expression was grounded in the idea that all people were capable of receiving divine insights and that “being moved to speak” was how this truth was revealed.
Campus free speech issues in a national context
The attack on free speech in higher education is a national trend which grows worse each year. FIRE reported that in 2023, “the percentage of schools earning an overall red light rating increased. Of the 486 schools included in FIRE’s Spotlight database, 94 earn an overall ‘red light’, just 60 schools earn an overall ‘green light’ rating for maintaining policies that do not seriously imperil free expression.”
American college students increasingly report infringement on free speech and self-censorship. A 2016 Ipsos poll conducted for the Knight Foundation found that 54% of college students strongly/somewhat agreed that the climate at their school/campus prevented some people from saying things they believed because others might find it offensive. By 2021, that number had increased to 65%. A survey conducted by Heterodox Academy found that “the percentage of students who believe the climate on campus prevents some people from saying things they believe increased from 54.7% in 2019 to 63.5% in 2021.” Across the board, students reported high rates of discomfort speaking freely on their college campuses.
Despite the increases in student self-censorship and institutional policies limiting free speech on campus, students report an increasing desire for free speech on college campuses. The Heterodox Academy poll found that American students consistently expressed strong support for free speech on campus in 2020 and 2021. Statements supporting the value of open inquiry and free expression in college responses ranged from 68.2 % to 88.0%. The Ipsos poll found that a small minority of students, between 18 % and 22%, agreed that colleges should protect students by prohibiting speech they may find offensive or biased.
Statistics confirm Haverford's free speech problem
The 2018-2019 Clearness Report conducted at Haverford found that “approximately 53% of respondents reported that talking about politics on campus made them uncomfortable to some degree, with 7% of respondents reported that it made them very uncomfortable” (page 21).
A 2022 poll conducted by College Pulse for FIRE looked at 208 top U.S. Colleges, including Haverford, which had 154 students respondents. Nearly half of Haverfordians stated that they experienced a good deal or great deal of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in classes. A third of students responded that they often or fairly often could not express their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond. A sizable portion, 57%, responded that they were uncomfortable or very uncomfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic to other students during a discussion in a common campus space. Moreover, students lacked confidence in the administration's position on free speech. When asked how clear it was that the administration protects free speech, 62% replied that it was somewhat clear or less. In this national College Pulse survey, Haverford ranked near the very bottom for students’ comfort in expressing ideas (200th), its disruptive conduct policy (171st), and level of administrative support for free expression (171st). Haverford did perform strongly on tolerance of speakers (5th), but this has been an issue in prior years, such as 2014, when Robert Birgeneau’s commencement address was canceled.
Haverford’s Climate Survey Report, released September 2022, “described observations of exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and hostile conduct due to respondents’ political beliefs.” Haverford students stated that “a significant portion of the campus felt alienated for sharing their view on the strike, as well as on a number of political issues,” that “Discussion of the political climate is taboo,” and “As a progressive, I feel that anyone who isn’t (an extreme) leftist is automatically shunned and silenced” (page 110). Only 45% of students responded that they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “the campus climate at Haverford encouraged open discussion on difficult topics.” (page 212). Of all respondents, students and faculty/staff, 44.5% reported observing bullying and harassment (page 318), with 37% witnessing more than 5 instances in the past year. (page 319). The target of the insult was primarily a student, 73.8% of respondents answered. (page 320). The basis of this intimidation was the target’s political views(39.4%), followed by racial identity (30.6%), and athletic status (19.3%) (page 230).
These surveys paint a picture of student life at Haverford as one in which many students are uncomfortable with expressing themselves with others on campus, both in academic settings and in private ones. Most students are not clear if the administration supports free speech. Intimidation, bullying and other retaliatory conduct is experienced on campus, mostly by students, and mainly for expressing their political views or due to their racial or athletic identities.
Haverford's newly-revised Honor Code targets political speech
Haverford has a rather homogeneous student body when it comes to political beliefs. According to the 2018-19 Clearness Report, “overall, the campus is quite liberal. 79% of respondents self-identified as liberal to some extent. Among liberal students, more centrism is observed than we expected. Only 17% of our respondents identified as very liberal while almost half the student body (44%) identified as liberal” (page 20). At Haverford, where most students have a shared political viewpoint, retaliatory behaviors are mostly likely to target students because of their political views.
With this perspective, let us now return to the earlier topic of the changes to the Honor Code of spring 2021. Laura Beltz, director of Policy Reform at FIRE, explains the organization’s objection to the Honor Code's speech restrictions:
A recent amendment to (Haverford’s) Social Honor Code means students could be subject to punishment if other students determine they’ve committed an ‘act of … microaggression.’ The amendment also states that students must be respectful of ‘community standards’ when expressing ‘political opinions,’ and that ‘political beliefs [that] perpetuate discrimination,’ or that are used to ‘justify disrespectful or discriminatory words,’ violate the code.
Before President Wendy Raymond accepted the resolution amending the Honor Code, FIRE wrote to Haverford, objecting to the proposed amendments — along with existing language in the Honor Code — incompatible with Haverford’s commitments to its students’ expressive freedom. FIRE called on the administration to reject the proposed amendments and to ensure the Honor Code would be free of any language restricting protected speech. On June 13, 2021, President Raymond accepted the resolution and admitted in a letter to the Haverford community that “[a] reasonable person might see language in this amendment that causes them to worry about whether they are free to share their views, whether a political affiliation, a stance on public policy, or a religious value at odds with others.”
The new section of the Honor Code which demands adherence to a particular ideology, encourages compelled speech, and holds political speech as subject to Honor Code trial, reads:
Further, we commit to being actively anti-racist, not just passively ‘not racist.’ As such, we commit to continually educating ourselves, holding others accountable, and practicing anti- racism in our daily lives. This includes, but is not limited to: rejecting anti-Blackness, recognizing white privilege, challenging structures of whiteness and white comfort, and crediting the work of BIPOC and especially women of color. This commitment should not be treated passively, as passivity condones white supremacy and the multitude of systems it creates. We also recognize that a person’s political opinions are necessarily intertwined with their values and outlook, and thus influence their practices, which may violate the Honor Code. As such, students must be respectful of community standards when expressing political opinions.
By signing the Honor Code, a student is forced to practice one particular ideology, "anti-racism," which experts have criticized for making racist assumptions. By stating that “a person’s political opinions are necessarily intertwined with their values and outlook,” the Honor Code suggests constraints on students’ ability to hold differing views on political issues. This mandate promotes uniformity and oppresses viewpoint diversity. Is this in keeping with Haverford’s stated values? Does Haverford value diversity, equity and inclusion? If so, then this forced adherence to anti-racism ideology is neither increasing diversity nor fostering inclusion.
In my opinion, the 2021 Honor Code constrains students’ freedom of speech, limits viewpoint diversity, and mandates a particular adherence to a particular ideology. The administration supports these changes. Many students express that they are inhibited by constraints on speech on campus, and most are unclear if the administration is protecting their freedom of speech. Fortunately, current Haverford students, who are the authors of the Honor Code, can amend the problematic language of the current document.
By stating that “a person’s political opinions are necessarily intertwined with their values and outlook,” the Honor Code suggests constraints on students’ ability to hold differing views on political issues. This mandate promotes uniformity and oppresses viewpoint diversity.
Students should re-examine the problematic sections of the Honor Code, and I encourage them to act. Likewise, I turn to the Haverford faculty and ask that they consider adopting the Chicago Statement, or craft a version that is tailored to Haverford. The Chicago Statement is the free speech policy statement that was produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in July 2014. Over 80 schools have since adopted it. The faculty can enshrine the rights of all Haverford students to have freedom of thought and speech, and to prohibit political litmus tests and compelled speech on campus.
Finally, I invite other alumni who are concerned about the current campus atmosphere regarding free speech and limited diversity of thought to contact President Raymond with your objections.
By: Dorothy Rona Feldman
About the author: Dorothy Rona Feldman ‘84 is an alumna of Haverford College.
Dorothy writes: “In the Quaker tradition, I was moved to speak. My message, not my identity, is what I ask you to consider.”