Debating the Great Debate
The goal of the Pomona Student Union is to broaden the debate on important issues, but in 2007-08, PSU
itself became the subject of campus debate.
By Mary Marvin
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, James Solomon ’06 wasn’t surprised that the prevailing sentiment on campus was anti-war. But he was frustrated by what he saw as a one-sided discussion in speeches and forums. “There was the assumption that everyone was against the war or thought it was a bad idea,” says Solomon, who supported it at the time. “There was never anyone who disagreed.”
Even when pro-war students did speak up, Solomon didn’t find their
approach enlightening. Hosting a “war burger barbecue” and inviting conservative
David Horowitz to speak on campus seemed just as one-sided, he says. “I remember
thinking whatever this is, it isn’t a discussion.”
Solomon discovered that other students—even those against the war—were just as troubled by the lack of discourse. He met Benjamin Waterman ’04, who had spent a semester abroad at Oxford University and was interested in replicating the vigorous exchange of opinions and ideas he’d experienced there. Other students came on board, and the Pomona Student Union was born.
Jenn Wilcox ’10 and Hal Jakle ’09
The upstart organization quickly took off, attracting support and funding from the College and alumni. Over the next few years, PSU became one of Pomona’s most active and influential student organizations, hosting events large and small, including debates on hot-button topics such as gay marriage and the role of religion in U.S. society, drawing standing-room-only crowds in some cases. But this year the PSU also drew criticism over one of its events, a debate over immigration, with some on campus protesting the organization’s choice of speakers and what they called a lack of outreach. For a time, the PSU itself was the center of debate.
ONE OF THE FIRST events planned by the fledging organization in 2003 was a debate between two professors about President Bush’s policy toward the Middle East. The topic, which was framed to minimize political spin and present more sides of the issue, signaled the approach PSU hoped to take on other controversial topics. A core group of students spent the summer planning the following year’s events and began to craft a mission statement based on the tenet that “one cannot possess a firm belief in anything unless it is challenged.”
“The mission statement is not easy to wrap your mind around,” says Carey McDonald ’07, who was PSU president last year. “Saying I support responsible intellectual engagement is not as clear cut as making a statement in favor of human rights. Emphasizing process—that we want to provoke discussion and not take sides—is sometimes a tough sell, especially when we tackle more difficult issues and passions get more intense.”
The mission statement and the first debate were clear signals that PSU was going to be distinct from other campus organizations. Instead of advocating a point of view and inviting speakers reflecting that position, it would focus on discussions of political, social and economic issues from more than one perspective. For example, PSU’s 2007 “Great Debate” pitted Sam Harris, author of
The End of Faith, versus Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard University. “The debate was not about whether religion is right or wrong, but what role it plays in American society,” says Jenn Wilcox ’10, PSU vice president. “One of our goals is to put a twist on a topic, so that people think about an important social issue from a perspective they may not have considered.”
Not everything has had a serious side—there has been at least one dodgeball game pitting members of opposing political parties against each other and a mock debate between Claremont McKenna and Pomona students about which college was better, with Pomona students making the case for CMC, even down to the clothes they wore.
Debates about controversial issues such as stem cell research, Palestinian rights and immigration have drawn standing-room-only audiences, provoked discussion and—in the case of two recent events—prompted protests.
A record crowd packed the Edmunds Ballroom in 2006 for a debate on indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay between John Yoo, the architect of the Bush administration policies on torture, detention and domestic wiretapping, and human rights attorney Avidan Cover. Included in the audience were several local demonstrators who tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the question and answer period.
“Watching the students shout down the people who were trying to stop the debate was one of my great moments at Pomona,” says McDonald, who now works as a legislative aide in the Ohio House of Representatives and was involved in the Barack Obama presidential primary campaign. “It was gratifying to me that students acted so the speakers could be heard, even though most of them didn’t agree with what John Yoo was saying.”
PSU had successfully weathered a difficult and potentially explosive situation and proved that students were open to listening to unpopular views. But the PSU board members would discover that it’s not always easy to find a balance between thought-provoking and provocative speech.
A debate on immigration the following year would test those limits, leading to discussions about free speech, censorship and representation, as well as questions about the responsibility a liberal arts college has toward promoting discourse and protecting students from offensive speech—and just who defines what is offensive.
ORIGINALLY SCHEDULED FOR last spring, the immigration debate was to have been between libertarian Jacob Hornberger, an advocate of open borders, and Jim Gilchrist, who was then president of the Minuteman Project, a controversial anti-immigration group. Classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “nativist extremist” organization, the Minuteman Project has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was founded in 2005 to patrol the border between the United States and Mexico. It has been denounced by Bush as a vigilante group and praised by other politicians, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once compared it to a neighborhood watch group.
“Part of what we wanted to do was to bring in two people who were extreme enough that the audience wasn’t going to automatically agree with either of them,” says Hal Jakle ’09, PSU president, who has helped organize a number of events, including the “Great Debate” about the role of religion in American society. “We’ve had a lot of academics and we wanted to bring in people who had ideas that might be unpopular on campus but held opinions that were out there in the general populace. That’s how the immigration debate originated. I think there are a multitude of viewpoints on every issue besides the two or three popular viewpoints on campus, and it’s worth hearing about them all.”
Controversy had dogged appearances by Gilchrist. Students at Columbia University stormed the stage when he appeared there, which prompted Pomona to plan extra security precautions. The debate, however, was abruptly cancelled when Gilchrist—who had spoken at the Claremont Graduate University without incident the month before—criticized Pomona College on Fox News, and PSU rescinded its invitation.
The debate was rescheduled for last November when Marvin Stewart, a Black minister who had replaced Gilchrist as Minutemen president, agreed to face off against Hornberger. Four days before the event, an informal coalition of students—who say they found out about it at the last minute—came to a meeting called by Empowered Latinos in Action.
“We realized it was too late to try to bring in our own speaker and agreed that whatever we did had to be well organized and respectful,” says George Gonzales ’08. “A few of us met with PSU. They told us they’d chosen speakers with unpopular viewpoints that an audience here wouldn’t automatically agree with. We let them know we disagreed with that rationale for the debate, but we came out of the meeting with a little better understanding of one another.”
Many of the protestors regarded the Minuteman Project as a hate group and felt that PSU hadn’t considered the possible consequences of the debate on students, faculty and staff. Another point of contention was that the event ignored the personal side of the issue by excluding the perspective of immigrants. “One of our problems was that the debate addressed immigration from an abstract point of view—how policies would hurt or harm the U.S.—without taking into account that immigrants are people and that this issue impacts them in a personal way,” says Gonzales.
“What is sometimes lost in the discussion,” adds Tomás Summers Sandoval, assistant professor of history and Chicano Studies, “is that the students protesting the event weren’t arguing that it should have been censored or shouldn’t have happened, but rather what it means for an institution to have an event like this so casually as though it did not affect large percentages of our population in a negative or adversarial way.”
Students handed out flyers urging a boycott and, on the night of the event, about 70 protestors stood and turned their backs to the speakers. They wore signs that expressed their two major objections—“Hate ≠ Debate” and “Immigration…It’s Who, Not What.” The silent protest continued until a professor, who stood to ask one of the last two questions allotted, began to filibuster. When PSU cut her mic, the protestors started chanting and the debate ended.
IN THE WEEKS FOLLOWING, there were student opinion columns in The Student Life, including several supporting PSU’s right to put on the debate. There also were meetings with Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, the formation of a campus group to promote “responsible dialogue” and discussions among the members of the PSU board about how the organization could be restructured to reach out to other groups on campus.
“As much as the immigration debate was a challenging experience for our organization, I was really impressed with the way our members banded together afterwards not only to work towards making the PSU better but also to acknowledge where we may have failed and where we could do better,” says Wilcox. “We want to be sure that one of the lessons we’ve learned is to get a better pulse on the student body, but we don’t want to be afraid of putting on difficult events in the future.”
In a letter to The Student Life in April, PSU outlined some of the steps it had taken to make the organization more responsive, which included adding a “vice president of outreach” to work with other students and student organizations. It also established a new committee to explore one theme or issue each semester in a “holistic manner,” and announced plans to hold more small student discussions and “encourage greater dialogue before and after all large events.”
Gonzales and several students who had been involved in the protest founded W.O.R.D. (Working on Responsible Dialogue), a group that this spring presented two speakers series: “Expanding Perspectives on Immigration” and “(Re)centering Racialized Communities.” Members of PSU and W.O.R.D. met to discuss ways the organizations could work together, but W.O.R.D. rejected an offer from PSU to cosponsor its spring series. “We wanted something positive to come out of the protest,” says Gonzales. “W.O.R.D. differs from PSU because we’re not focused on debates. Where I agree with PSU is that a lot of people get involved in their own ideas of what is right, but don’t question what is going on outside. What we can learn at Pomona is amazing, but if we want to go out into the world, we have to learn about other points of view.”
The debate about the debate has subsided, but the questions prompted by the November event are important for any liberal arts college to ask, says McDonald. “I think that having a discussion about provocative or offensive versus thought-provoking speech is healthy and is a conversation that doesn’t happen at Pomona as often as assumed.”
Summers Sandoval acknowledges that discussions about free speech and censorship are important, but says that an academic institution has a mission that goes beyond the dissemination of all ideas. “The vast majority of people on our campus would say that regulating speech is a slippery slope, but at the same time you have to ask towards what ends are we engaging in certain ideas. I don’t think the immigration debate succeeds or fails on a measurement like that—and I’m not implying that I have a clear resolution—but I think that it is a healthy question to ask. I would argue for students to have a right to those kinds of events, but as a community of learners, we have to ask ourselves what are the consequences.”
Although PSU has taken steps to answer criticism from the community, its leaders say they have no plans to shy away from difficult or controversial issues or to veer from the organization’s mission. One of the major events planned for next fall is a “Great Debate” on hate speech and free speech.
“When it comes to politics, we’re really good at listening to people who agree with us,” says Wilcox. “That’s probably natural, but it isn’t always helpful or productive. Affirmation is most valuable when it comes internally; when you can say, this is what I believe in and how I got here. And you can’t really get to that point without being challenged, without listening to other points of view.”
It’s a philosophy that one of the PSU founders has found even more
valuable since graduating from Pomona. “When you see two brilliant people debate
an issue, you realize that there is almost nothing that is black and white,”
says Solomon, who does political and nonprofit work in St. Louis. “The idea that
no political party or ideology has a monopoly on wisdom has really stuck with
me. If you’re going to improve the world—and that’s the goal of politics—you
have to consider and incorporate the wisdom and truths that are out there.”
Food safety, the troop surge in Iraq and video game violence have been among the topics covered this spring in
The Undecided, a student political magazine that tries to spark the same kind of discussions on the page that the Pomona Student Union does in its debates.
Unlike most college political magazines, The Undecided does not advocate from the left or the right, but tackles national and international issues from multiple angles—whether the topic is reforming marijuana laws or boycotting the 2008 Olympic Games in China.
“We have different writers working on the same topic so we can create a dialogue,” says Thomas Sprankling ’08, editor-in-chief. “We try to stay on top of current issues and have a rapid response to what is going on in the news and then link that to a broader theme about American politics or culture.”
Sprankling, who runs the magazine from his dorm room, relies on a staff of five senior editors to develop “prompts” for each issue and to recruit student writers from the College. In response to the sex scandal involving former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, two articles in the April issue addressed broader questions about the rights of sex workers, the legalization of prostitution and the exploitation of women.
Funded by a grant from President David Oxtoby’s office, The Undecided was founded in 2005. It has increased its publication schedule from once or twice a semester to almost monthly and this year added a design editor to improve the look of the magazine.
“My guiding inspiration for the magazine is The New Republic,” says Sprankling, whose schedule calls for some late nights and early mornings, especially when it’s time to deliver the magazine to the printer or distribute 450 copies across campus. “We want to expose the College community to as many different perspectives as possible and show that there are more than just two sides to any issue.”