On October 8, George Will arrived on campus amidst heated feelings and protests. Mere days and even hours prior to his arrival, student protests and petitions circulated the campus refuting Will’s invitation to speak in the school’s President’s Speaker Series.
In a petition enacted to revoke Will’s invitation to speak on campus, students focused on an article written by Will regarding sexual assault on college campuses. According to the petition, his claims are “deeply misogynistic and ignorant” (change.org). Will’s statements about sexual assault, in addition to his opinions regarding climate change and Pope Francis, offended many students and led them to see him as an unfit speaker in Father Engh’s speaker series.
In addition to writing up a petition, students actively protested Will before he arrived.
“The Women’s & Gender Studies Department alerted us [Feminists for Justice] that George Will was speaking on campus, and informed us about his statements on sexual assault. Although we didn’t think it was realistic for us to try to get him uninvited, we felt very passionately about expressing our disapproval of his being invited,” said Chiara de Blasio, who organized the protest against Will.
Santa Clara students are not the first to fire back against Will. According to President of SCU College Democrats, Anthony Gill, “On some colleges, invitations for him to speak have been rescinded after liberal-minded activists and student groups voiced complaint.” Although Father Engh did not revoke Will’s invitation, he addressed students and faculty in an email.
“Like many members of the University community, I disagree with Mr. Will’s commentary on violence against women, climate change, and Pope Francis’s environmental message. Yet I firmly believe that a university is a place where we can engage in civil dialogue with those with whom we disagree, a place of open and respectful discussion and debate, a place that values dialogue and respects the diversity of opinions,” said Father Engh.
In response to the multiple student protests, the university organized informal opportunities for the students to address Will before his speech.
“Before the lecture, Will partook in a conversation with students at the MCC regarding his comments,” said Ahmer Israr, the vice president of SCU College Republicans.
Additionally, the university organized a question and answer session for students before Will’s speech, in which he could address the questions of concerned students.
After attending this session, de Blasio liked Will even less than before he arrived.
“Most of the questions asked were about his views on sexual assault, and later, about racism, after he minimized the opinions of people of color who have experienced discrimination,” said de Blasio. “I felt that George Will was pretty disrespectful to some of the students who challenged his statements on sexual assault and racism. He cut students off in the middle of their sentences and had a very mocking tone when discussing serious issues that affect a lot of people.”
After his informal discussion, Will arrived in Mayer Theater to speak in front of the students, faculty, and members of the community who purchased tickets to hear him speak.
Will’s time was split between a speech and a question and answer session afterwards. In his speech, “the topics he highlighted were the need for tax reform, shrinking the size of government, and also our duties as citizens,” said Israr.
Head of the BLEJIT (Bronco Leaders for Environmental Justice Investigating Truth) program in SCCAP, Blair Libby, stresses the disrespect Will showed towards Santa Clara students, even during his speech. “I was told that Will described the emotions of sexual assault survivors as ‘irrelevant’ and that even as a white male, he had no reason to question his own privilege in the matter,” said Libby.
Once his question and answer session commenced, the audience submitted questions to the moderator for Will.
“The first concerns addressed were his comments on sexual assault, which he defended to rapturous applause,” said Israr. “After, he answered a variety of questions about style as well as substance, including my own question about conservative solutions for decreasing college costs.”
Attendees of the speech highlighted the moderator’s “aggressively opinionated line of questioning”, against which Will stood his ground and, according to Israr, stood up to intellectual bullying.
In the aftermath of Will’s appearance on campus, many students still have mixed feelings regarding his presence.
Israr and members of the SCU College Republicans believe it was vital for Will to come speak on campus, and emphasize the importance of defending the first amendment and the right to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship. Although Israr personally disagrees with Will’s commentary on sexual assault, he still supports the decision to invite Will to campus.
“We applaud Father Engh for his decision to have George Will speak on campus and hope that the speaker series will continue to feature such vibrant intellectual diversity,” said Israr.
Libby disagrees, believing that inviting Will was an unsympathetic gesture by President Engh and the administration.
“I’ve lost some respect for the University after paying him to speak at our school. I can name several other conservative commentators that would have been a much more appropriate fit for this topic,” said Libby.
The president of SCU College Democrats, Andrew Gill, stated, “In keeping with the Jesuit tradition of openness and hospitality, SCU College Democrats enthusiastically welcomes to campus speakers from all sides of the political spectrum.”
Emphasizing Father Engh’s mention of engaging in civil dialogue, Gill personally believes that Will offered that opportunity.
“I have wondered whether, in all of that controversy over whether Will should even be allowed to speak on campus, we missed a crucial opportunity to talk more substantively about the issues where Mr. Will likely aligns with much of this campus and many of those who protested his appearance,” said Gill. “Issues like a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, limits on warrantless surveillance, the decriminalization of recreational drugs, and the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, which until the 1990s separated commercial and investment banking.”
Finally, De Blasio and the Feminists for Justice believe in the importance of speaking out against endorsing someone with arguments that are “ignorant and misogynistic.”
“I think that as SCU students, we should be challenging the University administration’s actions more often. Of course, we have lots of responsibilities as it is, but I think that the main purpose of a university is to educate and provide for its students, and if there’s something we think needs to be improved, we should express our opinions to those in power,” said de Blasio.