Update on Recent Events

Dear Knox Community,

Over the last two weeks, our community has grappled with serious and difficult issues regarding discrimination, freedom of speech, and identity. While tensions surrounding these matters are always present in a diverse community dedicated to discussion and learning, the most recent issues came to light when a student submitted a bias incident report regarding a series of tweets by a faculty member on his private Twitter page that the student and members of the campus Hillel chapter viewed as anti-Semitic. The College has an obligation and a commitment to respond to all reports of bias and discrimination, so our bias incident team initiated an assessment of the situation, which is ongoing. An email exchange among faculty about the content and intent of the tweets followed on the College faculty and staff listserv. Several days later, on April 18, a Jewish faculty member received an anonymous letter containing vulgar and anti-Semitic content. The bias incident team immediately initiated an additional investigation into this hateful act, which is also in process.

Our most pressing concern at this time is supporting and protecting students and faculty who feel targeted by the anonymous hate mail and by the tweets and email exchanges. The anonymous action is clearly reprehensible, harmful to the individual, and an affront to our values. With regard to the tweets, it is not the College’s practice to follow the personal social media accounts of its faculty or staff members. As an academic institution, we must maintain an unwavering allegiance to the constitutional rights of members of our community, particularly the freedom of speech that is essential for unfettered academic inquiry. Nonetheless, the section on Academic Freedom in the College’s Faculty Handbook notes the special obligations incumbent upon members of the faculty even when speaking as individuals: “to be accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinions of others, and to make every effort to indicate that the individual is not speaking for the College.”

Within the context of protecting academic freedom, however, the College does have an obligation to and a process for investigating allegations of bias incidents reported to us and addressing the extent to which a hostile environment or violation of our policy has occurred. Many members of our community have personal views on the content of the tweets, but the College follows procedural standards in determining whether a violation of our anti-bias policy has occurred. Those standards accord rights and protections to all individuals who are the subject of investigations, and we will scrupulously observe those protections. To that end, the College does not publicly comment on the details of bias investigations while they are in progress. While that process works toward a resolution, the safety of our students, faculty and staff is the College’s top priority, especially in terms of their experiences on campus and their ability to teach and learn in a environment free from bias, harassment or discrimination.

Throughout this time, members of our faculty and staff have spent many hours with the affected students and faculty, listening and providing support as they work to comprehend and respond to the situation. As we have witnessed throughout Knox’s long history, our students have come together to turn seemingly divisive language into an opportunity for understanding and a greater sense of inclusivity on our campus. The Student Senate invited Hillel to discuss the situation at a recent Senate meeting, and students of many racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds have expressed their support for their fellow students. Hillel is currently in the process of planning a dialogue to discuss how to confront and combat hate, and the Student Senate is encouraging our campus to come together in support of such community-building events. The College will do all that it can to support our students in their efforts to move beyond forums such as Twitter and email that do not allow for nuanced dialogue and to promote open, respectful, and meaningful discussions.

Campuses and communities across the nation have witnessed bias incidents and experienced a breakdown of dialogue and communication in recent years. The FBI has reported that nearly all classes of hate crimes have increased since 2016, including crimes against Jews, Muslims, African Americans, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. Sadly, hate crimes in schools, colleges and universities are rising as well. While we recognize that these crimes are significantly underreported, even one hate crime is too many. Hate has no home at Knox College. In this environment, we are all called to stand up for our values, to reject hateful speech and actions, and to affirm our support for those targeted by hate as we work to build an inclusive and respectful campus in which to live and learn.