Concern arises regarding professors’ discussion with student Library Committee members

Prior to the second library forum, two professors took three students whom they believed to be on the Library Committee to lunch at the Joseph Family Spa. After leaving the meeting, one of the students reported the conversation to her work supervisors in Miller Library and to the Library Committee on which she is a student representative, stating that the conversation was meant to be a dialogue but felt like coercion.

The two professors, Professor of English David Suchoff and Professor of Latin American Studies Ben Fallaw, stated in a joint email that they “met the SGA designated [representatives on the Library Committee] in the Spa over lunch, and it was a very amicable conversation. We were able to find out a lot about how students think about the library, and we were able to answer questions about how we view the library, and share information. For us, the ‘impact’ of the meeting was a better understanding of students’ perspectives: and this was very valuable.”
Further, the professors wrote, “We imagine that meetings between designated SGA reps and faculty interested in the same issues are quite frequent, and desirable: of course, they should be at a civically engaged campus such as Colby.”

Holly Hogan ’16 reported the conversation she and the two other students had with the professors and explained that though she and the other students were invited to the meeting under the premise of the professors looking for student perspectives on the library, she felt that the professors were attempting to convince the students of the professors’ views. When she arrived at the meeting, Suchoff and Fallaw were wearing “Bring Back the Books” pins. Hogan explained that if she had known the professors were participants in the Bring Back the Books campaign, “I wouldn’t have gone because I know there are a lot of issues and I’m also a worker for the library…so it’s very tough to be in that position,” Hogan explained.

“At first, they kind of asked us a little bit about what we thought of the library,” Hogan said. As the lunch continued however, Hogan felt that the professors were overwhelming her and the other students with information that the students didn’t have the resources to respond to: “They were giving us a lot statistics. I can only say my opinion and what I know from being on the committee. And they talked about the importance of students on the committee and how impactful their beliefs cans be, and then they really started pushing their beliefs onto us.”
Hogan felt that she not only had to defend her beliefs regarding the library but also regarding the quality of education at Colby. She said, “I felt like I had to do a lot of the fighting for Miller, saying Miller is a good place and so is Colby, like let’s keep our Colby pride. When I walked away from the conversation I felt like they were saying Colby is a horrible place to go.”

The other two students at the meeting interpreted the conversation differently. Liz Paulino ’18 is a member of the Library Committee and said, “Personally, I didn’t think it was that bad…. They were really respectful…[and] brought up some valid points.” Paulino explained, “I didn’t agree with some of the points, [but] it wasn’t the end of the world. It was [more] like, you have your opinion, I have my opinion.” Regarding her ability to speak her mind, Paulino said that “I couldn’t articulate all that I thought, but that was because of nervousness, not because I was being attacked or anything.”

The third student who was invited to the discussion was originally meant to be on the Library Committee, but due to scheduling conflicts, was unable to continue participating. The professors said that they found all three names, including Jenner Foster’s ’17, on the provost’s website, which lists the members of all College committees. Foster said, “I think [the professors] were really trying to convince a little bit of their side… or wanted us to hear the faculty side…. I [also] think they were trying to hear what our thoughts were…. Liz and I stayed afterwards and talked about it, and we didn’t think there was any malicious intent, it was that crazy, or that radical.” Foster believes that the professors wanted to meet with them “because they wanted to hear a different perspective of the student body’s voice.”

As Head of the Library Committee, Associate Professor of History John Turner received Hogan’s email regarding the luncheon and passed along the information to Provost and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer who then brought the information to the attention of President David Greene. Turner said, “It does look on the surface like an attempt to subvert student voices….Just looking at the basics, it doesn’t look good.”

Turner’s main concern is to protect students’ ability to voice their opinions: “I view it as very important to me to protect students’ voices and the freedom of students to say what they need to say. I feel very defensive about that.” He said that in general, it’s important to him that “students feel like their voices are going to be heard.”

Student Body President Justin Deckert ’15 became aware of the interaction between Suchoff and Fallaw and the students when Turner brought it to his attention, and Deckert found the incident troubling. In an email to the Echo he described the importance of student representation on committees, saying that “Students can have a powerful contribution in representing and carrying the opinion of their peers on a variety of issues. I believe that the actions of Professors Fallaw and Suchoff are extremely problematic because they have acted in a way that has perverted our college’s governance process. I believe it is unethical for the professors to act in a way where they are attempting to coerce student opinion through this channel.” He further explained that he doesn’t believe the professors took the proper route if they were simply intending to understand student opinion: “If they were truly interested in garnering student opinion of the library renovation, their discussion should have begun with the SGA president, not three underclassmen who serve on the library committee. It is clear to me that they were more interested in coercing the students who serve on the library committee to carry their opinions.”

In an email, Fallaw and Suchoff responded to a question regarding whether they believe their positions as tenured professors play a role in influencing student voices. They wrote, “At Colby, faculty influence students—and just as importantly, are influenced by them in our learning community. We believe students are equal partners in this common venture. We learned a lot from the students at this lunch, and perhaps they learned from us. Creating a library that everyone in the Colby community can be proud of will require more such conversations, not fewer, among faculty, students and administrators. Let a thousand conversations bloom.”

Kletzer said, “I was apprised of the situation by Professor Turner and I similarly apprized President Greene. There is not an investigation.” She asserted that there is no formal or informal investigation but said “I will admit that I found the descriptions of the meeting troubling. At the same time, it is a difficult area to pursue because it becomes ‘someone said this’ and ‘possibly someone else said that.’ It’s a difficult conversation for anyone outside the group [of two professors and three students] to pursue.”

Kletzer expanded that though there is currently no investigation, “it is still to me an open question. Might I return to this? Yes. If I received directly any complaints or if I heard any additional information beyond what I have received to date beyond John Turner, I’m fairly certain I would pursue it. To me, it remains an open issue, not closed.”