The increasingly blurred lines of public political stances

Ethan Schuler

It is no secret that colleges tend to be hotbeds of political activism, and it is usually pretty clear the political leanings of a college’s student body. However, the institution and administrations at colleges themselves theoretically tend to try to officially remain politically neutral. Generally, they favor open debate between students and will support protests and events for any cause. Colby is no different, but particularly in the present day, actually following through with political neutrality as an organization can be very difficult. Not only are there social issues that colleges must address, it is very easy for anything from a fundraising campaign to a social media post to be interpreted as taking a political stance.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on my conflicted attitude towards the Dare Northward program at Colby. One thing I discussed in the article was that many people critical of the campaign have pointed out that although Colby has made a point to remain neutral regarding many specific political issues, they have implicitly supported neoliberal political ideas by partnering with the Nasdaq, which has led to hypocrisy on the part of the College. One person on the Civil Discourse specifically pointed out President David A. Greene’s refusal to support the Paris Climate Accord on the grounds of not taking a political stance as an example of this hypocrisy. When stating his refusal over e-mail, President Greene specifically stated “On most political issues of the day, I will choose not to affix Colby’s name.”

This was but one shred of a point regarding the controversy of Dare Northward, but the larger issue of Colby as an institution taking a stance on political issues, both explicitly and implicitly, is very much worth discussing. To be blunt, the idea that Colby could never take a political stance is impossible. Beyond implicit stances, the College is even required to take stances in a direct manner at certain points, particularly regarding social issues. Colby faces dilemmas that force this, whether or not it is what we want. While this certainly does not leave them at a fault, and allows space for the College to remain politically neutral, it is also important to point out the implicit ways Colby affirms its political views.

A perfect example of Colby taking an involuntary political stance came last September, when the Trump Administration announced they would end the DACA program in six months. That same day, Greene sent out a school-wide e-mail explicitly affirming the College’s support for DACA. He specifically stated, “Our commitment to members of our community affected by this decision is unwavering. And Colby as an institution is strengthened and its mission furthered by our ability to admit and support students regardless of their national origin or immigration status. We oppose policies that obstruct our ability to provide the most talented students from all backgrounds with access to a Colby education.” Though this is about as transparent of a political stance as Colby could make on the record, they were in a situation where, due to many on campus being individually affected, the College needed to make their position clear. President Greene also made clear in the e-mail that he welcomed open discussion, and no one questioned the College’s motives in this decision.

That being said, Colby also makes implicit political endorsements often. While this may not go as far as “affixing Colby’s name” on record, as Greene puts it, it clearly makes people not have to speculate as to where the College’s views as an institution lie. A recent example of this includes the post on the Colby Instagram of the National School Walkout Day that many Colby students participated in. While this is not the College stating specifically that it officially agrees with the views of the students who protested, it makes clear they want to publicize the fact that many students at Colby have these views. None of this is saying the College is being intentionally political — there are a wide variety of reasons why the College would want to publicize this, and it is not fair to pretend to know the true intentions. They could simply want to show that students are active in supporting political causes, regardless of the cause itself. They could simply be trying to keep followers up to date on campus events. However, just as people view Colby affiliating themselves with the Nasdaq as an implied support of neoliberalism, despite their not explicitly stating this, Colby as an institution making a point to affiliate themselves with the walkout could imply support of the gun control reform participants favored.

If one made a point to look back at Colby’s history through its social media posts and e-mail announcements, years more of implicit political endorsements could probably be found. But arguing over whether the College intends to be political, or whether their current way of doing things is hypocritical probably is not productive. Instead, it would behoove us to discuss ways the College can deal with it from now on. A good start would be for Colby to establish a futre policy regarding when they will or will not take a political stance. Greene’s general views on the matter, though important to know, are not specific enough. The College’s policy is too vague, and the fact that these kind of long-winded discussions about whether their intentions were political or not in the first place, like this article, speaks to this.

Obviously, this is not a Colby-specific issue. Particularly in the age of Trump, colleges all over the United States have to deal with how to address taking political stances, particular with respect to social issues that directly and indirectly affect students. In this difficult time, Colby should set an example. Instead of being unclear, the College should be transparent about when they will and will not take political stances. The administration should consult with the community about when it is and is not appropriate. Of course, as Greene has stated, this does not mean that there should not be open dialogue even when the College does take a stand. But we should know when to expect it, and why.

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