July 14, 2017

To the Trinity College Community,

Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression in pursuit of the truth are essential, not only to the health of the academy but also to the advancement of civilization. Our understanding of academic freedom in America today is rooted largely in a joint statement from 1940 by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges that asserted the fundamental importance of academic freedom for the common good and the advancement of truth. The heart of the concept, of course, is much older and goes much deeper — to the very founding principles of democratic governance.

Academic freedom is not absolute, however. The events of recent weeks have compelled us to ask important questions about the limits of such freedom and the responsibilities of faculty members, who hold special positions in our academic communities.

Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Cresswell’s review of the recent social media activity of Professor Johnny Williams is now complete. We appreciate everyone’s patience in providing us with the time to complete this important review. Dean Cresswell’s report and recommendations are available here. I have reviewed them with the Board of Trustees and now affirm Dean Cresswell’s conclusion that Professor Williams’s actions and words were protected by academic freedom and did not violate Trinity College policies. A related statement from the Board of Trustees also is available online.

Dean Cresswell’s review included consideration of policies on academic freedom, nondiscrimination, and professional ethics as outlined in Trinity College’s Faculty Manual, as well as policies concerning employee rights and responsibilities and statements on discrimination and harassment that are contained in our Employee Handbook. Dean Cresswell also consulted with external legal and policy experts before providing his recommendations.

By mutual agreement, Professor Williams will be on leave throughout the fall semester to provide some time and distance from this recent controversy and to allow him to continue his scholarship on race, racism, and academic freedom. The threats of violence against him, his family, and our campus have shaken us all, and we want to do what we can to ensure the continued well-being of our community. Professor Williams will return to his teaching duties on campus in January 2018.

Let me be clear: While I support Professor Williams’s right to express his opinions, as I have previously stated, I do not condone the hashtag he chose to use. This was interpreted by some to be a call to let people die, though Professor Williams stated publicly that was not his intent. Nevertheless, the words used in that hashtag not only offend me personally, they also contradict our fundamental institutional values and run counter to our efforts to bridge divides and to promote understanding, both among members of our College community and between us and members of communities beyond our own.

Some have said that Professor Williams caused the harm that has been inflicted upon him, his family, and our College — that he should have known better. But while Professor Williams may have meant for his words to be provocative, much of the most intense public reaction to his social media posts was fueled by misleading and incorrect reports about what he actually said. In particular, the initial report by Campus Reform led to distortions and an ensuing harassment that has become troublingly common for people of color and those who speak out on issues of race and racism. Such harassment, intended to intimidate, is appalling and, indeed, a threat to freedom of expression and to robust debate aimed at discovering truth and knowledge. These attacks against free speech have happened at numerous other colleges and universities. In a country more deeply divided than ever, especially on issues of race, we must be able to speak openly without fear of intimidation or violence.

How do we move beyond this controversy? How do we heal as a community and support one another? Since arriving at Trinity three years ago, I have worked to create spaces for open, respectful dialogues across deep differences. Once again, I will ask all members of the Trinity College community — faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, and friends — for their help in continuing this work. Let us use this painful incident to enter into discussions about the destructive forces of racism and hate, as well as our responsibilities to one another, as a community of learners. Beginning in late summer, we will initiate programming both on and off campus that fosters civil discourse and cements Trinity as a community of learning that values differences and promotes understanding. The best place to encourage lifelong learning and engagement across deep divides is right here at Trinity College.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know our shared belief in the importance of our educational mission will guide us as we work together on solutions. And I am confident in our strength and resilience as a community. Our work contributes to the public good, and there is much work to do together.


Joanne Berger-Sweeney
President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience