Joan Hinde Stewart Appears on CNN


The following transcript comes from an interview conducted by CNN for a segment of Paula Zahn Now that will air Friday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. EST. Joan Hinde Stewart is scheduled to appear along with other members of the Hamilton community.

CNN: So when the invitation to Ward Churchill was made did you have any idea? Was it a controversial invitation for you to begin? When did you find out about, what did you know about it? Just give some background.

JHS: The first thing I want to say is that our hearts go out to the victims of 9/11. To all the families and friends of the people that lost their lives that tragic morning. They have all suffered enough. They have absolutely suffered enough. What we are focused on now is how to move forward from this. How do we go into the future? What are the lessons that we have learned? How do we maximize those lessons. And for me a powerful demonstration of what is going on now with the mood on campus was the meeting last night. The discussion that took place. More than 200 students came out to a discussion that they themselves organized and moderated. And where they talked about the lost opportunity they had for real intellectual discussion. A young man from Boston said early on in the meeting, "We are perfectly capable of interrogating and scrutinizing ideas." Another young man from Albany said a little bit later, "It is the quality of the debate that matters." These students brought their critical thinking, their ability to articulate to this meeting and talked about what it meant to them to grapple with ideas and the lost opportunity to do that on Thursday night.

CNN: So it is a lost opportunity that Ward Churchill was not able to come to this campus?

JHS: The loss is the intellectual discussion that would have taken place. We would have had thousands of people on this campus talking about these issues. Talking about profoundly important issues. There should have been demonstration outside my office. There should have been students engaging with each other and with the visitors in these conversations. That would have been a powerful exercise in democracy. We teach democracy here. And that would have been a wonderful exercise in it. And that was lost. That did not take place. The students feel that deeply as do I.

CNN: Why was it lost?

JHS: The event was canceled because of safety and security threats. It became clear to us that the dangers associated with going with the event exceeded our capacity to deal with them. And I made the decision to cancel the event on Tuesday morning.

CNN: What were those dangers?

JHS: We had threatening telephone calls as well as e-mails.

CNN: Can you be more specific than that?

JHS: We had threats of violence, threats of guns on campus. My solemn responsibility is to protect the students on this campus. My responsibility is for the safety of the students and the entire community that has been entrusted to my care.

CNN: Hamilton is not a place that shies away from controversial speakers. What do you know about the history of this campus and the fact that it has brought in speakers from the left and the right who are clearly controversial?

JHS: Hamilton has brought in a wide array of speakers. Controversy is a part of education. Controversial ideas need to be grappled with. And our students are entirely capable of doing this. That was one of the points they made so forcefully last night in the discussion that they organized. Their capacity to weigh ideas, to challenge them, to confront them, to figure out for themselves where the truth lies. Our students are entirely capable of doing that.

CNN: Can you give me a list, just any list of we have had so-and-so, we've had so-and-so on this campus and it has never been [a problem]?

JHS: We have had speakers of every stripe on campus. We've had Bill Clinton, we've had Oliver North, Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell, Betsy Fox-Genovese, David Horowitz, Walter Williams to mention just a few.

CNN: And never a problem?

JHS: There has been intense discussion around speakers who have come to campus. That is what colleges do. That is what colleges are about. They are about listening to ideas and grappling with them and exercising their intelligence and their capacity to judge ideas. And this has taken place with the speakers that have come to campus and that is what they have lost with the cancellation of this program. That the students will not have this opportunity. That the thousands of people that would have come to Hamilton College to talk about this aren't here. The silence yesterday was deafening.

CNN: What is the "this" that they would have talked about that you believe they would talked about?

JHS: They would have talked about issues of free speech, issues of academic freedom, issues of violence versus non-violence. They would have talked about rights and responsibilities.

CNN: And from your mind what is it that Ward Churchill adds to that conversation?

JHS: The loss was the fact that the conversation about ideas could not take place. That the students did not have the opportunity to confront challenging ideas. To refute them, to deal with them, to talk about them. That is the great loss to the campus.

CNN: And when that student said yesterday that it is about the quality of the debate, I wondered about that. I mean any academic can say what he wants but what Ward Churchill says is. There might be some people who say there is no quality in what he says.

JHS: I personally and the college -- my heart goes out to the victims of 9/11. They have all suffered enough. What we are about on a college campus is discussing ideas and confronting them and weighing them. And for students to decide for themselves what makes sense and was doesn't. And what they are willing to accept and why or why not. And those are powerful exercises of democracy. That is what students are being taught here to do. To think critically, to analyze critically, to articulate their ideas and their own arguments.

CNN: And when a student like Matt Coppo says that the university should have never invited this guy on campus that what he says is so horrific that he should not even be invited. There is no quality in what he says. You say --

JHS: My heart goes out Matt Coppo in particular and we feel deeply for those victims of 9/11 and in particular for those who belong to our own Hamilton family including certainly Matt Coppo with whom I have spoken individually and with whom I have been in correspondence and with whom I will be speaking a lot more.

CNN: But what do you say to him when he says there is no quality in what he presents?

JHS: Matt Coppo and I have had a very interesting and powerful discussion about the issues of freedom of expression, about what belongs on a college campus, about how you deal with ideas that your find repugnant. And that is in fact the discussion that has taken place everywhere. That began last night and that will continue. We will have a number of other organized meetings. Some organized by students and some organized by the administration next week. We will come to grips with those ideas and try to maximize those lessons. What does it all mean? What does debate mean? How do we respond to ideas? How do we confront them? Those are the questions that Matt and I have begun discussing and the students have brought up themselves.

CNN: I am just going to ask one last question. A lot of the students on both sides of this who I have spoken to. Those who were very much against him coming, those that wanted him to come feel like the issue has is really now the issue of free speech, the issue of academic freedom. All of that has been trumped by violence. That what has happened here is that these threats from whoever has now determined who can and can't speak. And even the students that who were angry that he was going to come are now saying that now we cannot even -- it is not being controlled by this outside force of violence.

JHS: My cancellation of the event was reluctant. I followed the advice of the safety professionals whose advice I have to follow. Who told me that the danger simply exceeded our capacity to deal with it. The students on campus -- there are three attitudes I am hearing. There are certainly those that deeply regret that the event had to be cancelled who wanted to engage intellectually with it. There are others who had wish it had never been scheduled in the first place. And there are a great number who say let's get on -- let's get on with the business of education. Let's go on with our studies. Let's move to the future.

CNN: But how do you as an intellectual see this issue of let's say Bill Clinton wants to come to a campus and somebody calls the campus and says "I'm pro-life and I never want to hear him speak and therefore I am placing a bomb" and the university has to cancel him. I mean it is a slippery slope now.

JHS: My responsibility is to put the safety and security of my students first. We have done our very best to preserve something that we believe deeply in. That is the freedom to speak, to study, to express one's self, to teach what needs to be taught and what needs to be studied. And that is a very important American freedom and one of the fundamental freedoms of the college and of the republic. At this point the question of security outweighed the right of any particular individual to speak. And I had to reluctantly cancel the event.

CNN: That is a big deal right? I mean as an intellectual don't you feel that that sets a precedence?

JHS: That was a very big loss for the campus. Yesterday we should have had huge amounts of discussion, we should have thousands of visitors, we should have had students engaging in discussion. We had none of that because the event had to be canceled. And the loss that the students feel deeply, the faculty feels, everyone felt that was at the student discussion that took place last night. I think it was virtually unanimous the feeling that we have suffered a terrible loss in the impossibility of confronting these ideas. That conversation will never take place. It should have taken place.

CNN: OK -- and finally. You know President when I have been on campus, one of the things I have heard from students on all sides of this is that they all say - you know what this comes down to -- this comes down to Hamilton upsetting trustees, upsetting alumni, upsetting the money coming into the university. That this has nothing to do with anything but the fact that controversial speakers are now being questioned by alums, by funders, by trustees and that is why he was cancelled.

JHS: The threat to the security of these students who are entrusted to my care exceeded our ability to deal with it. I am not able to choose to expose our students to the kind of danger that we were in line of. I had to choose their security first. The college is simply not prepared to deal with that kind of threat.

CNN: Even if it meant silencing intellectual conversation?

JHS: The danger exceeded our ability to deal with it -- I had no choice but to cancel.

CNN: Is there anything that we can see -- I mean the threats that you were getting?

JHS: They have been turned over to the police for investigation.

CNN: The more dramatic ones were the ones?

JHS: Gun violence and death.

CNN: The death threats were to?

JHS: Ward Churchill received 100 death threats according to his family. We have had death threats telephoned to the college as well.

CNN: To who?

JHS: To offices on the college.

CNN: But I am saying did you receive a death threat?

JHS: A death threat came to my office.

CNN: Any sense of who -- I mean this one of the things that the students said -- it's like wow so some guy out there in you know Georgia picks up the phone makes a death threat against the president of the college and this person who had nothing to do with anything to do the campus is now determining.

JHS: No -- the decision to cancel was mine and it was made in light of the threats that had been made -- the threats of violence and death threats.