Throughout the fall semester of 2022, The Hilltop Monitor reported on the ongoing issue of academic freedom at William Jewell College. Concerns about whether or not the College’s administration – and its investigative council, the Racial Reconciliation Commission (RRC) – was properly living up to the College’s own commitment to academic freedom and broader academic standards with respect to academic freedom were raised by members of the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project (SMJP).
Because this issue is about academic freedom, it has a profound impact on the prospects for intellectual life at Jewell. After all, what is under consideration is students’ and faculty’s ability to pursue controversial subjects and use available evidence to create projects that contribute to the marketplace of ideas at Jewell.
An article published Dec. 16 of 2022 gave an account of the claims made against the administration and the RRC, as well as some preliminary responses made by members of the administration. In order to get the administration’s perspective on this ongoing controversy, The Hilltop Monitor reached out to: Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of the College; Rodney Smith, vice president for access and engagement and RRC chair; and Andrew Pratt, lead researcher for the RRC and dean emeritus of the chapel. To date, Smith has not responded to email communications, though The Hilltop Monitor attended one of his monthly meetings on Feb. 27, 2022, with the RRC, where he updated commission members and others present on the commission’s progress. An article on this meeting is forthcoming.
After two email communications, Pratt declined to continue to comment, as he believed further communication with The Hilltop Monitor would undermine the investigation completed by faculty council and its report on the matter. MacLeod Walls responded to questions; this article will present both Pratt’s and MacLeod Walls’ responses to The Hilltop Monitor. Should Smith respond, The Hilltop Monitor will publish his responses in a separate article.
The Hilltop Monitor will present MacLeod Wall’s and Pratt’s responses via transcripts. Sections which are cut-out are either 1) greetings, 2) offers to schedule meetings, 3) errors in drafting emails or 4) in one case, on a matter pertaining to The Hilltop Monitor and the marketing department which requires more investigation, though an article is forthcoming. The Hilltop Monitor will also comment on certain portions of the responses given by MacLeod Walls and Pratt.
The Hilltop Monitor’s questions to MacLeod Walls and Pratt were informed by claims made against them by the SMJP. In order to understand the exchanges between The Hilltop Monitor and MacLeod Walls and Pratt, an overview of the controversy is merited.
On Dec. 5, 2022, Gary Armstrong, interim vice president of academic affairs, and Leesa McBroom, chair of faculty council and professor and chair of nursing, met with Student Senate and The Hilltop Monitor in order to present an account of faculty council’s executive summary of the report on claims made by students and faculty of the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project. The SMJP is a group of students, alumni, and faculty which has conducted extensive research since Aug. 2020 on the history of slavery’s influence on the College. The SMJP plans to publish its final report on slavery’s influence on the College in December of this year. They will also present their scholarly research in a series of presentations at the upcoming Duke Undergraduate Colloquium in April.
The SMJP’s claims were as follows. Actions taken by the representatives of the administration showed preferential treatment in terms of access to archival materials to its own investigative council: the RRC. The RRC was established in April 2021 by MacLeod Walls.
Specifically: the SMJP alleged that the RRC’s lead researcher, Andrew Pratt, dean emeritus of the chapel, obtained privileged access to certain key materials – like nineteenth century Board of Trustee minutes and early financial documents – at a time when the SMJP students were denied equal access to the William Jewell College Archives.
Furthermore, the College administration, by hindering students’ full access to crucial historical sources related to slavery and the College’s history, undermined the SMJP’s effort to establish its scholarly credibility. To be sure, SMJP students presented their work at Duke Colloquium in April of 2022 and in a series of Hilltop Monitor articles, but denial of access to those sources curtailed students’ ability to speak from an authoritative epistemic position to the Jewell community.
An email sent by MacLeod Walls on Aug. 30, 2021 to faculty and staff – but not students – stated that “it is the sole responsibility of the [Racial Reconciliation] Commission to determine what is true [about the College’s founding]…” This email made no mention of the SMJP or of their ongoing research into the history of the College.
Further, comments made by Macleod Walls and Smith at a May 2022 forum, where faculty, students, staff, administration, and RRC members were present, misrepresented Hayley Michael’s reasons for resigning from the RRC. Michael, now a Jewell alumna, is a member of the SMJP and former member of the RRC. In Feb. of 2022, Michael resigned from the RRC because, in her view, student voices were not taken seriously in RRC meetings, nor in the compilation of the RRC’s report, published in Jan. of 2022. For example, Michael criticized the RRC’s report for including “various historical inaccuracies about the founders’ ties to slavery,” including exaggerating the anti-slavery actions of William Jewell, founder of the College.
Michael presented her reasons for resigning to Smith and they had a productive conversation. However, things changed in this previously mentioned May 2022 forum. Smith and MacLeod Walls – who were aware that Michael had resigned from the RRC in February – misrepresented the timeline of her resignation. Specifically, the president informed faculty, staff, students, RRC members and members of the Cabinet present that Michael had resigned just 10 days before the publication of an article in the Pitch. In other words, MacLeod Walls, supported by Smith, had implied that Michael had been manipulated into resigning from the RRC in a media campaign to make the administration and the RRC look bad. These comments undermine Michael’s – and more broadly, the SMJP’s – scholarly credentials and ignored Michael’s principled criticism of the RRC in terms of its disregard for student voices and its flawed, unduly positive narrative of the College’s founders.
A more comprehensive account of claims made by the SMJP can be found in The Hilltop Monitor’s article from Dec. 16, 2022; the article also includes Armstrong’s and McBroom’s responses to these claims.
The Hilltop Monitor will present the questions asked of Macleod Walls and Pratt and their responses via transcripts of emails. Should Smith respond, The Hilltop Monitor will publish his responses as soon as possible in a separate article.
Questions to and Responses of MacLeod Walls
A full copy of The Hilltop Monitor’s questions, and MacLeod Walls’ responses, can be found here.
The bulk of the email communications between MacLeod Walls and The Hilltop Monitor pertained to comments she made about Michael at the May 2022 forum. Unfortunately, recordings or transcripts of this May 2022 forum are not known to exist. Instead, Michael was informed about these comments by faculty and staff present, who were shocked by the administration’s willingness to undermine Michael’s credentials as a student expert.
When The Hilltop Monitor asked MacLeod Walls about her comments at this meeting regarding Michael’s perceived reasons for leaving the RRC, her responses did not touch upon the substance of her comments. Instead, she claimed the meeting – which was attended by students, faculty, staff, and RRC members – was confidential. Indeed, she stated that “a breach in professional conduct” had occurred and asked Armstrong and McBroom to investigate Michael’s being informed about the meeting.
Questions to and Responses of Pratt
A full copy of The Hilltop Monitor’s questions, and Pratt’s responses, can be found here.
A careful reader might wonder why The Hilltop Monitor chose to ask such specific follow up questions having to do with how certain Early Financial Documents were uploaded, and how they were accessed. The questions are meant to illustrate to readers the workings of the archives. Historically, when materials were requested by the RRC, scans were taken of the relevant documents and uploaded to a private folder, hosted on the Archive’s OneDrive. Access to these folders required that individuals have a unique link, which acted as an access key.
Most readers would not know that this is how research requests were completed. Generally speaking, the ways in which the Archives stores and shares information is a mystery to faculty, students, and staff – unless they work at the Archives, or have previously requested access to information. Pratt’s assertion that crucial materials were uploaded onto a public website for all researchers, then, is a misleading assertion; one which depends on the individual asking these questions not to know how the Archives works. In fact, materials requested by the RRC – the Early Financial Papers, for example – were never put on a public facing site. If they had been, then claims made by the SMJP about inequality of access would have been defused.
Although RRC researchers have been given digital copies of trustee records from the Civil War era, the administration has denied student researchers equal research privileges by preventing students from taking digital photographs or making scans of any trustee documents, even those more than a century and a half old.
There is much about the Archives that remains unclear. For example, one might ask how exactly ‘informal advisors’ are integrated into the hierarchical structure of the organization. One might also ask what principles are used to decide which advisors get their own key to the space and under what conditions they can use it. Unfortunately, no further communication with Pratt is possible to clarify these issues.
Moving forward, The Hilltop Monitor will switch gears and focus on the student’s perspective on this issue, starting with an interview with Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the soon to be formed History Club. The Hilltop Monitor will also continue to report on the progress in terms of implementing Faculty Council’s recommendations in order to improve the College’s commitment to academic freedom.