Rachel Farber '16 Assistant News Editor
It is hard to forget when Christine Lagarde canceled her commencement speech after student protests in 2014. Subsequently, Smith invited former Smith President Ruth Simmons to speak, ending an 11-year streak of white-only commencement speakers. Simmons’s speech, which supported student protest, was a reminder of the importance of hearing differing opinions.
Simmons recalled a story from her first year as president of Brown University; she had insisted that the university host a talk by a man who was openly a white supremacist. Simmons explained that the value of the talk was not the opportunity for students to agree with his “heinous” views but rather to realize that they disagreed.
This led to the creation of the Smith College Bipartisan Coalition, of which Katie Hitchcock-Smith ’17 and Theresa Meyer ’17 are co-presidents. Hitchcock-Smith and Meyer, both first-years at the time of the Lagarde controversy, felt a campus need for intentional spaces of disagreement and diverse political opinion.
Meyer arrived at Smith politically liberal. Alarmed at the lack of space for diversity of thought, she made it a goal for her sophomore year to become more involved with the Smith Republicans. Joining the Republicans had incredible effects on how she was perceived: friends avoided her on campus, professors refused to call on her in class and even her house, room number, links to all her social media sites and her resume were posted on Smith Confessional. Many other Republicans on campus received similar treatment.
Hitchcock-Smith’s first course at Smith was about free speech on campus. After falling in love with the study of government, Hitchcock-Smith felt the need for a space where people with differing political perspectives could participate in constructive conversation.
“How do you know you’re right unless you hear an opinion you think is wrong?” Hitchcock-Smith asked.
At the end of their sophomore year, Hitchcock-Smith and Meyer, of different party affiliations, decided that a bipartisan coalition was “an answer to a question a lot of people hadn’t been able to ask.”
“Obviously we’re not going to have every member of the Smith community be in this group, but what we can do is change the prevailing narrative that there’s a single party or a single opinion that is right,” Meyer said.
“Or that a party owns a certain issue,” said Hitchcock-Smith.
“One thing that we’ve started doing within our weekly meetings is to allow for discussion of issues. But one thing that we’re trying to keep away from is relying on party narratives ... really trying to stick with the issues themselves instead of the partisan context.”
In their first meeting, each person introduced themselves and a topic that they care about, but not their position, as a means to discuss topics as issues outside party platforms.
“We should be very clear,” Meyer explained. “This isn’t a place where we condone racism, sexism, transphobia or homophobia. Those are not political views. Those are views fueled by hatred. Period. We’ve been very clear to our members that this is not a place where we condone those views.”
“Any community which is built around a narrow range of views is inevitably going to become lazy in its ability to think through ideas, so this effort to find common ground is a way to expand the range of views that can get a hearing,” said Marc Lender, a Smith government professor.
The effort to increase conversations on diverse opinions is strategic through the two-party system.
“Frankly, it has to do with funding,” Meyer said. “The Democrats and Republicans on campus are established, at least the Republicans have been around since 1875. That’s a lot of legacy and a lot of funding for us to bring speakers. We’ve received access to twenty thousand dollars in funding to bring conservative speakers on campus. We’re looking at similar grants from the Democratic side.”
“It also gives us a chance to work with other clubs on campus,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “We’re not the Republicans, we’re not the Democrats, but we have access to work with both.”
The Bipartisan Coalition looks forward to working with other organizations on campus besides the Smith Democrats and Republicans, as well as expanding the conversation outside the two-party framework.
Having been in operation for only three weeks, the Coalition had a packed house for their GOP debate watch party, and the co-presidents have received great support in person and through email.
Theresa laughed that the only pushback she’s received for this work is from her mother who is “shocked” that she is working with Republicans.
“My mom doesn’t know, so I’m not going to tell her,” Hitchcock-Smith joked.
The Smith Bipartisan Coalition is still in the charter process, but it already has a list of potential speakers, as well as plans to help students register to vote in preparation for this coming election season.