ON a storybook New England college campus there has just taken place a debate and a conclusion that warm one's heart and confirm one's confidence in democracy. The college is Colby, in Waterville, Maine, which has been becoming academically more and more prestigious but which has also chalked up a sturdy Maine commitment over the years to independence and freedom of expression.
One of Colby's distinctions is its annual Elijah Parish Lovejoy award on behalf of press freedom. Mr. Lovejoy was a student at Colby in the 19th century, went on to become a journalist and Presbyterian minister, and became fervently involved in the antislavery movement in St. Louis. He died defending his press against an angry mob. To honor his memory, Colby gives an award each year to some distinguished journalist for his or her work on behalf of press freedom.
Thus it seemed a particular irony last year when, in this bastion of free choice, the faculty moved to ban the Central Intelligence Agency from recruiting on the Colby campus. In a further twist to the irony, although the faculty wanted the CIA barred from the campus, the student government wanted the CIA recruiters to remain on campus.
The faculty cited as their reasons for the proposed ban the CIA's ``illegal incursions into Nicaragua, its role in illegal arms sales, its illegal investigations into the lives of private citizens.''
The students opposing the ban on the CIA said such a ban would ``prevent students from gathering information from these people. This motion contradicts Colby's liberal arts beliefs.''
The ultimate decision on whether or not to ban the CIA rested with the college's board of trustees. What has followed in the intervening months is a refreshing example of democracy - with all its ups and down, fumbles and bumbles - at work in an academic atmosphere.
Even in the new environment of glasnost, it is hard to imagine such a debate's taking place in public at a university in the Soviet Union; students on one side, faculty on the other, debating whether the KGB should be allowed to recruit on campus, all in an environment free of government coercion or even influence.
But at Colby the debate has bubbled along, and last week the college authorities staged an all-day forum at which everybody had their say. Guest speakers spoke for and against the CIA. Stansfield Turner, a former director of the CIA, fenced with CIA critics. Civil rights lawyers argued for and against a ban on the intelligence agency. After five hours or so, trustees, faculty, and students went behind closed-doors for another three hours.
Finally last weekend, after giving all sides an opportunity to speak, the trustees handed down their decision. They decided not to ban the CIA, and to recognize the right of diverse groups and potential employers to visit the campus. They also asserted the obligation of such employers to publicly explain on campus their policies and practices, and set up a group of students, faculty, administration members, and trustees to monitor how this should be done.
In other words, the trustees cast a confirming vote for freedom of expression, permitting the CIA to try to recruit on campus. But in a further bolstering vote for freedom of expression, it asserted the right of those who disapprove of CIA policies to take agency officials to task and hold them accountable.
It was a decision on behalf of individual freedom of choice. I think Elijah Parish Lovejoy would be at ease with it.