Alumni begin withholding donations from universities that suppress free speech or disinvite speakers

December 7, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This article from the “Education” section of the Wall Street Journal is heartening to free-speech advocates like me—and, I hope, us. It turns out that the suppression of speech or disinvitations of speakers on college campuses is beginning to hurt universities where it matters: in their pocketbooks. Increasingly, donors are withholding money to pressure schools to enforce free speech, and urging other alumni to do so as well. Alumni organizations with free-speech ends have formed at Cornell, Davidson, Washington-Lee, and the University of Virginia, among others. Since donations constitute 19% of the budget for student support at nonprofit four-year colleges (and 8% for public research schools), that’s a hefty chunk of change to worry about.

Click on the screenshot to read, or make a judicious inquiry if you’re paywalled.:

I love the story that begins the article:

Two years ago Cornell University asked a California real-estate developer and longtime donor for a seven-figure contribution.

Carl Neuss didn’t write the check immediately, saying he was worried about what he saw as liberal indoctrination on campus and declining tolerance toward competing viewpoints.

To allay Mr. Neuss’s concerns, the development office introduced him to some politically moderate professors, he said. The attempt backfired. The professors, he said, told him they felt humiliated by the diversity training they were required to attend and perpetually afraid they would say something factual—but impolitic.

“If you say the wrong words, you could lose your position or be shunned,” said Mr. Neuss.

Joel Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, said “robust debate and a discussion of all views remain hallmarks of the Cornell experience both in and out of the classroom.”

Mr. Neuss, who graduated from Cornell in 1976, withheld his donation and then helped start the Cornell Free Speech Alliance. It is one of about 20 such dissident alumni organizations that have taken root on college campuses over the last couple of years—including several this fall.

Yes, the withholders and the leaders of these groups are often conservatives or moderates, but if they foster free expression without forcing students to parrot their own less liberal views, I don’t much care. Free speech is the sine qua non of good universities.  While there’s a danger that universities could be swayed towards the political views of big donors, given the liberality of American schools (see below) I don’t see that as a big problem. The more free-speech organizations and the more diverse views they encourage to create debate, the better.

Alongside these groups are non-college-specific free-speech organizations like FIRE and the Academic Freedom Alliance, both nonpartisan and both doing good work. Wokeness and its censoriousness and authoritarianism may still triumph, but it’s good to know that many people are fighting the good fight to maintain free speech, increasingly seen by the woke as incompatible with DEI.

Why are these groups forming? You already know, but here’s what the WSJ says:

The alumni pushback comes as colleges and universities grapple with demands by students, faculty and alumni to battle racism, which many see as a systemic and defining feature of American life. Universities around the country have fired or demoted politically outspoken professors on the right and disinvited conservative speakers who criticize things like the push toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

It’s not just that: more than race is involved, but a whole system of attitudes that, while I generally agree with them, have become dogmatic and rigid, which also stifles free speech, and go to extremes that can even force centrist liberals towards the right. While i don’t approve of the “watch lists” of liberal professors that some of these organizations compile, nor share the view that “This is a battle for Western civilization”, expressed by one professor, I may be too sanguine about the latter.  I sometimes wonder that if I could foresee what American universities will be like like in 30 years, I’d be horrified.

Anyway, there’s no doubt that the present woke climate on many campuses is causing both faculty and students to self censor. Study after study shows that. Here are some data:

Some students are caught in the middle. More than 80% said they self-censor at least some of the time on campus, according to a survey this year by RealClearEducation, College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which covered more than 37,000 students enrolled at 159 colleges.



29 thoughts on “Alumni begin withholding donations from universities that suppress free speech or disinvite speakers

  1. This is the kind of action that must be taken to apply pressure to the institutions. Writing letters and articles is nice but it does not do what this kind of action does – hurt them where it counts. It is exactly the same that must be done to stop the cult from the next insurrection. Talk is cheap but people must first understand what has happened and what is currently happening to do it again. You have to first wake up the dog before he can bite someone. Losing money is the bite. An article in the Atlantic by Barton Gellman, “Jan 6 Was Practice” is the wake up call to what the cult is doing right now in preparation for the next election. It explains how the next coup has already begun and the intent is to fix the outcome. This is danger of a whole new magnitude.

    1. And the question I have about the right-leaners is: will they still support free speech when the coup gives them their dictatorship?

  2. I wonder what the poll results would be if the questions were more personal, eg, ‘You are a speaker on campus: is it acceptable for those who disagree with you to shout you down?’ There currently seems to be a failure to think in universal terms, or imagine what it would be like when the boot is on the other foot.

    What campuses will be like in 30 years I won’t predict, because in 1991, remembering the free-wheeling debates and controversial opinions of my own university days (1966-69) I could not have remotely predicted what they are actually like now.

    1. > in 1991, […] I could not have remotely predicted what they are actually like now.

      The roots were clearly there in the late 1990s, if you knew where to look. Remember the bumper stickers ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’ and ‘Mean people suck’. I had heard incivility from the right (talk radio), but I was seeing the bumper stickers from the left; both sides tried to be playful and mock-innocent in their incivility and intolerance. At that point though, the sentiment was mostly a fringe movement, but was clearly gaining steam. I saw similar sentiments in other countries.

  3. Ok, that is good news. But a thing that can emerge from this is considerable conflict between a University who may now suddenly want to promote free speech, and campus activists who will continue to deny it by pulling fire alarms or shouting down speakers. They (campus activists) have 0 interest in free speech and even less interest in big donations. But maybe what can happen is that a University might impose painful sanctions against The Disrupters.

    1. It’s simple, if they misbehave in a criminal manner, kick them out, and the others will quickly shut up. Pulling fire alarms is a crime.

  4. Princeton (run by a spineless president) is one of the worst offenders, the recent case involving the classicist Joshua Katz being an excellent example. One of the few colleagues who have come to his defense is the mathematician Sergiu Klainerman, who truly values freedom of speech and, having grown up in Romania, is well aware of how pernicious is its absence.

  5. Also, state legislatures will hopefully crack down on any public universities that are suppressing free speech. In addition, any student loans and grants administered by the federal government that go to public universities that are hostile to free speech should be cut off…that will get their attention real quick.

    1. > state legislatures will hopefully crack down on any public universities that are suppressing free speech

      Doubtful. Equal Opportunity legislation has grown to prohibit things like ‘hostile work environment’, and the court system has reinforced over and over again that primary/secondary public schools can infringe on free speech in order to foster a learning environment. The legislative+executive AND the judicial branches are showing the political will to support suppressing speech in educational institutions.

  6. “Yes, the withholders and the leaders of these groups are often conservatives or moderates, but if they foster free expression without forcing students to parrot their own less liberal views, I don’t much care.” Indeed – Marshall McLuhan was wrong and what matters is the message not the medium. As the protagonist in Richard Bach’s (otherwise bonkers) book Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah replies when accused of quoting Snoopy the Dog, “I’ll quote the truth wherever I find it thank you”.

  7. I’m a longtime liberal, a scientist,and agree with this movement. Things have just gotten out of hand. Scientific research is being stifled whenever the results don’t agree with “woke” perspectives.

  8. This is great! Taking away money will get their attention. It does not look good on an administrators C.V. if donations show a sharp drop during their tenure, and for many of these clowns it’s all about moving on to better jobs!

  9. My prediction is that these donor withholdings won’t do much to solve the problem. The administrators will simply conclude that they are conservatives and have to write them off. It seems likely that the loss of donors will be minimal. It’s just the polarization of yet another segment of society.

    1. I agree that they won’t solve the problem. Does anyone have a solid reference for the economics of higher education? The Chronicle of Higher Education is a great place to start.

      I have seen fascinating anecdotal data, both from personal acquaintances and from educational journals, about the commercialization of higher ed. Articles have discussed sports programs, increased focus on adjunct lecturers rather than tenured professors, skyrocketing tuition, and many many other issues. We have far too many for-profit institutions masquerading as non-profits. Universities will lose donors, but will find a way to keep making money.

      1. One further point: Institutions which do not censor, I fully expect their PC alumni to start curtailing their donations. While it currently makes financial sense for universities to play ball with more libertarian donors born before … say … 1970 (?), pretty soon it might make more financial sense for universities to court younger, more PC alumni. I’m sure universities have financial analysts looking for the tipping point.

  10. I dispute the idea that there’s any “liberal” indoctrination going on… none of these nutters are in any way liberal. Even “leftist” is disputable.

    1. Once upon a time, we used to explain that the Lenin-Stalin police state, and its colonial administrations in eastern Europe, were not really of the Left. And then that Red China, which killed tens of millions in order to establish state-supervised capitalism, wasn’t really Left. And then that the
      regime of the Unified Socialist Party in Venezuela, which has reduced the richest country in Latin America to one of the poorest, and the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua which keeps arresting opposition figures, were not really Left. And now we have to argue that the DEI authoritarians,
      and the students who disrupt talks they disapprove of, and the trans-activist nutters who deny Biology—that all of these aren’t really etc. etc. etc. I’m afraid Nick Cohen settled this matter in “What’s Left?” (2007), which should remind us to treat the words “Left” and “really” with some caution.

    2. > none of these nutters are in any way liberal

      I concur. I am sick of how the Australian Right and the US Left stole the word ‘liberal’ from libertarians. It’s hilarious reading foreign media referring to Fox News as ‘liberal’.

  11. I’m so glad to read that people with real power—alumni and other moneyed donors—are speaking with their checkbooks. Universities will hear these people. More importantly, university budgets will feel them.

  12. I’m just waiting to hear about people voting with their checkbooks for the other side. It’s coming. It’s probably here already, but we’re not aware of it – not in my circles, anyway.

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