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.