Alumni Alliance for Freedom of Expression Tackles ‘Culture Cancellation’

Several groups of alumni are forming a collective alliance to defend academic freedom and mobilize others to fight for freedom of expression, which they say is “under attack”.

The Alliance for Freedom of Expression Alumni, launched by groups of alumni of the Freedom of Expression of Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University, University of Virginia and University of Washington and Lee, is a non-partisan organization committed to protecting the rights of faculty and students across the ideological spectrum. The alliance aims to share ideas and information, promote and mentor other alumni groups, and encourage the formation and alliance of new free speech alumni groups. in other institutions.

“Freedom of speech and academic freedom are essential to the advancement of knowledge and the success of our colleges and universities,” said Edward Yingling, co-founder of the Princetonians for Free Speech alumni group. “Yet these basic principles are now under attack in schools across the country. “

Alliance co-founders Stuart Taylor Jr. and Yingling wrote in The Wall Street Journal that alumni have to fight because students and faculty may feel “too exposed to attack to take a stand against campus culture.” Student free speech groups don’t have many members and faculty can feel outnumbered, they wrote. In addition, university administrators, presidents and other administrators “are often too timid to oppose the culture of intolerance on their campuses,” they wrote in a press release announcing the formation of the alliance.

“This leaves alumni as the only academic stakeholder with the number and leverage to lead the defense of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of viewpoints in campus environments,” Taylor wrote. and Yingling in the Newspaper.

Keith Whittington, president of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said the new alliance is unusual because alumni groups typically don’t focus on free speech, and when they do, they’re often on the side. speech restriction on college campuses.

“It’s quite unusual to have an organization that really focuses on alumni and tries to get them to think about the academic mission of universities and how it works,” said Whittington. “It’s a welcome effort from my perspective to try to organize alumni to think a little more consciously about what universities are supposed to do and what the implications are for free speech.”

Connor Murnane, head of alumni relations at the Individual Rights in Education Foundation, said that in recent years alumni – and the public in general – have become more involved in issues related to freedom of expression on campus.

“Interestingly, it’s the attempts to silence professors rather than students that have really caught the public’s attention recently,” Murnane said. “When former students see a story about a professor sanctioned for his speech, it really raises eyebrows. “

Michael Poliakoff, chairman of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which also focuses on free speech and academic freedom, said he was happy the alliance is taking a stand.

“It really sounded the alarm,” Poliakoff said. “I have no doubt that other groups of alumni will start to form and really insist that they be seen as more than a source of income, but as the people who will be the voice of the values ​​that have contributed. to train them. “

Poliakoff noted that there has to be a “correction” to the way institutions tend to view alumni, who are primarily like check books. He said alumni gain a “self-awareness” to fight for free speech on campus as custodians of these values.

Murnane added that alumni have “enormous potential” to fight for freedom of speech, as institutions depend on alumni for word of mouth, and this could be hurt if there are any conflicts of expression on the campus.

“Much of the college rush to judge and punish over social media ‘quashing’ attempts is driven by public relations concerns,” Murnane said. “But for a lot of alumni, that’s a really bad PR.”

Whittington said it could take a while, but the alliance could certainly have an impact on campus.

“The concern about donor money and the concern about alumni happiness may well lead universities to take note,” Whittington said.

Poliakoff said the University of Washington and Lee’s free speech group Generals Redoubt had already made a strong case for why the institution should not change its name, which honors the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

The group sent letters to the administration, arguing that Lee should be honored for his personal qualities and leadership in the university, rather than for his involvement in Confederation.

“This is an example of alumni saying that there was something very important about the way the school was named, and that it shouldn’t be tossed around lightly,” Poliakoff said. “And we’re seeing more alumni who are donors making their voices heard in some kind of hard love approach.”

Some Washington and Lee students disagreed with the alumni group, arguing that their university should not be named after a Confederate commander.

“I want the best for W&L, for what he gave me, but I couldn’t continue to be in a place where I couldn’t feel or be myself or deal with the harassment for be who I wanted to be, ”said Otice Carder Inside higher education in May. “I recognize and think a lot of people think changing the name isn’t going to immediately correct the racism and toxic culture that sort of envelopes W&L, but I think it’s a start if we want it to feel open. and welcoming to bring in other people with diverse perspectives.

And while most pundits agree that the First Amendment is vital, that doesn’t mean it should always take precedence during campus collisions between free speech and inclusiveness.

“When I talk to administrators, I tell them, ‘For a moment, forget the First Amendment,’ said Emerson Sykes, senior First Amendment lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s a community problem. If someone is hurt in your community, think about ways your community can heal. When you’re interpreting the First Amendment in your head when someone is in front of you and cries, that’s not a good place to start.

Sykes said he was “frustrated” by institutions invoking the right to free speech in response to incidents of racism or hate speech by students. He thinks it’s a way for administrators to say “Our hands are tied” and shirk their responsibility to respond meaningfully to such incidents, which can leave students of color, in particular, feeling injured and in danger.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated concerns about free speech on campus, Murnane said, given the prevalence of online classes, which could easily be recorded and shared or watched by people outside of the classroom.

In a September poll, over 80% of students reported self-censorship at least some of the time on campus, and 21% reported self-censorship often. The survey, conducted by RealClearEducation, College Pulse and FIRE, interviewed more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges.

The fact that students are now back to engaging in person after a year and a half of online learning presents additional challenges for preserving free speech, Murnane said. The survey found that more than half of students identify racial inequality as “a difficult topic” to discuss on their campuses, and only 40% said they felt comfortable publicly disagreeing with it. a professor, which is down 5% from last year’s survey. And nearly one in four students agreed it was okay to use violence to stop speech on campus, a 5% increase from last year.

“We will know when colleges are once again a safe haven for free speech and expression when I am unemployed,” Murnane said.

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