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Several alumni groups are forming a collective alliance to defend academic freedom and mobilize others to fight for free speech, which they say is “under attack.”
The Alumni Free Speech Alliance, started by free speech alumni groups from Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University, the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University, is a nonpartisan organization that vows to protect the rights of faculty and students across the ideological spectrum. The alliance aims to pool ideas and information, promote and mentor other alumni groups, and encourage the formation and alliance of new free speech alumni groups at other institutions.
“Free speech and academic freedom are critical to the advancement of knowledge and to the success of our colleges and universities,” said Edward Yingling, a co-founder of the Princetonians for Free Speech alumni group. “Yet these basic principles are under attack today at schools across the country.”
Alliance co-founders Stuart Taylor Jr. and Yingling wrote in The Wall Street Journal that alumni need to take up the fight because students and faculty may feel “too exposed to attacks to take a stand against campus culture.” Student free speech groups don’t have many members, and faculty may feel outnumbered, they wrote. Additionally, university trustees, presidents and other administrators “are often too timid to push back against the culture of intolerance on their campuses,” they wrote in a press release announcing the alliance’s formation.
“That leaves alumni as the only university stakeholders with the numbers and clout to lead the defense of free speech, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity in campus environments,” Taylor and Yingling wrote in the Journal.
Keith Whittington, chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said the new alliance is unusual because alumni groups don’t typically focus on free speech, and when they do, they are often on the side of restricting speech on college campuses.
“It's fairly unusual to have an organization that’s really focused on alumni and trying to get them to think about the academic mission of the universities and how it operates,” Whittington said. “It’s a welcome effort from my perspective to try to organize alums to think a little more self-consciously about what universities are supposed to be doing and what the implications are for free speech.”
Connor Murnane, alumni relations officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that in recent years alumni -- and the public in general -- have gotten more involved in issues surrounding free speech on campuses.
“Interestingly, it’s the attempts to silence professors rather than students that has really caught the attention of the public recently,” Murnane said. “When alumni see a story about a professor being disciplined for his or her speech, it really raises eyebrows.”
Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which also focuses on free speech and academic freedom, said he was happy the alliance was taking a stand.
“It really has sounded an alarm,” Poliakoff said. “I have no doubt that other alumni groups are going to begin to form and really insist that they be seen as more than a revenue stream, but as the people who will be the voice of the values that helped to form them.”
Poliakoff noted there needs to be a “correction” to the way institutions tend to look at alumni, which is mainly as checkbooks. He said alumni are gaining “self-awareness” to fight for free speech on campus as guardians of those values.
Murnane added that alumni have “enormous potential” to fight for free speech because institutions depend on alumni for word-of-mouth endorsements, and that could be hurt when there are conflicts over speech on campus.
“Much of colleges’ rush to judge and punish in the wake of social media ‘cancellation’ attempts is driven by concern for public relations,” Murnane said. “But for many alumni, this is very bad PR.”
Whittington said that it might take a while, but the alliance could certainly have an impact on campus.
“The concern with donor dollars and concern with the happiness of alums might well lead universities to take some notice,” Whittington said.
Poliakoff said the Washington and Lee University alumni free speech group the Generals Redoubt had already made a strong case for why the institution shouldn’t change its name, which honors Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.
The group sent letters to the administration, arguing that Lee should be honored for his personal qualities and leadership of the university, rather than his involvement in the Confederacy.
“It’s an example of the alumni saying that there was something very important about the way the school was named, and that it should not be lightly discarded,” Poliakoff said. “And we are seeing more alumni who are donors making their voices heard in a kind of a tough love approach.”
Some students at Washington and Lee disagreed with the alumni group, arguing their university shouldn’t be named after a Confederate commander.
“I want the best for W&L, for what it gave me, but I couldn’t continue to be in a place where I wasn’t able to feel like myself or be myself or to face harassment for being who I wanted to be,” Otice Carder told Inside Higher Ed in May. “I recognize and I think a lot of people do that changing the name isn’t going to immediately fix the racism and the toxic culture that kind of envelops W&L, but I think it’s a start if we’re going to make it feel open and welcoming to bring other people in with diverse perspectives.”
And while most experts agree the First Amendment is vital, that doesn’t mean it should always take precedence during campus collisions between free speech and inclusivity.
“When I talk to administrators, I tell them, ‘For a moment, forget about the First Amendment,’” said Emerson Sykes, a First Amendment senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is a community issue. If someone is hurt in your community, then think about the ways that your community can heal. When you’re interpreting the First Amendment in your head when someone is across the table from you and crying, it’s not a good place to start.”
Sykes said he's “frustrated” by institutions invoking free speech rights in response to incidents of racism or hateful speech from students. He believes 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 hurt and unsafe.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated concerns over free speech on campus, Murnane said, given the prevalence of online classes, which could easily be recorded and shared or observed by those outside the classroom.
In a September survey, more than 80 percent of students said they self-censor at least some of the time on campus, with 21 percent saying they self-censor often. The poll, conducted by RealClearEducation, College Pulse and FIRE, surveyed 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 some additional challenges to the preservation of 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 percent said they felt comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor, which is down 5 percent from last year’s survey. And almost one in four students agreed it was acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech, a 5 percent increase over last year.
“We will know when colleges are once again a safe haven for free speech and expression when I am out of a job,” Murnane said.