Trustees | Freedom of Expression

College president who praised ‘safe spaces’ declared ‘hero of intellectual freedom’

COLLEGE FIX   |  May 30, 2019 by Greg Piper

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni debuted an ongoing list of academics it wants to honor as “Heroes of Intellectual Freedom” on Wednesday, but the inaugural group of five has a surprising entry.

Brown University President Christina Paxson is recognized by ACTA for standing up to students when nearly two-thirds voted to approve a referendum in March that demanded the administration divest from companies that operate in Israel.

The right-leaning group praised her for not just ignoring the divestment resolution – which does not make her unusual among college presidents – but publicly explaining why she opposed it.

The university’s endowment is “not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues,” and Brown’s “role is not to take sides on contested geopolitical issues,” she wrote. She reiterated that she has opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement since early in her term at Brown.

But College Fix readers may remember Paxson for very different comments in 2016. She wrote a Washington Post op-ed defending “safe spaces,” in that language.

Paxson’s timing was either ignorant or vindictive. Her provost had sent a campuswide email days earlier to announce an upcoming series of lectures and workshops on how the community “can discuss conflicting values and controversial ideas in constructive and engaging ways.”

Her op-ed all but contradicted the provost. Paxson wrote that Brown “proudly” offers safe spaces yet denied that college students in general want to be protected from “ideas that make them uncomfortable.” She said students seek out safe spaces in everyday activities, including the campus clubs they join, which is not the common definition of “safe space.”

The Ivy League university is notorious for the Play-Doh and puppy room that it offered to triggered students when a contrarian feminist came to campus for a debate on sexual assault, but Paxson insisted that was an outlier response.

The op-ed made Brown look even more ridiculous than when its students shut down a campus speech by New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly, on Paxson’s watch. Kelly delivered the same speech two-and-a-half years later at a program hosted by Brown’s Ivy League rival Yale.

A spokesperson for ACTA told The College Fix in an email that the group was “aware of [Paxson’s] prior safe space issues” but determined that “her track record in more recent years defending academic freedom at Brown warranted her place” on the inaugural list of “heroes.”

The group linked to a Brown press release about Paxson’s participation in a New York Times forum on higher education last year. She said the university was “aiming for the right of the speaker to speak no matter what,” even in the midst of legitimate protests.

The forum congratulated Paxson for preventing disruption of a campus speech by a mild gay conservative writer, Guy Benson. Some activists objected to Benson because he’s white and cisgender.

The other inaugural ACTA honorees are less surprising. Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver not only twice rejected resolutions by different college bodies to end its study-abroad program in Israel, but then traveled to Israel to defend Pitzer’s relationship with the University of Haifa.

Samuel Abrams, political science professor at Sarah Lawrence College, was honored for standing firm and not apologizing when students tried to get his tenure reviewed for publicly noting the overwhelming leftism of college administrators, including his own college’s.

Luana Maroja made the list for her advocacy of academic freedom at Williams College. The biology professor and Brazilian immigrant took on student activists who cheered for censorship, and refuted their idiotic claims that they suffer “violence” when people disagree with them. Maroja has a new essay in The Atlantic on another worrying trend she’s observed: students challenging basic scientific facts because they contradict wokeness.

ACTA honored Cornell University President Martha Pollack for her nonstop defense of free expression since she took the reins two years ago. She invited the former ACLU president and free-speech activist Nadine Strossen to speak on campus last year and urged faculty to take more intellectual risks.

But Pollack is also compromised. Nearly two dozen Cornell law faculty went to court against the Pollack administration to force it to follow it Title IX rules.

Directly on the issue of speech, 19 law faculty savaged the administration for withholding a Ph.D. from a student for allegedly defending his professor against a female student’s accusations.


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