Philanthropists | Freedom of Expression

Opinion: Force colleges to commit to free speech

CINCINNATI ENQUIRER   |  June 25, 2019 by Michael Poliakoff & John Altman

The University of Chicago’s Principles of Freedom of Expression ought to be standard operating procedure at every college and university. And it is time for the philanthropic community to make it their own operating procedure that there will be no money for any university without its official commitment to a comprehensive policy protecting and fostering freedom of expression.

For this reason, the Altman Charitable Foundation offered $1 million to Miami University of Ohio for its Humanities Center, conditional upon the university first adopting the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression. In fact, that operational rule for higher education philanthropy is now written into the Foundation’s bylaws.

The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, a major higher education donor, has stated that it will be taking colleges’ track records on academic freedom into account for future grants. President Diana Davis Spencer has made the policy direction clear: “Colleges and universities must allow free speech on campuses and encourage students to inquire and question all sides of an issue. Otherwise, democracy is doomed.”

For those who love and support higher education – and that should be everyone – it will seem hard to padlock our wallets. Until colleges embrace basic principles of academic integrity, however, it is the way forward. Admittedly, the gifts of a few foundations cannot change the entire system. But an overdue revolution is gathering momentum.

Why should we do this? Academic freedom is under assault on many college campuses. After publishing an op-ed decrying the political imbalance among college administrators, Sarah Lawrence College professor Samuel Abrams faced scathing student criticism, professional censure, and even vandalism of his campus office.

After Middlebury’s 2017 shout-down of Charles Murray and violent assault on Professor Allison Stanger, one would expect that the penitent college would be hyper-vigilant against any further outrages. But last month, Middlebury administrators disinvited Ryszard Legutko, a conservative Polish politician, with the feckless invocation of “security.”

Paul Levy, founder of the private equity firm JLL Partners and former trustee at the University of Pennsylvania, gave $10 million to the university before stopping donations in reaction to Penn’s repression of free speech. As Levy stated, “Unless the wallets close, nothing will change.” For Levy, in Penn’s case, that means making amends to Professor Amy Wax, who was sanctioned by the University her defense of “bourgeois values” and her skeptical view of the effectiveness of race-based admissions. Levy added, “Since universities today bow before the altar of Mammon, then Mammon’s leaders will have to set the proper standards.”

Some institutions are being forced to reckon with the cost of violating the deep traditions of academic freedom. The University of Missouri saw a sharp decline in private support after the notorious incident when a professor called for “some muscle” to stop a student journalist from covering a campus demonstration. There are credible reports on campus that Middlebury lost $25 million in alumni donations over the Charles Murray affair. Let’s hope the trend continues as more donors exert their urgently needed influence.

John Altman is an entrepreneur, former professor of entrepreneurship and a past trustee of Miami University of Ohio. Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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