Colleges and universities are increasingly beholden to ideologies that suppress free speech and promote monocultures. The Alumni Free Speech Alliance and its affiliate groups exist to disrupt those monocultures.
It is a tall order to criticize an institution you love and to which you are indebted; speaking out on problems that most others are unaware of (or may prefer to ignore) and challenging powerful academic leaders is no small task. And thus the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD), which I helped found four years ago, took this on with some trepidation.
In 2018, we decided to challenge the status quo at Davidson College, because we knew that the stakes were so high. We had witnessed, experienced, and documented free speech suppression on campus, followed the development of a monoculture that countenances little viewpoint diversity, and observed declining academic standards over the last decade. And so we were convinced that Davidson was at a crossroads: if it continued on that path, we feared that it would lose its status as a premier institution of learning over the long term; but if it would be willing to make course adjustments that set free expression, viewpoint diversity, and ideological balance as top priorities—its future would be secure.
DISCOVERING DAVIDSONIAN MONOCULTURE
I first became aware of the monoculture problem at Davidson during my eight-year service on the Alumni Council in the 2010s. Ideologically, I am a moderate: my conservative friends label me “left of center,” while my progressive friends label me “right of center.” But I found that it was not possible to express views questioning or running counter to the overwhelmingly predominant liberal orthodoxy in Alumni Council meetings. One was silenced with dismissive looks or simply not recognized when seeking the opportunity to speak. This led me to ask, “if elected Alumni Council members cannot speak freely on campus, what about students and faculty?”
So, I made of a point of speaking with students when on campus and with a few faculty members who felt comfortable doing so. What I found was an environment in which open discourse and debate were not welcome. At a well-attended seminar in 2018, students attempted to shout down former CKE Restaurants (owner of Hardee’s) CEO Andrew Puzder in the Q&A session following his address on capitalism, effectively blocking any friendly or neutral questions.
Fortunately, I met up with then-student Kenny Xu (class of 2019 and now CEO of ColorUnited), and we drafted a letter to President Carol Quillen detailing the monoculture, the suppression of free expression, and the declining academic standards at Davidson. This letter garnered input from other founding members of DFTD, and was then roundly dismissed as “uninformed” and “inaccurate” by the president and chair of the Board of Trustees. The rest of the history is outlined by Emily Koons Jae in her insightful article in Philanthropy Daily.
As the alumni free speech movement gains momentum across the country, there are some important lessons from the experience of DFTD and other such existing organizations for dissident alumni groups.
First of all, have the courage to speak out. Remember that alumni carry a lot of sway at universities—but more than that, you will almost certainly find that you are far from alone. Many alumni and students are seeing these issues, but they are hesitant to speak out.
And it’s no surprise. Once you start raising these questions, you’re liable to be labeled “right wing” and to hear free expression equated with “hate speech.” More than this, you are likely to face strong opposition from college administrators, board members, and fellow alumni—ranging from dismissal to overt criticism and personal attacks.
To make your organization effective, you’ll need leaders not only with courage, but also with the time and energy to build these groups. Again: opposition will be fierce—and often will foment an opposite reaction to strengthen the campus monoculture. Oftentimes, however, major donors, former trustees, and other alumni will understand the issues at stake and will be eager to play leadership roles in free speech groups fighting for the integrity of places they love.
Finally, come up with creative ways to make your case. Anecdotes of specific examples of suppressed free speech can be easily dismissed, but you can conduct independent, professional surveys of students, donors, and faculty. Rely on a third-party organization to analyze the results, and report on these findings. Needless to say, there will still be opposition, but it’s harder to dismiss this kind of data, as compared to anecdotes. (That said, don’t hesitate to rely especially on the most egregious examples of free speech suppression. You can use these to maximum effect by sharing them with alumni and parents to show them the extent of the problem.)
FIGHTING FOR THE LONG-TERM
The forces against free expression and viewpoint diversity on American campuses are entrenched, determined, bureaucratically skillful, and unaccustomed to any challenge to their hegemony. Disrupting campus monocultures and carving out a space for free speech will not happen overnight.
Invite more alumni to support this long-term effort with their donations. Other dissident alumni groups have found that dissatisfied alumni donors are eager to help in the struggle and will step up with generous financial support.
One thing you’ll need support for is an office. This battle is best fought close to campus so that the organization’s executive director can work with students, parents, and alumni. Such organizations should not be alien to the campus and its culture: the goal is to improve and transform; not to dictate from a distance. From a nearby office, these organizations can host diverse external speaker programs, provide a safe space for airing free speech abuses, and monitor the state of campus free speech by being present to the campus community.
A final investment: create a vibrant website where you can publicize the organization’s work, garner support, and build some influence. With the traffic you generate through your website, you can also begin to build a member database.
The Alumni Free Speech Alliance—a recently formed federation of these dissident alumni groups—exists to help free speech alumni organizations form and flourish, and provides a mechanism by which new organizations can learn from older ones and for sharing experiences that will advance the free speech movement. The time is ripe for the movement, and I am hopeful that organizations like DFTD and many others will help turn the tide against free expression on our nation’s higher education campuses. The health of our nation depends upon it.