The latest outrage over college students unfolded like some sort of play we are forced to watch over and over again. In the latest scenario, students at Lewis and Clark Law School protested controversial “libertarian feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers’ lecture (most of which Sommers managed to complete). The clash resulted in Sommers immediately going on the offensive on Twitter.
The usual crew of anti-PC pundits—Jonathan Chait, David Frum, Jonah Goldberg—jumped to Sommers’ defense. Then, like clockwork, New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss wrote a column about how the incident was a threat to free speech. “Yes, these future lawyers believe that free speech is acceptable only when it doesn’t offend them,” Weiss writes. “Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.” The next day she was invited to speak on Morning Joe, where she was permitted to reassert her views unchallenged.
“This issue really matters,” Weiss told Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. “Not just because it’s a few overzealous students, but because what happens on college campuses we’ve clearly seen over the decades informs the broader culture. These are the people that go to these schools that are going to be the future senators, the future CEOs, the future leaders of this country.”
Chait, who is often hammered by progressives for fixating on student protests rather than more pressing threats to free speech, tweeted this:
And New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks couldn’t help but chime in today with a column in which he suggested students should take courses in revolutions and constitutionalism.
Many have handily dismantled the hypocrisy behind Weiss’s arguments; she was a well-known campus activist herself who attacked Arab professors and scholars critical of Israel. But let’s imagine that Weiss and Chait are acting in good faith, and that they’re right about the outsize influence of universities on ideological issues. The problem is that they’re still focusing on the wrong villains. One look into campus activism over the last few decades shows that the threat to free speech isn’t coming from students, but from right wing donors.
Take, for example, this most recent incident at Lewis and Clark. Sommers didn’t appear on campus out of nowhere—she was invited to speak by the Federalist Society, a national organization of conservative lawyers with chapters in universities around the country. The Federalist Society is underwritten by right wing foundations like those of the Kochs, Scaifes, and Mercers. Leonard Leo, a longtime member of the Federalist Society who now serves as its executive vice president, told The New Yorker last year that he sought to “figure out how to develop what I call a ‘pipeline’—basically, where you recruit students in law school, you get them through law school, they come out of law school, and then you find ways of continuing to involve them in legal policy.” Most recently, one of the society’s favored judges, conservative and Constitutional originalist Neil Gorsuch, became a Supreme Court justice.
The Federalist Society is but one example of how wealthy, right wing donors have invested to make academia—and thus the country—more conservative over the decades. Influencing universities is one part of a three-pronged strategy that Richard Fink, one of the Koch brothers’ closest advisers, developed entitled “The Structure of Social Change.” It’s a theory that the Kochs have clearly followed; between 2005 and 2015, their foundation has spent more than $144 million on universities, to seed research centers and free-market think tanks, according to an analysis by Greenpeace.
One wealthy donor, industrialist John Olin, actually began investing in colleges in reaction to one of the country’s more famous student protests, in which armed black civil rights student protesters occupied a building at Cornell University, which he saw as a troubling example of universities moving away from pro-business ideology. As journalist Jane Mayer writes, “By the time the John M. Olin Foundation spent itself out of existence in 2005, as called for in its founder’s will, it had spent about half of its total assets of $370 million bankrolling the promotion of free-market ideology and other conservative ideas on the country’s campuses.”
And it’s not just private money injecting libertarian ideals on campuses. In recent years, conservative state legislators in Arizona have appropriated money directly from the state budget to fund “freedom schools” within Arizona State University and University of Arizona, both public schools. Programs at both universities fold in initiatives funded by the Koch network.
So when it comes to what is taught on college campuses today, it’s clear that wealthy donors exert much more influence than the student activists supposedly suppressing free speech. The same goes for which professors and academics have flourished.
Take Florida State University, which in 2014 came under fire when the Center for Public Integrity’s Dave Levinthal obtained documents showing that when the Charles Koch Foundation was considering donating millions to the university in 2007, they wanted certain strings to be attached. This included partial control of faculty hires and assurances that Bruce Benson, a libertarian economist, would stay on as chairman of the economics department for three more years.
Benson told the Center for Public Integrity that the documents were only the “early stages of discussion” before any deal was finalized. But as Levinthal wrote at the time, the funding agreement that started in 2009 “has earned Florida State $1 million through April, according to the university. Until it was revised in 2013, an advisory board would consult with the Charles Koch Foundation to select faculty members funded by the foundation’s money.”
This is not even to enumerate the various ways in which the state has suppressed free speech over the past few years, including at college campuses, which Slate’s Jamelle Bouie outlined in detail.
Pundits like Weiss, Chait, and Brooks fundamentally misunderstand the real threat to academia. They choose to evaluate student protests as if they are happening in an ahistorical vacuum. But, as in the case of Sommers’ lecture, these student protests are better seen as a symptom of wealthy, conservative donor influence that has transformed our campuses over the last few decades. Obfuscating this fact only concedes more ground to the right’s mission.