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America’s college donor exodus won’t revive free speech

A pro-Palestine rally at Harvard earlier this month. Credit: Getty

October 24, 2023 - 4:00pm

Several donors have pulled their funds from elite US universities in recent days, after the schools struggled to condemn Hamas’s terrorist violence in Israel in early October. Caught between their donors and radical activists on campus, some universities conveniently retreated into appeals to academic freedom and institutional neutrality to avoid picking a side.

But one shouldn’t mistake this sudden emergence of classical liberal principles for a real change. These empty platitudes instead reveal a level of cynicism among college administrators that surprised even their toughest critics. And unfortunately, single-issue outraged donors won’t fix this, unless they demand fundamental reforms based on consistent application of free speech principles.

Much to their chagrin today, higher education institutions have established a rich precedent of commenting on current events — from the death of George Floyd to the Russia-Ukraine war. Among other reasons, universities have relied on therapeutic justifications for these statements, such as emphasising the importance of creating a “safe learning environment” for their students.

So the response, or lack thereof, to the Hamas attacks on Israel might have seemed odd to some. Surely violent terrorist attacks whose victims may be relatives or friends of students on campus would qualify as disturbing the “safe learning environment”. But when universities failed to respond accordingly, it became clear that a radical Left-wing ideology, not a principled commitment to a way of organising an academic institution, was guiding their decisions. 

Given the moral clarity of the issue, donors weren’t slow to take action. Some removed their funds altogether; others committed to using their leverage to demand change in the form of revising the universities’ statements. But very few seemed to recognise the fundamental problem on campus: a flimsy commitment to academic freedom that is repeatedly overruled by a censorious ideology. 

So what does this all mean for the cause of free speech and academic freedom on college campuses? Nothing good, unfortunately. These principles only mean anything when they are applied consistently, and the sudden decision of universities to appeal to them now can only be seen as in bad faith. This reality has led normally pro-free speech critics of universities to confusingly start calling for censorship — or at least consistent application of the universities’ own rules. 

For example, there are calls to fire Cornell history professor Russell Rickford for describing Hamas’s attacks as “exhilarating” and “exciting” at a protest. These vile comments would surely never be tolerated from a conservative professor, but they are nevertheless protected speech. 

The discussion on Israel and Palestine, as with all conversations, would be much healthier if we had freer speech on college campuses. Academic freedom would mean inviting and representing viewpoints from across the political spectrum. Institutional neutrality would set clear expectations for the university statements and discourage activist scholarship. If politicised research were not rewarded, we would see fewer Russell Rickfords on campuses, without ever needing to censor. 

Donors have the ability to break the cycle whereby universities privilege some views over others. But that’s only if they are willing to demand consistent application of academic freedom and institutional neutrality across the board — and use their power to enforce it.


Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor. 

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 months ago

Several donors have pulled their funds from elite US universities in recent days, after the schools struggled to condemn Hamas’s terrorist violence in Israel in early October.
I don’t understand the concept of “struggling” to condemn something. Either you condemn it or you don’t. What they’re struggling with is not looking like a bunch of jackasses who support terrorism by not condemning Hamas.

Richard M
Richard M
8 months ago

It all makes sense when you understand that what they’re struggling with is their own cowardice. Terrified of being the next faculty member hounded out of their careers for failing to genuflect sufficiently obsequiously before the altar of progressive sensibilities.

Having averted their eyes when it happened to others, they know nobody will stand up for them if and when it is their turn.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

I see the author’s use of this terminology as an instance of litotes.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

Academic capitalism has turned students into consumers. If they don’t like their grade they can complain and get it changed. If they don’t like a text book they can complain and get it taken off the reading list. If they don’t like a professor they can complain and get rid of him. If they don’t like a university they can complain on social media and go to another one. Administrators jobs are to coddle and mollify students so that they don’t go elsewhere for higher education. Because these students’ brain-sickly beliefs are never questioned yet always affirmed, universities are now producing righteous children who believe that, as long as their cause is ‘just’, they can get away with any kind of awful behavior.
The Ivy Leagues are the worst because they believe that their students are the best and the brightest, and by default so do the students themselves. Unfortunately, in the US possessing a degree is believed to confer not just intellectual superiority, but also moral superiority, which is how woke ideology has taken a hold of American institutions.

Richard M
Richard M
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

American universities have always been capitalist and Ivy League schools turn away thousands of paying applicants a year. They have no financial reason to concern themselves with the sensibilities of their students.

Capitalism is not the problem here. Its ideological capture.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Absolutely and a failure of leadership

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I’m surprised that more people haven’t spoken up about the issues you raise. They are nearly self-evident in the private sphere. In the state university systems (to the extent that they depend on state funding), I’d imagine there would be more hope for turning around the bizarre woke virus—as we’re starting to see in Florida. And that would affect far more students.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago

Spineless academics have always had a horror of defiant students breaking things. This goes back to the 1960s when S.I Hayakawa, the president of San Francisco State College, became something of a folk hero by standing up to a crowd of shouting, window-breaking rabble and denouncing them from the back of a pickup truck. The public rewarded him by sending him to the U.S. Senate. There is no one in the academy that would dare do that today. They would rather retire on the generous benefits tenure bestows on the compliant who see no evil.

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

“America’s college donor exodus won’t revive free speech”
Maybe not. But if enough people stop supporting Universities, charities and businesses that have gone ‘Woke’ then eventually the organisations will reform or go bust.
Gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo] 
~ a water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often] 

Robert Pruger
Robert Pruger
8 months ago

It’s reasonable to
assume single issue donors won’t change universities’ conspicuous double standards regarding free and vigorous debate on campus. But this pushback is a place to start. Wealthy university donors need to find alternate educational institutions which support free and open debate to put their charitable funds.
There are several NGOs which promote meaningful free speech, such as FIRE and The Fund for American Studies. There are others. Funding such NGOs will provide competition which over time, “elite” universities will feel pressure to address.
The more alternatives college students have for vigorous open debate, the sooner these schools’ administrators will get a back bone and promote vigorous but civil discourse on their campuses. Wealthy donors can influence the move to free speech, but they need to move and not just withhold funds.

R Wright
R Wright
8 months ago

They ignored right of centre academics getting crushed for four decades and they only get off their rears to complain when Israel is involved. Fascinating.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
8 months ago

I don’t understand this. When did it become the business of Universities to condemn atrocities around the globe? Their purpose is surely to educate their students not to make political statements about current affairs.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
8 months ago

Nah, academic free speech doesn’t matter. They have completely dead intellectual cultures anyway, way too late run start caring about that now. Better for them to just pull their donations for good.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

A good start would be taxing their ridiculously large endowments.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago

Sadly, I agree with the author that the current pushback among certain donors signifies nothing regarding a renewed commitment to free speech. It’s a fair assumption that these donors also promote progressive policies, such as DEI and cancellation of speakers having the “wrong” views, in their businesses and by their broader philanthropy.
There’s a saying among mountaineers that the mountains create their own weather. Israel has always created its own politics and it’s often misleading to extrapolate from an Israel-related issue to the broader world.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
8 months ago

I am surprised by how surprised I was by how patently obvious and hypocritical the University’s were by not clearly condemning the terrorist attacks on Israel even if they had hedged on the political aspects of the complex Middle East
After coming out with multiple unequivocal statements concerning so many contemporary social issues from the murder of George Floyd to abortion rights but you could hear a pin drop on the brutal, intentional, mass murder of civilians.

I was a fool to be even remotely surprised. They have shown themselves for the the spineless relativist hypocrites they are
 They can never shroud themselves in quasi intellectual moral superiority again
 They are pathetic and god forbid I ever hide my disdain for them again


Will K
Will K
8 months ago

Free speech is very much in danger in the USA. Mr Biden is largely responsible, with his judgemental preaching about what is good and evil, and his use of the judiciary to punish protestors and political opponents.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

These institutions of supposed education, while remaining highly commercial, have simply become instruments of ideological interpellation for a Maoist caste in Anglo society that some name as woke, progressive or left-liberal.
In that sense, they resemble the Hamas fiefdom in Gaza with whom they have recently expressed an affinity.
The Millennial generation has demonstrated that they would like large corporations to go the same way.

James S.
James S.
8 months ago

“Single issue” donors may become more than single issue, now that they have opened their eyes to how their alma maters have so thoroughly disgraced themselves in their rush to embrace woke relativism. And as with other recent boycotts of Bud Lite, Target, etc., one may have far more effect by hitting these institutions and corporations in the pocketbook than uselessly bleating about returning to classical liberalism. Money talks.

Will K
Will K
8 months ago

Academics deserve as much freedom of speech as anyone else, ie total freedom. They are however tainted by going along with ripping off the American people with exorbitant fees for providing academic ‘degrees’. With the internet, education should be free.

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
8 months ago

Only narcissistic idiots give money to universities. As sure as night turns to day, it is not long before universities begin redirecting and misappropriating such funds for narrow and/or political interests, usually against the express purposes of the donor(s). There would be tens of thousands of former such donors turning in their graves today if they knew what their money was now being used for. I know this from experience, having sat on a board of one such bequest, which was routinely abused by academics, despite my protestations. This taught me a valuable lesson: do not ever hand over your hard-earned cash to a university. Having your name on a building or scholarship is not worth the inevitable and utter betrayal of your vision and values.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
8 months ago

My biggest qualm about ending the woke mind virus is that, if history is any guide, it will be replaced with an equally intolerant swing to the right. Universities just can’t seem to avoid absorbing the shallow immaturity of their customers.