I wonder sometimes if people like Peter Singer and John McWhorter have that feeling, as I do. For me, it’s a feeling of deep dread, as if I’m carrying a contagious disease and I might accidentally kill somebody by showing up to the places where I’ve been invited to speak.
If you follow the free-speech-on-campus wars, you probably already know that the president of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, David Anderson, has just removed Edmund Santurri as director of that college’s Institute for Freedom & Community.
I know Ed Santurri because he invited me a few years ago to speak in the Institute’s annual series, that year called “Discrimination and the Search for Truth and Justice.” That experience was extraordinary.
While many of my hosts ask me to come speak on “controversial” topics, some bring me in the hopes I will voice what it is they want their colleagues and students to hear. For example, they hope I’ll show up and say that “social justice activism is totally out of control and is getting in the way of scientific progress!” (That’s a problematic exaggeration of what I wrote about in Galileo’s Middle Finger.)
Ed’s approach was quite different. He carefully studied my work and figured out the rawest points of dispute, honing in on issues of transgenderism. He then did what he does with his guests – he had me on stage with him and proceeded to ask me a long series of tough questions. I’m pretty sure you can see me squirming on the videotape.
After that, he opened up the floor to questions from the audience, and the grilling continued for a good long time.
But wait – we weren’t done. I then sat at the Institute’s offices with about a dozen skeptical St. Olaf students who grilled me for another ninety minutes or so. The conversation was, as I recall, transformative for a few students, who wrote to me privately afterwards to follow up with more questions.
Although Ed took flack for inviting me, my visit wasn’t the proximate cause of the St. Olaf president deciding Ed had to be stopped cold from causing more discomfort on campus.
As FIRE reported yesterday, “The lecture that appeared to draw the most objections was by Peter Singer, who has expressed controversial views about disabled people. An appearance by John McWhorter — who has argued some anti-racism initiatives go too far in stifling debate — was also reportedly controversial (disclosure: McWhorter sits on FIRE’s Board of Directors), as was a discussion of The New York Times’ 1619 Project.”
By contrast, at least according to an editorial from the Wellesley News, the terribly earnest student-run newspaper, I was one of the top reasons that college’s Freedom Project needed to be shut down. That editorial promulgated misrepresentations of my positions, which was in keeping with my experience with student protestors on that campus – but never mind the editorial board’s struggle with facts for now. The core problem, they declared, was that I and other speakers had “made students feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”
Most troubling to the students was the fact that I had been invited back a second time to Wellesley after allegedly showing myself earlier to be some kind of emotional terrorist. That second time, I was invited by Freedom Project Director Kathryn Lynch, who asked me to engage in dialogue with Stanley Fish on the question, “What is the point of college?”
Kathryn’s experience does not exactly mirror Ed’s, but I have long thought of the two of them as a matched set. That’s because both of them have taken their jobs as midwives of hard conversations very, very seriously. They didn’t wrap their “controversial” guests in bubble wrap and serve them champagne through a straw poked through the protective barrier. When I visited her campus, Kathryn, like Ed, specifically set up a meeting where hostile students could engage with me directly.
Kathryn and Ed’s goal was, as the St. Olaf’s Institute slogan says, “dialogue that opens minds.”
In fact, in an article I wrote for a forthcoming anthology edited by Luke Sheahan, I specifically named Ed Santurri and Kathryn Lynch as models in terms of promoting difficult conversations on campus. I honestly wondered to myself how they did it – kept pushing when there was so much vitriolic pushback. Well, when I started writing that article, Ed and Kathryn were both in charge of their freedom centers. Now, both their institutions’ administrations have decided to “go in a different direction,” as the suits like to say.
Based on what gets tweeted at me when I ask questions like, “If you think free speech isn’t threatened on campus, why do you think so many good people are working on the problem?”, it appears that a frightening number of academics on the left think that the idea that free speech is threatened on college campus is a right-wing fantasy, one designed to draw attacks on the ivory tower from people like the propogandist Tucker Carlson.
But it’s unclear to me how these folks on the left reconcile this idea – that free speech on campus is just fine, thank you – with what is happening to stop dead the leadership of excellent, upstanding, courageous scholars like Kathryn and Ed.
It’s also unclear to me how some reconcile (a) their notion that people like Singer, McWhorter, and I should be kept off their campuses with (b) their outrage over academics being subjected to direct Republican-leaning political pressure – like the researchers in Florida allegedly pressured to destroy data about Covid vaccinations, and those barred from testifying in an elections lawsuit.
How historically ignorant do you have to be not to see what you’re doing when you try to ban people in all these ways?
As the Academic Freedom Alliance wrote in their statement on the matter of Ed’s removal as director, “This sudden termination sends a clear message to the campus that some exploration of ideas will not be tolerated and that the college’s stated promise that the faculty will have the full freedom to pursue the truth in accord with their scholarly judgement is a hollow one.”
What’s left when this is gone? And is this really prioritizing the educational needs of our students?
Also published today: an audio interview of Ed Santurri by Amna Khalid, an historian at Carlton College.