Wellesley College's Freedom Project, an initiative that promotes intellectual diversity by inviting interesting speakers to campus, could be in jeopardy. The administration plans to tinker with it following criticism from the left that the project is a plot to advance libertarianism, given the ideological bent of its financial backers.
"The speakers are very conservative and libertarian-leaning," one student, Ivana Castro, told BuzzFeed. "They don't bring in the far left."
The Freedom Project is funded by billionaire philanthropists Charles and David Koch. In 2017, it received $1 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and another $1 million from donors in the Koch network. (Disclosure: David Koch sits on the board of the Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine.)
Thomas Cushman, a sociology professor and director of the Freedom Project, is leaving the college for a year. The Boston Globe reports that it's not clear who will run the program in his absence, whether it will continue in its current form, or whether it will receive the same amount of funding:
The shake-up occurred after the Globe outlined how Wellesley's Freedom Project was pitched to conservative donors as a way to break through perceived liberal dogma on American campuses. It marks a significant shift for a program that the political network founded by Charles and David Koch held up two months ago as a marquee example of its campus-oriented efforts.
The Charles Koch Foundation issued $100 million worth of grants in 2017 for higher education, up from about $35 million in 2014, according to figures provided by the foundation. The money funded programs at roughly 350 colleges and universities last year. But the shift at Wellesley's Freedom Project raises questions about the sturdiness of the Koch-backed programs at a time when the organization is aggressively ramping up funding.
"We're noticing a sharp increase in students and faculty who are concerned about these programs, and who feel the urgent need to learn more about them," said Ralph Wilson, the cofounder of UnKoch My Campus, a group that seeks to uncover Koch funding at colleges and universities.
That description makes it sound as if the Freedom Project has exclusively hosted conservative firebrands. In reality, Cushman has invited a wide range of speakers. For instance, the Freedom Project recently hosted Alice Dreger, who is hardly a right-winger; she is a provocative author and historian of medicine whose experience is relevant to the campus free speech debate.
Cornell sociologist Kim Weeden shared her perspective on Twitter:
I gave a talk at the Freedom Project. I'm not conservative, and gave the same talk I'd give to any other student audience. The resulting convo w/ students was one of the best I've had. This is wrong, @Wellesley. @thomas_cushman @joshuaTMcCabe https://t.co/BlxI09Kmk9
— Kim Weeden (@WeedenKim) March 28, 2018
The Freedom Project has also hosted visiting scholars whose lives could be in danger because their views are offensive or illegal in their home countries. Wellesley is apparently interested in continuing that aspect of the program, at least.
College officials said in a statement that they want to "build on this initiative to more effectively include—and better engage—all voices across campus." But the Freedom Project was already making an effort to engage voices that are frequently left out of the conversation in left-wing academic circles. That seems to be exactly what got it in trouble.
The College Fix described the situation as a triumph of "the voices of intolerance" on campus, and it's hard to disagree. The Globe quotes the left-leaning author and activist Diane Ravitch, a Wellesley graduate, as expressing "embarrassment" that the Kochs were allowed to fund such a program at the college:
"There was a sense of astonishment," said Diane Ravitch, an author who graduated from the college in 1960 and has also funded a lecture series at the college. "People were saying, 'Why is the college accepting money from the Koch brothers to promote academic freedom at a bastion of academic freedom?'"
If Wellesley is truly a bastion of academic freedom, it will reject calls from people like Ravitch to purge the campus of any association with people disfavored by the left.