Donors: too much say on campus speech?

Colleges feel more pressure from givers who want to help determine who'll be speaking on campus.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When controversial scholar Ward Churchill tried to speak last week at Hamilton College, a number of contributors to the institution answered with a message that's gaining currency from New York to Nevada: not on our dime.

According to Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart, angry benefactors threatened to quit giving if the Clinton, N.Y., college were to give a podium to the University of Colorado professor who had likened World Trade Center workers to Nazis in a 2001 essay. In doing so, they employed an increasingly popular tactic used at colleges in Utah, Nevada and Virginia with mixed degrees of success last fall in attempts to derail scheduled appearances by "Fahrenheit 9-11" filmmaker Michael Moore.

Although demanding givers are nothing new, observers of higher education see in recent events signs of mounting clout for private interests to determine which ideas get a prominent platform on campus and which ones don't. Faced with such pressures, administrators say they're trying to resist manipulation. Mr. Hamilton canceled Mr. Churchill's speech, Stewart said, only after a series of death threats pushed the situation "beyond our capacity to ensure the safety of our students and visitors."

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Yet in an age when financiers increasingly want to set the terms for how their gifts are to be used, those responsible for the presentation of ideas and speakers seem to be approaching them much like other commodities on campus.

"People are wanting their values portrayed and wanting institutions to do exactly what they want them to do," said Dr. Wes Willmer, vice president of university advancement at Biola University in La Miranda, Calif., and a frequent writer on the topic of university fundraising. "They're not giving for the common good. They're giving because they want to accomplish something, and that plays out in the speaker realm as well."

Pressure to reshape the landscape of ideas is coming from various corners. At the University of Nevada, Reno, seven-figure donor Rick Reviglio threatened this fall to stop giving altogether unless the university, which had invited Mr. Moore, would instead arrange for the filmmaker to debate a prominent conservative. The university declined his $100,000 offer to stage the event.

In California and Virginia, state lawmakers helped persuade presidents at California State University San Marcos and George Mason University, respectively, that upwards of $30,000 for Moore's appearance would constitute an "inappropriate" use of state funds on the eve of an election. The San Marcos campus hosted the event anyway, however, after a student group raised its own money to sponsor it.

In the case of Mr. Churchill, the controversy rages on. Since Hamilton's decision, administrators have nixed Mr. Churchill's scheduled appearances at Wheaton College (Mass.), Eastern Washington University and even his own institution, the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Security concerns were officially to blame in each case, although activists who opposed Churchill's message have offered another explanation.

"Everything comes back down to money, and they were worried about funding at Hamilton College," says Bill Doyle, outreach director for the World Trade Center United Families Group. He said survivors who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks had lobbied Hamilton's four largest corporate donors to withhold future gifts if Churchill were allowed to speak.

"You have all these rich corporations throughout the world and the country. Perhaps they'll take a look at what they're funding," says Doyle, especially in terms of paid speakers who "promote hate."

Whether the influence of special interest groups will ultimately help or hinder efforts to diversify ideas on campus is a matter of debate, even within scholarly circles. One camp sees all efforts to rein in speech as counterproductive.

"The best antidote to speech we hate is more speech, not to silence the speaker," said Jonathan Knight, director of the Program in Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors. "If it's reasonable to keep off the campus the spokesperson for the Ku Klux Klan, who is to say you shouldn't keep off the campus somebody who favors affirmative action? Who is going to make these decisions?"

Another group of scholars, however, sees elite college campuses largely as monopolies of political correctness that may need a challenge from certain assertive constituencies to generate a meaningful diversity of ideas.

"We like to encourage taxpayers and students: 'Look, this is your money. You have right to demand that administrators spend it a little differently,' " said Glenn Ricketts, spokesman for the National Association of Scholars. "And balancing the agenda of speakers is certainly a legitimate gripe."

Looking ahead, Doyle said his group are investigating scholars who might promote hate on campus through Wahhabism, a branch of Islam practiced by perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

He added that, having seen how effective the tactic can be, his group would again encourage donors to withhold contributions if necessary to leverage influence over controversial speakers.

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