Conservatives (Don’t) Protest Leftist Academic Freedom Conference

News of the University of Oregon’s October 14 conference on academic freedom sparked a furor. The lineup of conference speakers was totally unbalanced politically, made up entirely of leftists and radicals. Because of the format, there would be no opportunities for tough questions from the press or for debate with conservatives. As a result, dozens of conservative academics wrote to the university demanding that the conference be canceled or reorganized. Several pointed out that conference speakers would be promoting race-based “diversity” ideology as well as affirmative action programs, both of which were thin covers for anti-white and anti-Asian racism.

“While we respect the rights of free speech and academic freedom, both are meant to encourage debate and discussion that can test those assertions,” more than thirty conservative professors from a variety of fields said in a statement asking the University of Oregon to cancel or distance itself from the conference. “The organizers have in fact gone out of their way to create a hermetically-sealed event, safe from any and all meaningful debate, filled with self-affirmation and self-congratulation, an event where racism is given shelter and immunity.”

Even after organizers scrambled to include a few token conservatives, the right-wing critics of the conference, in the words of one, still “objected to the lopsidedness of the program. The organizers placed them on panels where it was clear they were there only as tokens.”

Republican legislators, echoing the demands of hundreds of conservative academics in Oregon, expressed the need to impose controls on the university to prevent such lopsided and racist conferences. Given the provocative nature of the conference speakers, it was perhaps understandable that conservative and Republican members of the public felt unsafe and that the organizers were subject to threats and intimidation on social media.

[Related: “Be Quiet So You Can Hear the Free Speech at Yale”]

The virulent conservative attacks on the academic freedom conference confirmed the worst fears of the organizers, namely that academic freedom in the United States was mainly under assault from the political Right. As one of the organizers noted: “The perils university faculty face today are especially acute, including sanctions from legislators and donors, social media harassment, violent threats, and other forms of intimidation.”

Michael Dreiling, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, echoed those sentiments during a hard-hitting interview by the right-leaning Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Caricatures of the university as a hyper-liberal space,” he averred, are so much nonsense. The reality is that universities are “complex,” which means that a wide variety of viewpoints is always available on campus. He warned against “state-sanctioned partisan censorship” of academic research and teaching, which is now rampant. “Hyperpartisan threats, especially from the far right, to academic freedom,” he said, were the main obstacle to free speech on campus—the conservative reaction to the conference was evidence of this. “There is a backlash happening on a broad scale,” he warned, which the freedom-loving campus academics dutifully fought against. Thankfully, American colleges and universities remained Athenian schools of open debate, viewpoint diversity, and free speech.

Lori Latrice Martin, professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University, told the same tough interviewer from Oregon Public Broadcasting that threats to academic freedom were particularly acute for “black scholars who do research on race.” The conservative “assault on critical race theory” in colleges and universities, she added, was tantamount to an assault on “anything remotely connected to discussions of the history of race relations in America.” If not for conferences like the University of Oregon gathering, she implied, black scholars would have a hard time getting hired and black studies departments would probably be shut down. Books on African American studies would probably be purged under pressure from conservatives.

Despite the incredible pressures, the Oregon conference went ahead, reminding attendees, if they did not know already, that the political Left remains the sacred heart of a free society and a free academy.

[Related: “Schools of Intellectual Freedom: Coming to a University Near You?”]

In stark contrast, an academic freedom conference scheduled at Stanford University on November 4–5, featuring a lineup of mainly conservative and classical liberal speakers, did not attract any criticism. Academics at Stanford, proving yet again that the Left is the bastion of free speech and academic freedom, welcomed the conference, noting the importance of listening to a variety of viewpoints. David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford, a well-known defender of free speech and viewpoint diversity, did not Tweet of the conference: “Only right wingers were invited: Climate deniers, COVID misinformers, racist trolls.” Nor did he Tweet: “What a joke of a ‘conference’ & featuring racist troll Amy Wax. File under gutless snowflakes.”

Yet again, academic freedom is saved by the political Left.


Image: Adobe Stock

Bruce Gilley

Bruce Gilley is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ph.D. Program in Public Affairs and Policy at the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, and President of the Oregon Association of Scholars. His research centers on comparative and international politics and public policy. His work covers issues as diverse as democracy, climate change, political legitimacy, and international conflict. He is a specialist on the politics of China and Asia.

8 thoughts on “Conservatives (Don’t) Protest Leftist Academic Freedom Conference

  1. Not sure what the point of this “satire” is supposed to be. That academic and other conservatives should have been more critical of the Oregon conference? I had not been aware of its existence — unlike the Hoover gathering at Stanford. The Oregon production — all zoom? — seems to have just been a small echo chamber. I doubt that anyone among the Oregon Republicans cared, or even was aware. If that is the point of the article, I hardly blame the critics of the Hoover production.

    1. Jonathan, I think the point was that when leftists gather to warn about the threats to their academic freedom from the right, the right says nothing. When rightists gather to warn about the threats to their academic freedom from the left, the left goes postal. So which side is the greater threat?

    2. If someone is complaining that they don’t understand satire, they usually are on the wrong side of the issue.

      Not surprising to see concern trolling from the resident concern troll.

  2. What was so terrifying about the infamous Tiki Torch Parade?

    Other than they were literally playing with fire (Tiki Torches are ABSOLUTELY not supposed to be moved when lit!) what exact harm did they do? It was an empty field at night.

    No the fear is that the right might actually do something.

    ,

  3. My congratulations to you, Prof. Gilley, on this most excellent piece of satire. You actually had me convinced of its sincerity until the end up of the penultimate paragraph.

    To be fair, I should have known from the moment you linked to the Stalinist rogues gallery over at academeblog as a legitimate authority of anything other than certifiable lunacy.

  4. Anyone who says today’s universities are bastions of academic freedom and free speech is either blissfully ignorant or an unapologetic liar (maybe both). Conservative speakers on campuses throughout the country are routinely disrespected, harassed, protested and subject to calls for their talk to be canceled—from both students and faculty.

    A one further thing. When Lori Martin talked about “black scholars who do research on race”, I couldn’t help laughing. Womens studies and ethnic studies are faux academic fields created out of whole cloth. There is no “research” conducted in those fields, only new wording of the same old grievances about oppression.

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