The Price of Intellectual Freedom: A Personal Journey Through Vilification

In 1927, Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals denounced those who would forsake truth in service of political aims. Nearly a century later, as a researcher and lecturer at Princeton University, I’m embroiled in a modern-day version of Benda’s tale. Indeed, I have become the target of a campaign to eradicate intellectual diversity on campus.

I was invited to share my thoughts at the Center for Jewish Life on campus, but the buildup to this event was fraught with challenges. Mere days before my lecture, the organizers alerted me to the rising pressure from certain professors to cancel the talk. Standing firm against this onslaught, the Center proceeded with the event and took protective measures.

On the day of the lecture, I was instructed to park at a specific location where two police officers awaited me. The officers led me to the Jewish Center via a back entrance due to the hostility brewing at the front, where a group of sixty students, spurred on by professors, aimed to obstruct my entry. When their efforts failed, they resorted to infiltrating the Center and causing an uproar outside the lecture hall.

This struggle has evolved into a bureaucratic battle wherein radical professors at Princeton are seeking to alter the hiring process for new research fellows. It will no longer test academic excellence, but rather political ideology. McCarthyism 2023. Their goal is clear: to eliminate the inclusion of conservative voices on campus.

[Related: “DEI is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”]

This campaign began with a flurry of articles depicting me as an extremist, far-right sympathizer. But this was no personal vendetta. It was a calculated attack aiming to silence conservative thinkers on campus, a stern warning to any who dare to challenge the status quo. Following these misrepresentations, letters from colleagues arrived, advocating for my expulsion from the university based on my political views. The dissent was not from students but from the heart of the Princeton establishment.

This hostile environment replaced the pursuit of truth with the enforcement of ideological uniformity. The far-left campaign continued unabated—it even included an attempt to cancel my course in the middle of the academic year.

The ramifications of these actions are far-reaching, extending beyond the academic sphere. They threaten the principles of free speech and academic freedom, two cornerstones of pluralism safeguarded by the US Constitution’s First Amendment and the Chicago Principles that Princeton University has committed to uphold.

In the face of this turbulence, I find solace in some brave research colleagues and professors who still believe in freedom of expression, and in private discussions with students who express their concerns about whether independent thought still holds value. This unsettling state of affairs calls for introspection across the academic landscape—how have we strayed from the principles of pluralism and open dialogue?

[Related: “The Juice is Worth the Squeeze”]

Colleges and universities, as bastions of knowledge and intellectual freedom, must combat this growing tide of dogmatism. Administrators, faculty, and students need to rally behind the principles of open dialogue, humility, and intellectual curiosity, allowing schools to fulfill their mission of advancing human knowledge and fostering open discussion.

The suppression of divergent voices is not an isolated incident but a growing issue threatening higher education globally. This crisis necessitates a renewed dedication from the academic community to safeguard the principles that have always been the guiding light of intellectual exploration.

As we face this challenge, we should restore an environment of learning and growth, recognizing that no one individual holds all the answers. Intellectual humility, mutual respect, and understanding are pivotal in fostering a true exchange of ideas and encouraging a tolerance of differing opinions—the hallmarks of an enlightened society.

Image: Ken Lund, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


  • Ronen Shoval

    Ronen Shoval is the director of the Argaman Institute, an associate research scholar at the James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions, and a lecturer in politics at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @ShovalRonen.

8 thoughts on “The Price of Intellectual Freedom: A Personal Journey Through Vilification

  1. “Administrators, faculty, and students need to rally behind the principles of open dialogue, humility, and intellectual curiosity, allowing schools to fulfill their mission of advancing human knowledge and fostering open discussion.”

    That all seems very commonsensical. Who (in their right mind) would stand in the way of advancing human knowledge. I ask you. And yet, and yet… a large and growing number of administrators, faculty and students are (or claim to be) utterly convinced that the principles you aver merely promote and sustain the invisible violence of Western/white ways of knowing, and must be eradicated for the good of humankind.

    These people do not have many ideas, but they are wedded to the few they have – and they do not do dialogue with non-believers. The idea that they should follow “the guiding light of intellectual exploration” is simply laughable. They already know that it leads to Hell and Damnation. If you had not noticed, this is the world’s largest suicide cult.

    And what is the effective response to that?

    The mundane signs within my own institution do not augur well for a return to the ‘good old days’ (such as they were) of “intellectual humility, mutual respect, and understanding” – as my grandchildren are wont to say, Ronen, “Don’t hold your breath.”

  2. “The Price of Intellectual Freedom: A Personal Journey Through Vilification” offers a powerful testament to the challenges faced by individuals who dare to express independent thoughts and ideas. It sheds light on the personal and professional consequences that can befall those who advocate for intellectual freedom in the face of opposition and vilification.

  3. This is so sad and so contrary to the values and ideals that attracted so many of us to serve within the higher education community. Unfortunately, higher education (both colleges & universities and intercollegiate organizations such as the AAUP) often have granted hecklers from the Left a veto to prevent (or punish) legitimate studies as well as heterodox presentations of alternative viewpoints. Indoctrination is trumping education in so many institutions that used to support academic freedom. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in his great dissent (Abrams, 1919), it is only natural to want to suppress the views of those with whom we disagree. Collectively, campus communities (students, staff, & faculty member) have become enemies of inquiry and a diversity of viewpoints. My own experience is another case in point: (7) The Sad Case of David Porter and His Fight for Academic Freedom ( . Collectively, we need to recognize that we are our own worst enemies…

  4. I dealt with this 33 years ago, sadly, it’s nothing new.
    It’s why I will cry no tears when higher ed implodes in four short years.

  5. Fortunately I teach in an engineering department so our guest speakers are not vetted for anything but academic excellence. Princeton has an outstanding mathematics department. I fear that there, and many other universities, in the future math speakers will be the only ones permitted to speak without bigoted professors and students protesting.

    1. No, that’s pretty much what I got into trouble arguing.

      The theory is that there isn’t a single form of math — instead there is White Male Math, White Female Math, Black Lesbian Math and the rest, all of which are different and interdependent upon each other.

      So I argued that if a Black Lesbian in Africa dropped a lit match into a (metal) pail of gasoline, how would what happened next be different from if I did it? I got sentenced to a weekend of diversity re-education for that…

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