One year ago, I attended a pre-football game tailgate party on the Saturday of my 40th reunion weekend in Evanston, Illinois. Students at the party later complained about my words, and Northwestern University (NU) canceled me without speaking to me. I escalated to the President, the General Counsel, the Chair, and the Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees. Despite my more than 7,000 volunteer hours and over seven million dollars in donations—NU has not apologized, has not rescinded my cancellation, and (I presume) continues to trample the free speech and due process rights of other Wildcats.
As NU Reunion Weekend 2023 begins today, I share my story in the hopes that NU’s leadership will wake up to the fact that the “Safetyism” they are practicing at NU is harming students: teaching them to fear words, damaging their mental health, and leaving them ill-prepared for the real world.
The 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, examines the origins and evils of “Safetyism” on college campuses.
I was honored and delighted to be recruited to the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University in 1998. I earned three degrees from NU and joined Microsoft as a software engineer in 1985. In 14 years, I helped Microsoft grow from an 800-person pre-IPO company to an over 30,000-employee technology giant while building MS-DOS, Windows, and Internet Explorer. As a 38-year-old techy living near Seattle, I stood out from the much older Midwestern trustees who worked in law, banking, insurance, or manufacturing.
My friends used to say I “bled purple,” as I have given over 7,000 volunteer hours and over seven million dollars to NU since beginning my freshman year in Evanston in 1978. I joined the track team, ran the 400 meter, earned two letters, and two Bachelor of Science degrees. I met and married my wife Lisa at NU; she earned her Bachelor of Arts from NU. I worked at NU full-time for two years while earning a master’s degree. Our oldest son earned his bachelor’s from NU and married one of his classmates. I served as an NU trustee for 20 years (1998-2018) and I hosted new student parties at my home near Seattle for 16 years. I met with over 400 students in Evanston 1-on-1 at their request, and I spoke on campus regularly. I also met with over 200 faculty members 1-on-1, as well as many department chairs and deans. Slivka Hall has been home to 140 students per year since opening in 2002, and Lisa’s Café helps feed North Campus. Lisa and I created several endowments to support computer science and undergraduate research.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I received an email in early November from the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer of the NU Athletics Department:
[. . .] several student-athletes reported [. . .] they were upset with comments by you that they deemed racist and/or sexist [. . . .] we ask that you refrain from any future arranged meetings with Northwestern’s student-athletes [. . . .] we also would appreciate it if you do not contact student-athletes directly, either by phone, in person, or through social media.
I have spoken to thousands of NU students over the past six decades—including many students athletes—but this email implies that any words I might utter at any point in the future will be harmful to any and all student-athletes! Is it credible that a 300-pound football lineman or a 6’8” basketball player could be harmed by my words? On the other hand, any non-athlete—say a 98-pound female French major—is presumed to be impervious to my words. Absurd!
No one at NU asked me for my side of the story. When I first caught wind of a complaint (a few days after my reunion), I emailed the coach suggesting a video call to discuss and resolve directly with the student(s). I made that very commonsense suggestion three times and was ignored—a missed learning opportunity for the students and for me.
On the NU website, the “Principles Regarding Academic Integrity” includes “B. Due Process and Student Rights,” which describes protections for students: “written notice of the facts and evidence,” “written notice of the procedure [to evaluate the charge],” “[ability] to prepare a response to the charge,” “a hearing [. . .] the student may be heard [. . .] accuracy of the charge determined by a neutral decision-maker,” “review [. . .] by an appeals committee,” “final review [. . .]by the Provost.”
Why was I granted none of these rights that NU claims to give to students?
I immediately forwarded the Athletics cancellation email to new NU President Michael Schill, raising many legal issues that should have appealed to him, as he has a JD and served 12 years as a law school dean. He never replied.
Three weeks after the November email, the NU General Counsel (also a JD) emailed me:
While no due process procedure is required of the University in this matter [. . .]
- On October 8, during a reception for the Women’s Cross-Country team at Walter Athletic Center, Mr. Slivka remarked to a student-athlete of Indian heritage that everyone should “travel to India to see how poor people really live.” The student expressed that this was not her experience and Mr. Slivka inquired what her parents do for work. She responded that they are both engineers and to this, Mr. Slivka said that “oh, you are a good Indian then, not a poor Indian.” Mr. Slivka then stated that the country smells bad because they burn feces there.
- Slivka remarked to student-athletes from Australia: “isn’t America just the best?” and that “immigrants are taking all of the jobs” in America. He did then express that immigrants are hard-working and that this isn’t a bad thing.
- Slivka also questioned a 2021 graduate on how she already had a baby and commented that “wow, that’s a quick turnaround.” He asked if this was a planned pregnancy.
These are not my words! But even if they were, does the punishment fit the crime?
I have worked with and befriended many thousands of Indians, immigrants, and women. I often recommend that Americans visit India—I’ve been twice for a total of 36 days—as it is so different from America. I have seen people collecting and drying cow dung in India, but I have never smelled it burning. Six of the twenty technology start-ups I have invested in were founded by Indians or immigrants. I am a big proponent of dramatically increasing legal immigration. As for the 2021 graduate with a baby, it is possible that I said “wow, that’s a quick turnaround.” But I did not ask if it was a “planned pregnancy.”
In December, I met with current NU board chair Peter Barris (whom I have known since 1999!) in D.C. He agreed that NU had treated me horribly and that teaching students to fear words was a bad idea. He was in the middle of reading the 2018 book by Haidt and Lukianoff, which describes how colleges and universities are damaging a generation of students by embracing “safetyism.”
And that is my motivation for writing now: the NU community needs to wake up to the fact that NU is harming students—in the name of protecting students! NU is not alone in this regard: in “Stanford’s War Against Its Own Students,” reporter Francesca Block describes how Stanford University’s tortuous “safety” process punished two students (one of whom committed suicide).
It has been nearly a year, and NU has yet to apologize, withdraw its “cancellation,” or modify its policies to guarantee due process and free speech rights to all members of the NU community.
Clearly, diversity, equity, and inclusion has conquered NU. The most recent indicator is that NU is 242 out of 248 schools in the 2023 FIRE college free speech rankings. In April, Professor Kevin Wallsten pulled together this report for me on how NU compares to other schools on ten separate free speech and DEI metrics.
NU students used to seek me out for advice and guidance because of my wide-ranging experiences, including 20 years of technology start-up investing and visiting 55 countries. I also advised many NU faculty members about commercializing their research.
But given my baffling treatment by NU, I no longer “bleed purple,” and my volunteer time and dollars are directed to other more worthy causes. What a shame for current and future NU students and faculty that my 45-year Northwestern connection has ended this way.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Ben Slivka on his personal blog on October 5, 2023. It is republished here with permission and with light edits to conform to MTC’s house style.
Image: Madcoverboy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0