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Dissenters from Campus Orthodoxy By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 06, 2006


In March of 2001, outraged left-wing student activists and “minority organizations” seized 4,000 copies of Brown University’s daily newspaper, The Daily Herald, for the crime of running an advertisement by David Horowitz opposing reparations for slavery. Their intention was to shut down debate on a politically sensitive subject. The result was something else. Instead of suppressing dissenting voices on campus, their act of vigilante censorship served to galvanize them.

Recalling that now-notorious event, known throughout the campus as the “Horowitz Controversy,” Brown alumnus Travis Rowley says that it “opened my eyes to the totalitarianism of the progressive mentality, and it eventually what pulled me into the fight with Brown's campus left.” Leading the fight today is a non-profit organization that Rowley, working with three of his fellow Brown alumni and conservative activists, helped found in 2004: the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity.

Although still constrained by its small size and limited resources--the foundation has four officers, about $5,000 in seed money and $10,000 in pledges from interested alumni--it has what in view of today’s one-party academic culture must be called an ambitious mission: to create an “environment of intellectual diversity” at Brown and, leading by example, at other schools as well.

Toward that end, the foundation hopes to begin a “comprehensive program of reform.” In practice, that includes hosting politically heterodox speakers; supporting the conservative student newspaper, The Brown Spectator; and perhaps in the long-term even spurring some changes in the university curriculum by shifting the focus away from “ethnic studies” -- the fashionable favorite of the politically correct professoriate -- toward a more traditional approach anchored in Western civilization. The goal, ultimately, is nothing less than to change the political and intellectual culture of the university.

While the foundation’s members are conservatives, they don’t see their efforts as primarily political. For one thing, they hope to attract speakers who may not fit the mold of political conservatives -- like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia, for example -- but who nevertheless stand at an angle to the predominantly left-wing academic universe.

For another, they are more concerned with reaffirming academic standards than spiting campus radicals. “Our unifying idea is to reestablish the university as an institution committed disinterested discourse and scholarship as opposed to an instrument for social change,” says the foundation’s president, Christopher McAuliffe, a former president of the Brown College Republicans. (Be that as it may, McAuliffe hastens to add that all the foundation’s members are solidly conservative: “We’re no Lincoln Chaffee Republicans,” he says.) Stephen Beale, the foundation’s vice president, stresses the same point. “We want to counter liberal hegemony, but without stooping to protests or gimmicks. We want to provide a thoughtful response.”

Brown being a largely left-leaning campus, however, some don’t want to listen. In its short history the foundation has already come in for its share of criticism. In 2005, a columnist for the Brown Daily Herald pointed to the foundation as evidence that “Brown University has sunk even deeper into the muck and rhetoric of the Right” and bemoaned Brown in the “post-David Horowitz era.” “It is an era in which progressive activism on campus has slowly withered, replaced by the troubling ascendance of calls for ‘intellectual diversity’ and ‘academic freedom.’” Rather than supporting intellectual diversity, campus conservatives aimed to stifle it by “clamoring for the right to not hear anything that challenges them or their power…”

Stephen Beale finds such objections unpersuasive. “I'm not sure how anything we're doing is shutting down debate,” he says. “By bringing another perspective -- such as the conservative one -- we're making debate possible. Left-wing liberals arguing with left-wing liberals is not much of a debate.”

Perhaps more surprising is that many at Brown agree with that assessment. Occasional attacks from the Left apart, the foundation has garnered favorable coverage from the student newspaper, which published an editorial supporting any “group that aims to make long-lasting contributions to Brown's campus and works to improve conditions it perceives as negative,” and urged administrators to “legitimize the foundation by taking steps to familiarize themselves with its mission and tactics.”

Brown’s president, Ruth Simmons, has heeded the call. In 2005, she created the Brown University Community Council, a university-wide forum for discussing, among other issues, the state of intellectual diversity on campus. Then, in January of 2005, Simmons earmarked $100,000 for a special fund, known as the Kaleidoscope Fund, to bring diverse speakers to campus. In announcing the fund, Simmons specifically rejected any “political or ideological litmus test” for speakers and required only that invited speakers be “valid experts” in their areas. The very first speaker to be invited to campus through the fund was conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, who gave a speech titled “In Defense of American Empire.”

The foundation’s McAuliffe remains skeptical about whether these gestures signal a deeper conversion to the cause of intellectual diversity by the university’s administration. He notes that occasional concessions on the allocation of funding could be interpreted as “a cheap way to buy diversity.” At the same time, he acknowledges, “I think Simmons understands the symbolic importance of the issue.” Stephen Beale agrees. “The administration is making baby steps toward intellectual diversity,” he observes. “But we’re going to give them that extra nudge.”

If its members’ commitment to gradual reform and willingness to work with the powers that be doesn’t exactly make the foundation seem like the springboard for campus revolution, that’s exactly how they prefer it. “It’s a position of humility,” comments Travis Rowley. “We realize that nobody has a monopoly over truth.”

Even so, they can already lay claim to a number of modest successes. Rowley has written a book, Out of Ivy, chronicling his confrontations with the campus Left. Meantime, the foundation has already brought a prominent speaker, National Review’s Rich Lowry, to campus, and has provided funding for The Brown Spectator. Just as important, by acquiring a non-profit status, the foundation has provided conservative students with a model for pursuing academic reform even after graduation.

One thing the foundation has not done is cause a campus-wide controversy, like the one triggered by the 2001 theft of campus newspapers. But then, as the foundation’s members are fond of noting, such stunts are better left to the Left.

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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com


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