A Bitter Lesson for a Philanthropist at Arizona State

By allowing leftists free rein, ASU has lost a major donor.

Many donors have come to regret their financial support of colleges and universities, learning afterward that their money has been used in ways that are not compatible with their desires and often contrary to their values.

The Martin Center’s paper “Games Universities Play,” by the late Martin Morse Wooster, provides a background on this issue.

A recent series of events at Arizona State University (ASU) highlights the problem facing conservative and libertarian donors who want to help higher education without supporting the propagation of ideas they abhor.

Tom Lewis has given generously to a variety of causes over the years. Among them is the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at ASU. His idea for the Center was that American students often need help in preparing for the challenges of life after graduation. To fill that need, the Center ran programs to teach undergrads such things as balancing a checkbook and how to buy a car. It brought in people from all walks of life to help enlighten ASU students.

Once word got out that Kirk and Prager were going to speak at ASU, “woke” faculty and administrators sprang into frenzied action.There had been no trouble with any of the Center’s programs until February, when it sponsored a presentation by three professionals entitled “Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” Those seemingly uncontroversial topics created a firestorm on campus, because two of the speakers were well-known conservatives who oppose the Left’s “progressive” agenda—Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager. The third speaker, a financial expert not identified with any political ideology, would probably not have elicited any hostility.

Once word got out that Kirk and Prager were going to speak at ASU, “woke” faculty and administrators sprang into frenzied action.

School officials were alarmed at having two prominent conservatives speak on campus, and they demanded to know what Kirk and Prager would talk about. ASU administrators made it clear that they didn’t want any discussion of controversial issues. The Lewis Center replied that the program was just going to be about how to achieve health, wealth, and happiness. With that assurance, the program was allowed to go on.

ASU faculty members, however, went ballistic. They denounced Kirk and Prager as “purveyors of hate” and “white supremacists” whose very presence on campus would damage vulnerable students. They were undesirables who should not disgrace the university. Prager even received a death threat.

It didn’t matter that neither had yet spoken and that they planned to address only non-political topics. The Academic Left sees the world in black and white—anyone who disagrees with them on politics is treated like a member of an enemy tribe, fit only for utter condemnation. Might Kirk and Prager have anything worthwhile to say on the subjects of health, wealth, and happiness? That didn’t matter—they were bad people.

Many faculty members signed a letter opposing the event, and they even told students not to attend it. Students reported that they feared to go lest they be penalized by professors for doing so; they asked that cameras point only at the stage and never at the audience, out of fear they might be identified. That’s the kind of fear engendered by totalitarian regimes, and there it was at Arizona State.

You might think that college professors would be open-minded enough to allow the speakers to give their presentations and then take issue with anything they disagreed with—but that’s not how academia operates these days. Listening and then arguing has been replaced with a dogmatic intolerance.

Listening and then arguing has been replaced with a dogmatic intolerance on campus.Commenting here on the radical faculty mindset displayed at ASU, Tom Lewis says that leftist faculty have redefined academic freedom so “they have the right to weigh on any social or political issue inside or outside the classroom and say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want. So they have this superior freedom.”

The Kirk/Prager event went ahead as scheduled, and the speakers stuck to their topics. That should have been the end of the matter, but it wasn’t. The ASU zealots were angry and had to have their revenge.

Ann Atkinson had been the executive director of the T.W. Lewis Center for two years, and no one had ever complained about her work. But she was now part of the bad tribe and was fired from her job. As she wrote in this Wall Street Journal piece on June 19, despite ASU’s official commitment to freedom of speech, the reality is that “nuance is impossible in the presence of ‘wrongthink’; the offender must either comply or face sweeping castigation.”

Atkinson had not complied and thus had to be terminated.

And that wasn’t enough for the woke crowd. As we read here, Linda Blake, the operations manager at the auditorium where the event was held, was also fired.

All of that was too much for Tom Lewis to bear. He recently notified ASU that he is cancelling all of his future support for the Center. Unfortunately, that will do nothing to harm the intolerant faculty and administrators who behaved like the Spanish Inquisition, but it sends a desperately needed message: Bad behavior has consequences.

Lewis reflects on the trouble and says, “Donors need to wake up and realize what they’re funding.” He’s right. Financial contributions to almost any American college or university these days are apt to end up undermining the social and economic values of any conservative or libertarian donor.

The aggressive, intolerant reaction of the faculty and staff at ASU to a harmless and uncontroversial event is indicative of the intellectual environment at the school. It’s a poor university where proselytizing for your beliefs (and against beliefs you dislike) is common and intolerance for different views is a badge of honor.

Arizona State has lost a resource and angered a substantial donor.Wait—isn’t Arizona State run by the innovative and respected Michael Crow?

Yes, but Lewis is not much impressed with Crow. He says in this interview, “On the occasions when he has had a chance to deal directly with left-wing bias and support intellectual diversity and free speech, he has caved into the demands of intellectual vandals. So far on this latest crisis, he has been strangely silent.”

Or perhaps Crow’s silence is not strange. Very few college or university leaders today are willing to risk rousing the ire of the academic mob. They know that if someone as seemingly secure as former Harvard president Larry Summers can be ousted for a remark that displeases the Left, they must tread with care.

There is one more aspect of this ugly case. Suppose that either Ann Atkinson or Linda Blake were to sue the university over their firing. My suspicion is that they would have solid breach-of-contract claims, since their employment contracts probably didn’t have clauses reading that it is grounds for termination if their actions displease their superiors for political reasons.

Summing up, ASU has lost a resource that benefited students, and it has angered a substantial donor. It has lost the services of two capable employees and might face lawsuits. All of that because some faculty members and administrators could not resist the urge to retaliate when they couldn’t have their way and prevent speakers they deemed undesirable from appearing on campus.

And one more thing—the behavior of the faculty has probably alienated some students from attending ASU, since it’s clear that the university puts politics before teaching. That goes on the plus side of the ledger.

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.