Philanthropic Responses to the Closing of the American Mind

How Charitable Giving Is Helping Expand Freedom of Expression on College Campuses

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The fundamental purpose of higher education is to provide Americans of all backgrounds the opportunity for advanced learning, foster the pursuit of knowledge and provide training in specific fields of study or practice. But in recent years, ideologically charged threats to freedom of thought and academic inquiry have expanded on college and university campuses across the country under the guise of “diversity” initiatives or policies. Many campuses have become hot beds for a “cancel culture” driven by political ideology that has intimidated students and professors, leaving them afraid to express their views, popular or otherwise.

This truly is the closing of the American mind, then throwing away the key, a mortal threat to the very soul of scholarly inquiry as well as educational and professional advancement, which are building blocks of individual and economic flourishing. 

Fortunately, private philanthropy is well-positioned to help the leaders and organizations who have stepped up to assess and remedy this grave crisis. Nonprofits are mobilizing students, faculty and alumni by providing resources on multiple fronts—from litigation to advocacy to media efforts—to raise awareness about this attack on free speech and association and promote the value of intellectual diversity at educational institutions.

By challenging what has become a dangerous status quo, organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Academic Freedom Alliance, and Alumni Free Speech Alliance are working hard to maintain an open exchange of ideas and critical thinking in our colleges and universities. While others, like the Institute for Humane Studies, are creating alternative models that help demonstrate innovative approaches to higher education. The work of these organizations varies, but each is dedicated to combating an epidemic that is chilling speech and hindering students and faculty from engaging with diverse ideas through respectful debate and discussion.     

A Crisis of Free Speech and Expression on College Campuses

To underscore the seriousness of this problem, one can cite numerous examples from university and college campuses around the country.

FIRE is dedicated to defending and sustaining all Americans’ individual rights to free speech and free thought, with a special emphasis on our nation’s campuses. According to FIRE senior fellow Robert Shibley, college administrators have become “so amenable to unlawful or unconscionable demands that they set themselves up for the many calls to punish or silence students we’ve seen.”

Last year, FIRE partnered with College Pulse to conduct the largest survey ever of college students’ experiences with free speech. Nearly 45,000 students participated from more than 200 colleges, and only one-in-four students (22%) reported they felt “very comfortable” discussing “a controversial political topic” with other students on campus. The survey also found that about three-in-five students (59%) said they would be uncomfortable disagreeing with a professor publicly on a controversial topic, while one-in-five (22%) said they often engage in self-censorship.

Another recent survey conducted from 2019-2021 by the nonpartisan nonprofit Heterodox Academy, which is dedicated to improving “the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement,” found that nearly nine out of 10 students believe “colleges should encourage students and professors to be open to learning from people whose beliefs differ from their own,” while almost the same high percentage of students believe that “colleges should welcome students and professors with a lot of different points of view.”

In comparing these two reports, it appears college students agree that open inquiry and free expression are valuable. However, many remain somewhat fearful of expressing their own views to their peers and faculty.

Fortunately, organizations like FIRE and Heterodox Academy have resources available for them. FIRE’s Student Network offers a community of peers who care about civil liberties as well as opportunities to learn about students’ rights on campus. This year, Heterodox Academy is launching a new Campus Community Network with 23 chapters across the U.S. and Canada, including MIT, UC Berkeley and McGill University. Each community is action-oriented, led by Heterodox Academy member co-chairs from among faculty, staff or graduate students, and charged with hosting monthly gatherings, organizing events and collaborating with fellow campus leaders.

It’s important to realize that students are not the only ones suffering on campus. FIRE publishes a database that tracks when a professor, researcher, lecturer or other individual with an academic position at a college or university is investigated, penalized or otherwise professionally sanctioned for “engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech.” They have documented nearly 900 examples—more than 120 in 2022 alone—of people being targeted by either the political left or right since 2000.

Philanthropic leaders and charitable organizations are stepping up to support organizations pushing back against efforts to suppress free speech and expression on college campuses, as well as developing new ways of fostering open and intellectually diverse learning environments in higher education. They include the Barry Foundation, the Stanton Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Donors and nonprofits are bringing together resources in different yet complementary and effective ways to motivate alumni to engage with their alma maters and their student populations, provide high-tech alternatives to traditional academic forums for formulating scholarship and support litigation that defends professors and students whose rights have been violated and who are facing reputational and career repercussions.

Academic Freedom Alliance: Promoting “Freedom of Thought, of Inquiry, of Discussion”

In early 2021, academics from across the ideological spectrum came together and formed the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) to protect college and university faculty members’ right to speak, teach and publish the results of their research without fear of sanction or punishment. According to the nonprofit’s website, AFA’s purpose is to help scholars “fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers.” Its diverse membership includes socialist philosophy professor Cornel West, conservative Princeton law professor Robert P. George, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen and prominent liberal free speech attorney Floyd Abrams.

It is one thing to state an ambitious purpose, but AFA members have formulated effective strategies. AFA Director of Operations Howard Muncy points out, its members embrace “the NATO-like principle of an attack on one being treated as an attack on all” – transcending any philosophical differences or disagreements between an academic who is subjected to attack and the colleagues coming to his or her aid. To the AFA, an assault on academic freedom anywhere is an assault on academic freedom everywhere.

When professors or scholars find themselves under siege for exercising their First Amendment rights, the AFA will raise funds to support any necessary litigation on their behalf. And it carries out this defense without endorsing any content. In just two years, the AFA has supported 13 cases. During that same time period, it expanded its membership from 217 founding members to more than 700 practicing academics today, a credit to their strategy of refusing to choose ideological sides.

This is also why the John and Daria Barry Foundation chose to help protect academic freedom by becoming AFA’s first donor.

“To carry out their mission, scholars must be free to pursue the truth,” Daria Barry emphasized. “Our foundation helped to create the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) to ensure that professors who are unfairly censored can find a common source of strength by banding together with their peers from across the political spectrum.”

And it’s not only the scholars who benefit, notes Barry. “In today’s climate, the AFA serves to recall universities—and their broader communities—to their first duty to their students: to pursue the truth,” she said.

Alumni Organize to Support Free Speech at Institutions of Higher Education

It takes courage for a faculty member to risk the comfort of his or her position in opposing politically charged attacks on academic freedom – courage which not every professor or scholar who cherishes free inquiry will be willing to exhibit. But alumni are significantly less vulnerable.

With this in mind, graduates of Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University, the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University formed the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) in 2021, allying with the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, Princetonians for Free Speech, UVA’s Jefferson Council and Washington and Lee’s Generals Redoubt.

According to AFSA Chairman Emeritus Edward Yingling, the group is working to establish individual speech alumni groups at colleges and universities, then helping them grow and thrive. Like the AFA, AFSA does not discriminate based on ideology in defending the rights of faculty and students.

“In the current environment of intolerance of thought, our colleges and universities are becoming monocultures. They’re losing their reason for being,” said Yingling. “So our job is multi-faceted. We shine a spotlight on any objectionable actions against faculty or students. … But that’s just one element of what we do.”

AFSA is building a list of alumni across the country who support its mission, extending support to faculty and students so they do not feel isolated and taking part in events with third party groups, including partnerships between the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), Braver Angels and BridgeUSA to encourage depolarization and respectful engagement among students on divisive issues. At present, AFSA boasts 15 member alumni groups actively engaged with their alma maters with an ambitious goal of increasing that number to 40 by the end of the year.

The Stanton Foundation, which primarily educates at-risk children and promotes adoption, provided AFSA with its initial grant. Stanton Foundation Program Director Laurie Slap applauded AFSA’s “thoughtful, coherent approach” to growing its membership and influence as an “umbrella group that is bringing together different organizations,” citing support for AFSA from MIT’s Free Speech Alliance. That organization was founded in 2021 when University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot was disinvited from delivering MIT’s prestigious John Carlson Lecture. The invitation was rescinded following a student outcry over a Newsweek article Abbot co-wrote arguing that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives on campus, among other things, violate the “ethical and legal principle of equal treatment.”

Digital Platform Provides “Intellectual Community Building”

Another nonprofit pursuing freedom of thought – albeit in a different manner – is the Institute for Humane Studies, which supports scholars applying classical liberal principles to today’s most pressing challenges. Ryan Stowers, executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation, which has long been one of IHS’s financial supporters, is excited about its plans to make full use of technology in the fight to promote robust scholarly discourse.

“In the last five years the attacks on scholarly freedom have escalated to a level you wouldn’t have expected,” Stowers said. “That’s a reflection of increased intolerance in the exchange of ideas elsewhere in society. But universities are meant to be above this, to be a safe place where the entire array of ideas can be discussed. Instead they’re now under constant threat.”

“Philanthropy has to think through the strategy of how to fight that threat,” said Stowers, “and IHS has one of the most innovative approaches.”

For more than 60 years, IHS has been connecting scholars across the “humane disciplines” of economics, history, law, philosophy and political science through interdisciplinary programs around the ideas and institutions that underlie free, open and prosperous societies. Economist Emily Chamlee-Wright, the organization’s president and CEO, described the new IHS initiative as a digital gathering place that, once fully developed, will break down intellectual silos and help scholars do their best work.

According to Chamlee-Wright, like IHS’s traditional programs, which will continue, the digital gathering place will attract scholars seeking bottom-up solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges in a context of intellectual humility and openness.

Education has long been central to America’s success in numerous fields from medicine and the advanced sciences to the globally competitive field of computer technology plus law and economics. Defending and promoting the freedom to learn, teach or research without ideologically motivated interference, bullying or other threats is critical to any effort focused on restoring or reforming older higher education institutions or providing new pathways to opportunity.

Through philanthropy and its partnership with these dedicated nonprofits, we are witnessing support for independent, critical thinking on campuses and beyond, including innovative technology that empowers scholars and faculty researchers to share ideas openly, and ultimately, to strengthen our free society.

For those concerned about what’s being taught to our next generation of leaders headed into the business world, government agencies, medical community, and yes, the classroom as educators, we must remember that stifling debate, diverse viewpoints and the ability of students, faculty and staff to engage with them does not create a skilled practitioner, a bold innovator or even a savvy voter. Instead, it results in students being woefully unprepared for the “real world” and without the skills needed to succeed when they bid their campuses farewell.

Thomas McArdle was a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush and is a longtime political journalist. He was speechwriter for Export-Import Bank of the United States Chairman Kimberly Reed during the Trump Administration and was senior writer for Investor’s Business Daily. He writes a column for the Epoch Times and contributes to

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