It’s hardly news today when a college prioritizes wokeness and political correctness over genuine intellectual inquiry and a steadfast commitment to the free exchange of ideas. It is news, however, when a college takes aim at one of the few remaining parts of academia that is truly outstanding and emphatically worth preserving. Such is the case at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Arnold Palmer and Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame).
On April 7 through 9, St. Vincent’s Center for Political and Economic Thought, impressively built and shepherded over the past 22 years through the diligent efforts of Professor Brad Watson, hosted what was without exaggeration one of the finest academic conferences that one could hope to find anywhere in America.
The Center—whose advisory board includes (among others) Robbie George, Wilfred McClay, and Charles Kesler—invited nine speakers to its annual Culture and Policy Conference, which this year was entitled “Politics, Policy, and Panic: Governing in Times of Crisis.” Due to Covid restrictions, it was the first time that the usually annual Culture and Policy Conference had been hosted since 2019–and also the first time since Father Paul Taylor became St. Vincent College’s president. Taylor would quickly prove the aptness of the word “panic” in the conference’s title.
The conference featured one compelling presentation after another, all of which are now posted online. It was a rich opportunity for students to hear viewpoints outside of the academic mainstream so dominated by the groupthink Left. Scott Atlas, Jeffrey Tucker, Wilfred Reilly, and I all gave presentations on the ill-advised response to Covid, during which scientific knowledge and centuries of Western norms were often abandoned in favor of costly and coercive lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements. Allison Stanger talked about Big Tech and the threat it poses to our republic. David Azerrad discussed the tension between racial preferences and colorblind justice. Keith Whitaker gave an interesting and nuanced account of the history of financial panics and what they tell us about human nature. Johnny Burtka offered students helpful advice gleaned from great books. And Jacob Howland capped things off by talking about how our “crisis of logos”—our decreasing willingness, or ability, to engage in meaningful discussions about the great questions of our day, or any day—requires our full attention and commitment to reverse.
As if on cue, St. Vincent’s administration promptly confirmed this crisis of logos. After a few of the many students who had attended Azerrad’s talk complained about it, President Taylor and his administration initially censored the publication not only of the video of Azerrad’s presentation but also of the videos of the other eight conference presentations as well, as Howland recounted for City Journal. After being pressured by national organizations that fight for freedom of speech, the administration subsequently relented on posting the videos. But then it promptly took aim at the Center that Watson has built, giving every indication that the administration is determined to make this the final such free-flowing Culture and Policy Conference that St. Vincent College will ever allow.
President Taylor released a letter on April 19 saying that in order to “protect the diversity of opinion critical to our students’ educational growth,” only “responsible opinion” will henceforth be allowed to be expressed at St. Vincent. The judges of “responsible opinion” will not be serious scholars like Watson but rather the college president and his administrative cabinet. Taylor writes, “The President and Cabinet members will now approve all sponsored speakers.”
What’s more, the Center that Watson built and Taylor merely inherited was forced to undergo immediate “structural changes” so that it now “reports directly” to Jeff Mallory, the school’s Chief Operating Officer. Until he was hired by Taylor, Mallory was working as the Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion, and Student Advancement at Duquesne. This is how one kills an academic center without formally removing its scholarly head.
The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says that Taylor’s new policy “could be the most extreme example of guest speaker censorship that FIRE has seen in its more-than-20-year history.” FIRE calls the policy “a brazen violation of Saint Vincent’s binding commitments to free expression and academic freedom.” Those “principles,” as the group wrote in a letter to Taylor on April 22, “bar administrators like yourself from usurping student and faculty rights to decide which views are welcome on campus.” FIRE asserts that St. Vincent’s new policy “could also jeopardize its accreditation.”
A college spokesman claimed in the wake of Taylor’s letter that the administration “will not institute prior censorship of a speaker’s remarks.” Note that the remarks could still be reviewed, however, and even if the remarks were not censored, the speaker could still be disapproved—thereby providing censorship via other means. It’s hard to see how Taylor and company could otherwise have kept someone like Azerrad from speaking—their clear goal—given that his status as an assistant professor at Hillsdale College surely clears the bar for scholarly credibility.
So, what was so objectionable about Professor Azerrad’s presentation that it could be said to justify effectively torpedoing a decades-old center that has been an academic jewel? In his letter, Taylor claims that Azerrad’s remarks were “inconsistent with the fundamental mission of the College,” which “centers around the inherent belief that only when we lift up human dignity can we move the world forward.” Since Azerrad apparently failed this fuzzy test, Taylor says, “I . . . denounce this lecture and am sorry that this happened at Saint Vincent.” Taylor adds that students and faculty should “be inspired to search for truth,” but only if that search will “lift up human dignity.” If the latter condition is not met, then the search for truth apparently must yield. A college that genuinely understands its mission would be embarrassed to suggest that a significant tension exists between the search for truth and the fostering of dignity.
More insight into the administration’s specific objections to Azerrad’s remarks shows up in a statement edited by Mallory and released on April 13 above the signature of Dean Gary Quinlivan. That statement says that the college opposes “any point of view which may be interpreted as a form of invidious discrimination which inherently degrades the sanctity of human life.” This doesn’t remotely characterize Azerrad’s actual remarks, and it is hard to imagine how anyone who listened to them could claim otherwise. (Azerrad’s remarks, as well as the rest of the presentations, are available online.)
The Quinlivan statement also speaks of “systemic bigotry” and implicitly accuses Azerrad of such, even though Azerrad lamented in his remarks that “we were de facto [a society] of white supremacy for most of our history”—a claim he said would be “silly” and “foolish” to deny. And the Quinlivan statement specifically objects to Azerrad’s having “downplayed and minimized the role of several highly accomplished African Americans,” such as George Washington Carver and Kamala Harris, whom Azerrad said “would not be vice president of the United States of America today” had her father not been black.
I agree with Quinlivan that Azerrad was too hard on Carver. Saying, “If he were not black, no one in America today would know who George Washington Carver is,” as Azerrad did, misses the point that a key aspect of what distinguished Carver—who was winning prominent awards before World War II, in an era that was hardly woke—was his rise from slavery to college and then to scientific prominence, despite having been denied a relationship with either of his parents and having faced undeniable prejudice. Nevertheless, Azerrad’s statement is hardly a capital offense. Indeed, if this was the most objectionable comment across some seven hours of presentations by nine speakers, why is President Taylor so intent on wresting control of the Center, or at least of its flagship conference, away from Professor Watson?
As for Vice President Harris, President Biden made it crystal clear that he was limiting his search to a woman, and Representative James Clyburn, to whom Biden effectively owed his nomination, made it almost equally clear that he was pushing Biden to pick a black woman. Most people would presumably agree with Azerrad that Harris, whose presidential campaign did not even survive until—let alone beyond—Iowa, would not have been picked had she not fit the “correct” demographic profile. In any event, Azerrad’s expressed opinion hardly “degrades the sanctity of human life,” the crime of which he apparently stands accused.
Taylor, who also released a message condemning “racism” in the wake of Azerrad’s talk, further opined that Azerrad’s remarks “did a disservice to Fred Rogers, for whom the building in which the speech was given was named.” This may seem an odd statement, but it makes more sense in the context that most of us delivered our presentations within a stone’s throw of the room in which Rogers’s actual sweaters, shoes, and puppets are on display. As a childhood fan of Rogers’s endearing show, I’ll go along with Taylor’s line of thought and take a shot at what Rogers might actually have thought. I suspect that the kindly Rogers, who seemed to value every last person as an individual child of God, would have applauded Azerrad’s courage in presenting heterodox views to a somewhat hostile crowd, likely would have admired the crispness and analytical rigor of his arguments, might have wished he had employed a bit more pathos and a bit less provocation, and likely would have appreciated the compelling words with which Azerrad concluded his remarks:
“The choice before the country, it seems to me, is clear. We either develop the stomach for colorblindness, treating everyone equally under the law, not discriminating, being polite to one another in the private sector—all are equal in America, come what may of the outcomes—or we decide to tear down our civilization in this mad quest to achieve equal racial outcomes by granting unfair privileges to some.”
Azerrad’s presentation was pretty much an embrace of treating members of every race equally and a rejection of affirmative action, broadly construed, which he argued is counterproductive for everyday Americans of any race—no matter how much establishment elites may love it. This is a view that many, perhaps even most, Americans share. The fact that St. Vincent’s administration would find this so intolerable says a lot about the university’s level of toleration.
Even more so, the notion that St. Vincent’s administration would view this extraordinary conference, when taken as a whole, as having detracted more than it added to the college and to its students’ experience, is incredible. It shows evidence of a college in serious trouble and perhaps beyond repair. The sad thing is that, until what seems like yesterday, St. Vincent College had been one of the few places left in all of American academia that had featured anything genuinely worth celebrating and preserving.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans enjoy extraordinary freedom of speech as a matter of law but often limit their speech as a matter of practice, due to the power of public opinion in a democratic society. But the modern-day Left is on a mission to shrink the range of acceptable opinion (“responsible opinion”) to a degree that even the prescient Tocqueville could only have imagined. What’s different from Tocqueville’s day is that the Left’s suppression of speech isn’t majoritarian but authoritarian. It doesn’t represent tyranny of the majority but rather tyranny of the minority. It actually defies the majority in two ways: by insisting that people shouldn’t be allowed to say what they think, even if they hold views shared by a majority of their fellow citizens; and by rejecting the majority’s view that free speech is not only valuable but essential.
St. Vincent College’s actions are the latest example of this larger phenomenon. Whether the college gets away with it—and the battle is not yet over—will say a lot about the state of free speech and academic freedom in America today.