I teach at Claremont McKenna College. Until recently, the school was ranked first for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Last fall, I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and an article for Unherd documenting the CMC dean of faculty’s attempts to censor and punish faculty for speech in the classroom. Following these revelations, the CMC administration redoubled its efforts at campus-wide control. Here is how a college that once prized academic freedom and free speech loses its way. Similar events are playing out at colleges and universities across America.
Claremont McKenna is home to a program called the Open Academy, an organization “dedicated to fostering a culture of healthy debate, constructive criticism and intellectual openness.” Its charter, approved by the Board of Trustees, states that “CMC has developed an intensive orientation program for incoming students that focuses on both academic freedom and methods and strategies for effective dialogue.” It promises that “freedom of expression will be continually reinforced through all of our programming, including freshman/transfer orientation” (emphasis added). On paper, this sounds good. Yet the very need for such an organization at an institution of higher education suggests the existence of a problem of considerable magnitude.
The college is also home to a program called CMCListens, the tip of an enormous bureaucracy centered in the Dean of Students office that aims to control discourse inside and outside the classroom. An online guide instructs students how to submit anonymous reports “to the appropriate senior staff” about anything “they find troubling at CMC, in just a few easy steps.” Such a reporting mechanism obviously generates “intelligence” of poor quality. That is beside the point. The design conditions students to think of themselves (and others) as minders and informants. No one can be sure who is listening and who is snitching. The practical effect is to place a member of the Dean of Students office in every classroom as a monitor between student and teacher, and, worse, between every student, at any time and place.
Despite the clear mandate in its charter, the Open Academy did not speak at freshman orientation this fall. Its defense of academic freedom stands in the way of cultivating informants. Its concerns demand virtues of our students and faculty that the Dean of Students office considers vices. The organization was allowed only to make a presentation to the upperclassmen selected by the Dean of Students office to help run this year’s orientation. This was done, of course, under the supervision of staff from the Dean of Students office. It did not go well.
In their presentation, the Open Academy representatives accommodated themselves to the reigning power. They acknowledged the sovereign authority of “lived experiences,” asked faculty “to model vulnerability with students,” and endorsed the view that “in rare fringe cases canceling may be acceptable.” But they undermined their attempt to curry favor when they claimed that students might sometimes have “to be brave to remain open” when faced with views they did not share or in conversations they found difficult.
A vocal minority of the student assistants objected, asking why they should have to be brave in the face of speech that invalidates their identity. The Dean of Students office endorsed their objections. After the presentation, Assistant Dean of Students MaryKate Jacobs apologized “for having put them through that.” One bold student assistant followed up with Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Ashley Barton. The student objected that he had come to CMC precisely because it promoted itself as a free speech college, that free and open discussion was not something to be braved but rather the best means to the discovery of truth, and that canceling any speaker was obviously contrary to the CMC Board of Trustees’ and faculty’s endorsement of the Chicago Principles, which prohibit all members of the college community from any obstruction or interference “with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” Associate Dean Barton informed him that the views he expressed came from a position of white privilege. End of discussion.
A total of five and a half hours over two days of freshman orientation were allocated to Barton for sessions on “You, Me, We: Understanding Our Identities.” The Open Academy got zero. Instead, its members hosted two optional dinner and discussion sessions during the second week of the semester that focused on free speech and academic freedom. Even then, staff from the Dean of Students office and other compliant faculty were stationed at each table to make sure that the conversation remained within acceptable bounds. Barton set the tone for those seated around her by observing that when adjunct faculty use harmful language in the classroom, the dean of students can do something about it, a reference to the administration’s firing last year of adjunct professor Eva Revesz after students complained about her uttering the n-word in class while reading from and discussing Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The real difficulty, Barton continued, lies in disciplining those with tenure—i.e., someone like me.
The college’s Athenaeum is a site of special concern for those interested in controlling discourse on campus since it is the primary venue for bringing in or “platforming” outside speakers. These are increasingly perceived as potential threats to student well-being or safety. The Dean of Students office has therefore expressed interest in acting as the final authority to vet who gets invited. This has not happened yet, at least not officially. But even now, those invited face obstacles to engaging freely with attendees.
The op-ed I wrote last August defended the college’s publicly stated principles of academic freedom against the dean of faculty’s efforts to prohibit me from teaching my usual political philosophy course, purportedly because of alleged complaints concerning my classroom discussion of Huckleberry Finn and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. President Chodosh did not thank me for my efforts, nor did he even ask to see the extensive and compelling evidence that convinced the Wall Street Journal and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) of the truth of my claims. Instead, he misrepresented the facts, suggesting that my course had been taken away due to low enrollment. He falsely claimed that I had expressly used “the n-word independent from the reading of Huck Finn or any other text.” He concluded with what I regard as a bit of psychological projection. “Playing the role of fragile victim, Mr. Nadon undermines the values he purports to uphold with false claims.”
Chodosh got one thing right: I am not a victim, fragile or otherwise. I pushed back and got my class reinstated. His smear, however, did confirm what I had learned from other faculty, namely, that the college was acting in response to uninvestigated student complaints kept hidden from me. President Chodosh expressly claimed that the college had “received expressions of concern from students in three separate, recent classes.” I wrote to President Chodosh to ask for the records he relied on in making his allegations. He refused to provide them. Citing California law, I formally requested “any emails, notes, memoranda, video, audio, or other material maintained by any school employee in which I am personally identifiable.” The college missed the legal deadline for compliance, repeatedly. When the college did finally provide some materials, nothing in them substantiated Chodosh’s claims of additional complaints. Yet he presented these uninvestigated allegations to the public as established facts.
Eva Revesz fared worse. In a letter that he insisted that FIRE publish, and written (believe it or not) with the help of a co-director of the Open Academy, President Chodosh selectively quoted from an email Revesz had sent to the students in her class. According to Revesz, “Through the use of misleading and out of context quotations from my email, President Chodosh publicly misrepresented me as an impulsive racist.” Her prospects for teaching have been irrevocably damaged. At least some saw the absurdity of Chodosh’s response. FIRE deemed his letter evidence of just the kind of faculty intimidation he denied: “We are freshly troubled that Chodosh is doubling down on practices that appear to threaten academic freedom.”
On campus, however, Chodosh’s smears are more effective. Faculty are cowed. A tenured professor emailed me to express approval of my original op-ed but told me not to expect public support: “I may potentially have another promotion ahead of me and am too much of a coward to rile the admin[istration] up against me.” Several colleagues spoke with me last fall of the pressing need to discuss the free-speech crisis on campus and the de facto replacement of the trustees and the faculty by the Dean of Students office as the governing body of CMC. They promised to raise these issues at a faculty meeting. Seven months later, nothing. A recent faculty meeting was canceled “due to lack of business.” In September, when an Open Academy co-director was scheduled to give the convocation address for the Class of 2026, Chodosh insisted that she provide him with a copy of her remarks in advance, which she did. It is easier to comply than resist.
Faced with the administration’s bullying, most students are uncomfortable with having their stories told. Even those who do resist hesitate to speak out, worried about retaliation. These are young people at the beginning of their careers. No one can blame them for remaining on the sidelines. But one student who did resist told me that he would not have stood up to the administration’s efforts to control his speech had he not been exposed to the liberating power of the books he read in the political philosophy course that the dean of faculty wished canceled. Chodosh informed another student of just how much he misprizes the kind of “Great Books” education deployed in such a class: “That’s just not what CMC is about.” This is doubtless true of a college governed by a Dean of Students office intolerant of those who do not conform to its mold.
Given his aims and methods, President Chodosh is right to oppose great books. What worries today’s administrators about them is not their purported irrelevance, nor the allegedly harmful language or controversial arguments they contain. It is rather the example they provide of characters like Huck Finn, who preferred eternal damnation to snitching on his friend Jim. What administrators fear is the example that serious authors give of how to think and act and stand up for oneself, the encouragement to thoughtful dissent, and the resolve to say no to all forms of philistinism. What administrators fear is a genuine liberal arts education.
Photo by Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images