To join, the groups must hold freedom of speech, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity as primary missions, said Edward Yingling, president of the alliance and one of the founders of Princetonians for Free Speech. “There’s a feeling that a lot of universities are losing their way. … There’s very little diversity of thought.”
The alumni groups vary in size, character and sophistication. And some have distinctly conservative roots, even if they are now seeking to ensure that all viewpoints are represented. One of the first to organize, the Generals Redoubt, has been fighting to preserve the traditions of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., an idea echoed by graduates at some nearby colleges with long and complicated histories such as the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia.
Tom P. Rideout, president of Generals Redoubt, said while preserving Lee’s legacy at the school is one of the group’s priorities, free speech is “the big ongoing issue where we will be spending more and more time as we go along.”
Drewry Sackett, a spokeswoman for Washington and Lee, said that while there is an official advisory board that represents alumni, graduates have formed several interests groups in recent years. Sackett said the university is fortunate to have alumni engaged and “we welcome civil and productive dialogue about issues impacting our campus.”
At other schools, the battles have been more focused on whether faculty and students can speak freely, and grapple with ideas across the political spectrum, or if some topics have become too charged to even discuss.
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The groups’ founders argue that only alumni have the numbers and clout to lead the fight for free speech at universities — an urgent rebellion against what they see as a growing orthodoxy on campuses, with faculty and students canceling opposing views, afraid to speak freely, and threatening the inquiry and debate that are central to academia.
Critics say some of the groups don’t speak for most on campus, and are using the issue of free speech to hold back change that’s long overdue — especially on issues of race and identity.
Brandon Hasbrouck, an associate professor of law at Washington and Lee, who has argued that the school should be renamed, said conservative students debate things in his classes and aren’t silenced by classmates or faculty.
“I see the false narrative being created, then being embraced, and then being organized around,” he said. “Fundamentally, we should be questioning the narrative itself.”
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At U-Va., the president of such an alumni group, the Jefferson Council, was recently appointed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to join the university’s board of visitors — significantly amplifying the group’s voice and clout.
“The pendulum,” said Bert Ellis, the new board appointee and an entrepreneur, “is swinging back.”
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Some alumni groups were sparked by a flash point on campus, such as speakers or professors generating backlash for their views.
Princetonians for Free Speech has been outspoken in opposing the firing of a professor for failing to cooperate with a sexual-misconduct investigation; his supporters say it was retaliation for statements he made.
Some groups pointed to surveys of students and faculty indicating self-censorship, and other concerns. A study released by the Knight Foundation and Ipsos earlier this year found that a growing majority of college students believe their campus climate stifles free speech: In 2016, almost three-fourths of students felt free-speech rights were secure, the study found, but now less than half do.
Leaders with the national alliance say it is hoping to create something more powerful, and lasting, than a typical alumni letter-writing campaign or petition that flares up and quickly dies away. National free-speech advocacy groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Academic Freedom Alliance and Heterodox Academy have offered advice, support, coordination and some individual programs such as sponsored debates.
It’s too early to know how effective those efforts will be. But while many alumni groups have just been taking the initial steps to form nonprofits in recent months, some are now plunging into efforts such as hiring employees, paying for surveys, sending frequent newsletters to increase scrutiny of university decisions, and calling on institutions to adopt the Chicago Principles — guidelines written by leaders at the University of Chicago to emphasize the school’s commitment to unlimited debate, since adopted by scores of other universities. Some, like the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, have welcomed faculty and students. The Open Discourse Coalition at Bucknell provides grants to students as well as faculty.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the MIT Free Speech Alliance formed last fall after Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago was disinvited from giving a prestigious public talk amid the backlash over an op-ed he co-authored in Newsweek about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on university campuses.
The school’s provost at the time explained to faculty that the annual event is intended as outreach, featuring a scientist and role model, and that Abbot was asked to speak another time to faculty and students on campus. Abbot gave a lecture about planetary science at MIT in May.
But the controversy quickly became a national issue, and spurred alumni such as Jim Rutt, a former chief executive, past chairman of the Santa Fe Institute and current podcast host, to act.
Rutt, who described himself as politically progressive and the MIT Free Speech Alliance as staunchly bipartisan, said he was shocked and angry when he learned that some MIT faculty members had said their voices were increasingly constrained on campus. “Something was fundamentally wrong,” he said.
The group recently received a $500,000 two-year grant from the Stanton Foundation, and is hiring an executive director, hoping to work with student groups and bring in speakers. They are launching a membership drive, and a donor-advised fund channeling donations to free-speech programs that apply for grants.
The organization plans to host a debate on campus this fall on whether diversity, equity and inclusion practices and policies are inconsistent with the principles of merit, fairness and equality. And they established a sort of free-speech hotline that allows people to report claims of violations and seek help.
“This will show people that there is a constituency for free speech,” Rutt said, “and it is now safe to bring your head up.”
Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for MIT, said the school’s alumni association is aware of the group “and has been engaged with them cordially and in a spirit of respect since their founding.” She said the university is grateful for each of its nearly 145,000 living alumni, and respects that there “are a range of views across that group on any number of topics.”
At some schools, officials have been privately dismissive of the groups, saying the older alumni are out of touch.
But many of the groups say they have been working to ensure they are open to all, and to diversify their own ranks — and that while concerns may have started with conservatives, they see a growing number of people across the spectrum upset by what they see as an entrenched intellectual conformity and intolerance.
“I would really emphasize we are not political,” said George Kurzon, a leader of the newly formed Harvard Alumni for Free Speech. “We are not conservative or liberal. All sides are welcome to the free speech work.”
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While these issues spark tensions everywhere, they are particularly fraught at U-Va. in the years since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought torch-bearing extremists onto campus.
Some alumni are talking about these lofty ideals, such as academic freedom, free speech, free inquiry, freedom of expression, said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at U-Va. “But some of their some of their fights feel pretty far from that.”
Ellis, the Jefferson Council president, said he was shocked by a sign cursing the University of Virginia that a student posted nearly two years ago on her door to one of the rooms on the school’s historic Lawn. After trying to talk with the student — and bringing a boxcutter to take down the sign if she had not been home — he and other alumni later formed the council to preserve some of the school’s history and traditions, and fight for free-speech issues.
Ellis has said the Jefferson Council supports the student’s right to say or post anything, but not on the Lawn that Thomas Jefferson designed, a part of U-Va. designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But not all are convinced. “What they seem to actually be protecting is a version of right-wing ideology that is framed as free speech — and framed as neutral when it is not neutral,” Woolfork said.
“If there is one thing that is common to every university in the world, it is alumni who believe their school started going downhill after they graduated,” Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at U-Va., wrote in an email. But he said the facts belie that, as the highly regarded university attracts “diverse and talented students from all over the globe” and continues to lead on important issues through education and research. After more than 50 years in the U-Va. community, he said he is “incredibly proud of the progress we have made during that time and excited about what the future holds.”
U-Va. spokesman Brian Coy said they have undertaken numerous initiatives in recent years tackling free speech and intellectual diversity issues, such as launching a general education curriculum that includes classes designed to get students debating ideas respectfully. U-Va.’s president, James Ryan, has spoken and written about the need to be “empathetic speakers and generous listeners,” and to engage with unfamiliar ideas among the diverse range of people on campus — a place that is very different than it was when only White men were allowed to study there.
U-Va.’s board of visitors adopted a statement on free expression and free inquiry last summer, emphasizing that “all views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard, free from interference,” a commitment central to the school’s mission.
But Ellis and others still see problems, with some viewpoints unwelcome or canceled. When the Jefferson Council tried to place an ad in the alumni magazine praising Jefferson and noting some scholarship rejected the claim that he had children with Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson, the ad was rejected.
Coy said the Alumni Association is a separate entity from the university and that it has a policy against running ads that are “overly political or controversial.”
Ellis said the council has more than 700 members.
U-Va. has about 250,000 living alumni.
Ellis said there are groups that think anything goes in public discourse, so they vilify people, or drown them out by yelling and screaming, pushing them to leave rather than arguing their position.
They are The Jefferson Council is using some donated funds to bring speakers to campus, partnering with the conservative student group the Young Americans for Freedom, as they did this spring with former vice president Mike Pence.
“There are lots of groups that disagree with us” on campus, Ellis said. That’s why he believes the Jefferson Council needs to “get bigger and bigger, be vocal ourselves.”
James A. Bacon, a spokesman for the council, said sparking real cultural change will be difficult. But with Ellis’s board appointment, he said, “we feel like we’re going to be getting some traction.”
Now, Ellis said, “We have their attention.”