by James A. Bacon
Jason Riley is an African-American editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page who opines on the condition of black America from a conservative perspective. He receives roughly 15 invitations a year to speak on college campuses on issues ranging from police shootings, the Black Lives matter movement and mass incarceration. One such invitation came recently from Virginia Tech. Here’s what happened:
Last month I was invited by a professor to speak at Virginia Tech in the fall. Last week, the same professor reluctantly rescinded the invitation, citing concerns from his department head and other faculty members that my writings on race in the Wall Street Journal would spark protests. Profiles in campus courage.
This incident follows close on the heels of a move to dis-invite controversial conservative sociologist Charles Murray that was blocked by President Tim Sands. (See “A Small Victory for Academic Freedom.”) Judging from Riley’s brief description, his speech never came to Sands’ attention. What happened was actually worse. The professors in the academic department in question acted proactively to stave off objections before they could even rise to the level of a controversy. What occurred was self-censorship.
Excluding speakers from campus because of their political beliefs makes a mockery of universities as centers of intellectual diversity and free inquiry. (While the tantrums of leftists get all the attention in conservative media, protests, disruptions and dis-invitations are initiated by those on the right as well as the left, as can be seen in this Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) database. They’re not as frequent, but they do occur.)
It’s time for push back. If university administrators can’t maintain intellectual diversity on campus, then maybe it’s time that the boards of visitors start applying pressure. If board members have acted behind the scenes to safeguard free speech, it’s not clear how effective they have been. To made a difference, the public needs to put pressure on board members.
If you know a board member personally, you need to speak up. One board member is within my circle of acquaintances, who I see a couple of times a year, and I can promise you, he’s going to catch an earful!
I don’t know how well Virginia Tech board members will respond to hectoring by me, a Wahoo. But they will listen to Virginia Tech alumni. They will really listen to Virginia Tech alumni who start withholding contributions. What does it matter if a university gains a new building or research lab and loses its soul?
Update: Virginia Tech contends that no formal invitation was ever issued to Riley, according to a letter issued by Robert T. Sumichrast, dean of the Pamplin College of Business. Here’s what he says happened:
A faculty member did reach out to Mr. Riley to inquire of his interest in speaking at Virginia Tech. When Mr. Riley was not selected by the committee the same faculty member emailed Mr. Riley with his personal explanation of why he had not been selected. This faculty member does not represent the committee’s voice and this faculty member did not extend an invitation nor rescind an invitation.
Update to the update: Sumichrast has walked back his denial, conceding that he wrote in error, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and an invitation has been extended to Riley.
Here follows a list of Virginia Tech’s board of visitor members:
James L. Chapman, IV
Crenshaw, Ware, & Martin, PLC
Nancy V. Dye, M.D.
William D. Fairchild, III
Retired Chairman of R.W. Murray Co.
B. Keith Fulton
Charles T. Hill
President & CEO, CCR
Wayne H. Robinson
J. Thomas Ryan, M.D.
Mr. Mehul P. Sanghani
President and CEO, Octo Consulting Group
Dennis H. Treacy
President, Smithfield Foundation
Horacio A. Valeiras
Managing Principal, HAV Capital, LLC
Walter D. Cook III (Dan)
Graduate Student Representative
Undergraduate Student Representative
Ms. Kim O’Rourke
Secretary to the Board