Wonders Never Cease: WaPo Gives Fair Treatment to Alumni Rebellion

Bert Ellis, UVa graduate, president of The Jefferson Council, and newly appointed to the University of Virginia Board of Trustees, is highlighted in The Washington Post article on the alumni-led free speech movement.

by James A. Bacon

Every once in a while The Washington Post reminds us of the kind of newspaper it used to be — capable of producing balanced journalism. Education reporter Susan Svrluga has published an article describing the rise of what I (not she) call the alumni rebellion. She cites the concerns of Virginia-based organizations — the Jefferson Council (on whose board I serve), the Spirit of VMI, and the General’s Redoubt — as well as allied groups in Princeton, MIT and other nationally known universities about the erosion of free speech on college campuses.

Svrluga doesn’t squeeze our statements into a left-wing narrative, she doesn’t mischaracterize our concerns, and she quotes us fairly, accurately, and in context. To be sure, she gives space to those who minimize our allegations about the state of higher-ed today — as it is her obligation to do. It’s important for readers to know that not everyone agrees with us.

The contrast with Ian Shapira, The Washington Post author of repeated hit jobs on the Virginia Military Institute, is dramatic. Shapira epitomizes the new school of journalism. He started with his narrative of VMI as a systemically racist institution, uncritically repeated information that confirmed his belief, and ignored or sought to discredit information that did not. He did go through the motions of producing pro-forma statements for the “other side of the story,” but he never let them interrupt his pre-determined narrative.

So, kudos to Svrluga for letting us tell our story.

While I am grateful for Svrluga highlighting the new alumni-led free-speech movement, I do believed that she missed a critical angle. By way of preface, I need to quote UVa spokesman Brian Coy and renowned political scientist Larry Sabato.

Coy spoke of recent initiatives at UVa to address free speech and intellectual diversity issues. The university has overhauled the curriculum to include classes designed to get students to debate ideas respectfully. President Jim Ryan has written about the need to be “empathetic speakers and generous listeners.” And UVa has adopted a statement upholding the importance of free expression and free inquiry.

Svrluga also quoted Sabato as minimizing the movement. “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,” he wrote. But UVa, he said, is a highly-regarded university that attracts “diverse and talented students from all over the globe.”

I think it’s fair to say that UVa is a less intolerant place than many other elite universities. Young Americans for Freedom has been able to bring outside conservative speakers to the university to speak, and the speakers have been treated respectfully.

However, neither Coy nor Sabato addressed in their remarks the phenomenon of compelled speech in the form of Maoist-style self-criticism in diversity training sessions or mandatory, McCarthy-esque Diversity, Equity & Inclusion statements required of employees and job applicants. Neither did they address the increasing intellectual conformity resulting from the retirement of Baby Boomer faculty members reflecting a wide range of views and their replacement with overwhelmingly left-of-center newcomers.

Carl Neuss, an outspoken leader of the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, vigorously argues that “free speech” is the tip of the iceberg of issues facing academia today. The steady leftward drift of the faculty results in a narrower range of viewpoints being treated respectfully and narrows the parameters of permissible discourse. Allowing people to speak without being shouted down or otherwise harassed is applying a minimalist standard. The root problem is ideological orthodoxy, which creates intellectual conformity, intolerance of dissenting views, and informal methods of suppressing free expression. That’s as true of UVa as it is of Cornell.

Svrluga covered a lot of ground in her story, and she couldn’t explore every angle. But someone in the mainstream media needs to write about the steady drift toward compelled speech on college campuses. Who better than her to take that issue on?

Full disclosure: The author serves as vice president-communications for The Jefferson Council.

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13 responses to “Wonders Never Cease: WaPo Gives Fair Treatment to Alumni Rebellion”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    UVa began to wobble once John Casteen became president in 1990, considerably after I graduated. The wobble got more pronounced under Theresa Sullivan but has started to correct under Jim Ryan. I believe that Jim Ryan is trying to do the right things.

    Larry Sabato’s 15 minutes of fame should have ended years ago.

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      Believe Helen Dragas helped right the ship.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Now.. THAT IS interesting…! Lets see how many upvotes you get!


      2. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        I believe she tried and was the canary in the coal mine…
        That we ignored until Hira Azher and Covid…

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          What exactly was Dragas trying to accomplish other than her advocacy for MOOC?

          As far as I could tell nothing she did mirrored the current Conservative jihads over “free speech”, “compelled speech” , and all the other current conservative rabble.

          1. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            I don’t know. Glad to see free speech is a jihad, and compelled speech is a jihad. Enjoy the loyalty oaths when they come for you
            If virtual learning is just as good, then why not MOOCs? Underlying all the education complaints at the K-12 through university is the massive waste and the lousy results. Go see the facilities. 4 year summer camp, but not in a cabin in the woods, in a guest room at The Biltmore, and education is not taking place. 1/3 to 1/2 of t(e courses are worthless. The costs should be much much less.
            So I think Dragas was the canary in the coal mine that something was wrong.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Svrluga also quoted Sabato as minimizing the movement. “If there is one thing that is common to every university in the world, it is alumni who believes their school started going downhill after they graduated,” he wrote.

    Doesn’t that describe Jefferson, his attitude toward W&M, and reasons for founding UVA? 🙂 The fight to protect the right to differ from and debate the Prevailing View is an honorable one, as is a goal of providing diversity and debate among the faculty. But we ain’t returning to the imagined golden age because it wasn’t all that golden.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I don’t think that’s limited to just universities. “Was a time, the Admiral said when the ships were of wood and the men were of steel.”

  3. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    WAPO issued an article that’s fair? Fake news!!

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      this too , shall pass. The next lying sack of ___ from Wapo is probably already baking in the oven.

  4. Lefty665 Avatar

    The contrast with Ian Shapira, author repeated hit jobs on the Virginia Military Institute, is dramatic.

    You might want to look at that sentence again. Perhaps …author of repeated…

  5. M. Purdy Avatar
    M. Purdy

    What exactly was the body of evidence that the Wapo ignored on VMI? It really just comes down to not believing the people who experienced racism, doesn’t it?

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