When Brown University hosted former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush last week, it was without incident. Despite having some controversial views that might rile the liberal student population at the institution, Bush was able to speak, and the questions were respectful. This was far cry from 2013, when the university made headlines after students drowned out Ray Kelly, the controversial former New York City police commissioner, when he tried to address the campus. Since then, particularly in the last 18 months, higher education has received much criticism over a series of such incidents.
To the frustration of some Brown officials, the public impression that the institution has a free speech problem lingers nearly five years after the Kelly incident, even though no speaker has been shouted down since Kelly’s appearance and the university makes special efforts to bring in a diverse range of speakers. A new student group now is trying to ensure that conservatives are more represented — and administrators at Brown are embracing that mission.
Greer Brigham, a Brown sophomore, said he decided to found the student group SPEAK because of the 2016 elections. Brigham, a longtime Democrat and Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer, said neither he nor the rest of the country anticipated Donald Trump’s win. He said he realized during the election he hadn’t explored a variety of information sources, and he wanted to make sure the speakers who came to campus were diverse in their political ideations.
Last fall, he launched SPEAK with a small group of students, with the intent of increasing the number of conservative speakers on campus. Brigham wanted to avoid scenarios such as what happened at the University of California, Berkeley, though, with former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who inspired riots during his talk, and with Richard Spencer at the University of Florida, where the campus essentially shut down for a day to accommodate the white supremacist.
While those are recognized conservatives, they are much more fringe, known more than their insults than the ideas they bring to campuses.
“We don’t want Ann Coulter,” Brigham said. “No fringe speakers.”
A SPEAK analysis suggested that the speakers Brown professors and administrators invite to campus are almost exclusively liberal. Administrators in interviews said while they admire the students’ intent, they disagreed with the methodology of the report, saying that giving purely academic lectures partisan labels only further exacerbates the polarization of the country.
“This implies that a scholar, a researcher, an academic, injected their personal views into their scholarship, which contributes to erosion in public confidence,” said spokeswoman Cass Cliatt. “It suggests that facts are just malleable expressions of belief. That’s where our country is going right now, that somehow facts are malleable … we just don’t think that’s true.”
SPEAK’s breakdown of speakers brought to events at Brown in 2017 showed that nearly 95 percent of them leaned left in their political views. The students determined this by studying the speakers’ previous jobs — such as if they ever worked for a particular federal administration — their campaign contributions and their social media posts.
The group met with faculty members, largely in the political science department, which organizes many of the campus lectures, and with Brown president Christina H. Paxson. Brigham said he didn’t want to release the data they had collected before they met with everyone — he wanted to approach the issue of speaker diversity on campus as a social science problem, not as a hot-button news piece.
When SPEAK went public with its data last spring, its members left the report in the mailbox of every political science professor. And since releasing it, Brigham said, the group has received largely positive feedback, mostly from alumni. When SPEAK was putting together the report, it was careful to only classify the speakers as trending left or right if it was clear where their political loyalties lay, Brigham said. Social media posts especially can be interpreted subjectively, he acknowledged.
But Cliatt said that the data lacked “nuance.” In the wake of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., spurred by a white-nationalist gathering, the university hosted a talk with a professor who discussed white nationalism in 19th-century Europe, she said. But because of her campaign donations, that professor was deemed “leans left,” despite her topic not being related to politics, Cliatt said.
When Bush was on the campus — an obvious conservative, though not of President Trump’s brand — he shared his views on immigration, which many would consider to be more liberal, such as an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented youth.
“Political views or policy topics do not always break cleanly on party lines,” Cliatt said, adding that the university does have work to do in ensuring diversity of speakers.
In an interview, President Paxson said the university “does well” in bringing in a wide range of speakers and that students are exposed to many different views — not just those that are politically oriented.
Student groups and faculty can bring whomever they like to campus, Paxson said. The incident with Kelly was “isolated,” she said, yet the public still was misinformed about the campus climate at Brown. Paxson said she is concerned that the public’s confidence, particularly among conservatives — not just in Brown, but in all higher education institutions — has deteriorated. Research shows that Republicans have soured on higher education — with 58 percent believing that colleges have a negative influence on the direction of the country, according to a Pew Research Center report released last year.
It is incumbent on universities to publicize much more visibly that they are attempting to showcase a wide range of speakers, Paxson said. She and the Brown provost started a “Reaffirming University Values” speaker series in 2016 to debate some of the most hot-button topics in the country — including Islamophobia and free speech. Among the invited speakers were Jelani Cobb, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
“SPEAK may want more speakers of a certain flavor and it’s their right to speak about that,” Paxson said. “But if you look at our track record over the past six years, we’ve brought in a really interesting mix of people.”
Paxson said that student shout downs, such as with Kelly, are not appropriate, but that the university does support respectful protests.
In February, conservative commentator Guy Benson spoke at Brown at the invitation of the College Republicans. Preceding his appearance, posters advertising the event were defaced and students signed a statement saying they wouldn’t tolerate speech against marginalized groups.
But as The Wall Street Journal wrote in its praised-filled editorial, the event went over well. The university outlined its free speech policies, security was present in case anything went wrong, and Benson was briefed on the worst-case scenarios.
“Brown’s practices yielded impressive results,” the WSJ editorial board wrote. “The audience was diverse — even ideologically. A handful of students staged a walkout, but their protest was peaceful and non-disruptive. Many students who disagreed with Mr. Benson stuck around to challenge his arguments during a Q&A. That group included some of the pro-censorship statement’s signatories … perhaps they even learned something. Administrators at other universities certainly could.”
Paxson said she urged SPEAK to work with campus faculty, and with student groups on campus about the speakers they court — and Brigham said that his group is doing so. He said SPEAK is helping student groups think about the speakers they want, while the College Republicans also try to bring in more conservatives.
“It’s really important that students understand the range of perspectives on politics, but also these events themselves, can’t really happen anywhere else,” Brigham said. “I think, going to the Jeb event, the conversations were respectful; students were asking hard questions on same-sex marriage and on being pro-life. A thing I kept thinking about is that it’s hard to have those conversations anywhere else. On cable news there’s a tendency and an incentive to blow things up — to take the most radical position and attack your opponent. But we had a really honest conversation when Jeb came to campus, not flashy, and that’s what Brown students can benefit from.”