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Harvey Silverglate on 10 Years As Chairman of FIRE’s Board; Daniel Shuchman Elected New Chair

By November 2, 2015

After almost a decade serving as chairman of FIRE’s Board of Directors, FIRE Co-founder Harvey A. Silverglate passed the leadership baton to longstanding FIRE board member Daniel Shuchman at this weekend’s board meeting. We are deeply thankful for Harvey’s principled and courageous leadership as chairman, and pleased he will remain an active board member.

Under Harvey’s direction, FIRE has grown into a 34-person, $5.5 million organization fighting for student and faculty rights in the courts and through the legislature, on television and radio, in print and online, and at hundreds of campuses across the country. Thanks in large part to his principles and dedication, FIRE has become a force to be reckoned with in the fight for campus freedom. I hope you will join FIRE in expressing our immense gratitude to Harvey, not only for his vision at our origins, but also for his continuing guidance over the years.

Daniel Shuchman was elected in a unanimous vote as Harvey’s successor. Daniel, a partner at MSD Capital in New York City and occasional op-ed columnist and book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, has been an enthusiastic and influential member of FIRE’s Board for the past nine years.

“It is an honor to succeed Harvey as chairman of FIRE,” said Daniel. “Harvey is a visionary who, with Alan Charles Kors, foresaw the urgent need for an organization that would, in a highly principled way, defend the ideals of free expression and individual liberty in higher education. He put that vision into action, and FIRE has become one of America’s most respected advocacy groups. FIRE’s mission is more important now than ever. Fortunately, we have never been in a better position to undertake this battle and we will do so on all fronts. We intend to prevail.”

A transcript of Harvey’s comments on his decision to step down from board chairman made at the October 31, 2015 FIRE Board of Directors meeting follows below.

Since the day that I assumed the board chairman’s position at FIRE, almost a decade ago, I have secretly longed for the day when I could leave the chairmanship and return more fully to my favorite FIRE role—that of provocateur and proselytizer. And in so doing, at the age of 73, I am today turning the baton over to someone presumably considerably younger than I. And I do so with gusto!

Truth be known—I never really longed for the chairmanship, but I was recruited by circumstance. It is not that I lacked loyalty and fealty to FIRE; it’s just that my personality and talents do not lend themselves to the job. For many years I ran or co-ran my own law firm, and none of my partners, nor the firm’s associates, nor the paralegals and law student clerks, nor the secretaries, would ever accuse me of being an eager executive. I lack the gene for executive talent.

Being FIRE’s chairman, nonetheless, has been quite a ride—thrilling and intense. But I’m quite eager to enter into a new phase of my life with FIRE.

I have one more historical observation that will put into context my desire to leave the chairman’s role and return to the role of board member and—for lack of a better term—agitator. Those of you who’ve known me long enough will recall my early sense that FIRE surely would have a short, albeit eventful, ten-year life. My reasoning was simple and direct: What prompted Alan Charles Kors and me to co-found FIRE in 1999—the plan was hatched in Kors’ home, over dinner, in the wake of our 1998 publication of The Shadow University—was our close observation of the absurdities of college campus life. What struck me, in particular, were: the speech codes, the kangaroo courts, the obdurate bureaucrats who understood little about academic freedom—nor, for that matter, academic excellence—and due process of law, the cowardly college and university presidents who focused more on fundraising and on their own careers than on higher education, and the trustees who assumed their positions not in order to exert genuine fiduciary oversight, but, rather, to be able to parade their prestigious credentials before their peers and others. The academy had reached a point so absurd and so dysfunctional—for institutions of higher education—that I figured that Kors and I, with even a halfway decent staff, would be able to topple the Tower of Babel within, surely, no more than a decade.

The urgent immediate impetus for FIRE’s founding was the sudden tidal wave of phone calls and letters we received, after the publication of The Shadow University, from scores of students and faculty members who found themselves at the mercy of the modern, perverse academy. We found ourselves inundated by scores of “water buffalo”-type cases. FIRE was born of necessity. I came of age in the Sixties, and my natural response to what I deemed a crisis was to organize.

I mentioned this ten-year timeline in my speech at FIRE’s 15th anniversary dinner, but I suspect that the only people who really believed me were those who were there at or near the inception. Now that I see that the problems we’ve been battling are far more deeply entrenched than I could have imagined at the start, I’m prepared to dig-in for a longer term war, not just a decade-long battle. We must save the heart and soul of the liberal arts academy, of academic freedom, of free speech and free thought, of fair and rational disciplinary procedures, and we cannot establish artificial, much less illusionary deadlines. We need to remain in the trenches for as long as it takes. I, for one, am settling in, but in a position—that of board member and warrior for liberty and decency—for which I’m better suited than I am for board chairman. I do plan to remain on the board for as long as you’ll have me.

This board is a remarkable group, composed of a mixture of seasoned warriors and fresh faces. And even the fresh faces have a history of fighting for liberty and decency. You are a remarkable group. You have been essential and, for me, comforting. Your wisdom and willingness to take and respond to my middle-of-the-night emails, to talk on the phone on weekends and holidays, and to give me sage advice and invaluable perspective, have meant so much to me. Thank you, all.

Similarly, we have an utterly remarkable staff. There is relatively little turnover at FIRE, compared to many other organizations that might be deemed, for lack of a more accurate term, peer groups. The constancy of our staff is due, I think, to a number of factors.

First, they like and respect one another.

Second, they all share—among themselves and with us board members—an acute sense of the urgency and societal, indeed historical, importance of our task.

Third, they are, from the earliest hired down to the most recent additions to our growing staff, extraordinarily talented and devoted people, people of true quality.

I am particularly delighted by and devoted to our staff, in part because I personally interviewed and hired three of our longest-serving and most talented executives—Greg Lukianoff, Robert Shibley, and Will Creeley. I also played a substantial role in hiring Samantha Kors Harris who has become the worst nightmare for the drafters of those pernicious campus speech codes. I do not have the greatest memory for such events, since over my professional lifetime I’ve hired scores and scores of people. But I do remember quite clearly those hiring interviews, because it was so evident to me that I was in the presence of greatness-in-the-making. I’m not a very good executive myself, but I pride myself on being a terrific judge of talent and, importantly, character.

Not only are FIRE’s executives and staffers extraordinarily knowledgeable and skilled, but, as a group, as a team, they have another talent that is perhaps inadequately perceived. (Those of you who have seen, and who appreciate, as I do, Woody Allen’s great movie, “Zelig,” will recognize this analogy.) In every important, urgent battle for liberty for and within the academy and its faculties and students, FIRE somehow shows up. I recall having smiled on more than one occasion when I’ve reviewed the agendas for conferences of academic administrators, sensitivity trainers, general counsel, and the like, and noted a lecture or break-out session entitled “What to do when FIRE comes knocking at the door.” Well, FIRE does indeed knock on a lot of doors, and if it is not let in, it gets pretty pushy. FIRE is everywhere that it has to be. Hail to Zelig!

As you know, even though I am primarily a criminal defense and civil liberties litigator, I have had a second career as a writer and columnist in the areas in which I have practiced law. The journalist in me recognizes the true nature of FIRE’s enormous, and enormously important, accomplishments. It really boils down, on a human level, to FIRE’s having afflicted the too comfortable, and comforted the unjustly afflicted. Hail to FIRE!

So what’s the next step, after Silverglate leaves the chairmanship, which happens just a few minutes from now? That’s for all of us to decide, but I do hope that we continue to operate on two levels—assist the immediate victims of today’s sick campus culture, namely beleaguered students and faculty members, but also take steps to change the culture of our campuses so that FIRE will, someday soon enough, be able to go out of business—still my personal end-goal. Restore our campuses to educational institutions, and send packing the myriad bureaucrats, hypocrites, petty despots, careerists, and “trainers” who now infest those campuses. In order to prevail, FIRE will have to continue to develop brilliant tactics and programs, but also to keep its eye on broader strategies and on the goal to ultimately change the culture so as to restore our campuses to true liberal arts institutions that educate students for their roles in a free society. Saving the soul of higher education will take always new and fresh thinking, which is largely why board leadership must pass to a younger generation, with new ideas, renewed vigor, yet still with a steady hand on the tiller.

What happens on our campuses eventually—within a generation, or two at the most—is reflected in the greater society. The fight to save our campuses is, in truth, the fight to save our republic. Despite some terrible storms swirling around our campuses today, I remain optimistic that FIRE and its cause will prevail, but not because liberty is inevitable—it is not at all inevitable, but rather it has to be fought for, anew, by each generation. Our cause will prevail because of the dedication, integrity, energy, vision, steady hands, and, yes, backbone, represented by this board and this staff, and by all of our allies and supporters out there who recognize the huge stakes.

And so I leave the till of an organization stronger than it’s ever been, thanks to all of us, all of you, and to the staff recruited to join our ranks. I thank you all for your hard work, your dedication, your protean and well-utilized talents, your loyalty, your tact when tact was called for, and your personal friendship, all of which I highly value more than you can know.

Thank you for all that you have done and are doing.