By now, many of you have had the chance to read Joseph Rago’s excellent Wall Street Journal article on embattled Dartmouth College alumni trustee T.J. Rodgers. What you may not know is that I have special insider knowledge as to why Dartmouth College is so afraid of this reform-minded trustee. In a closed-door meeting, Rodgers revealed to me his secret nightmarish plans for Dartmouth’s future. What is this terrible dystopian agenda of which the Dartmouth administration seems so afraid? Lean in closer and I will share Mr. Rodgers’ dread secret. He wants two things for Dartmouth College: that free speech at Dartmouth be fully and robustly protected, and that Dartmouth College becomes the best institution of higher education in the world. Dastardly, isn’t it?
Joking aside, this has absolutely been T.J.’s mantra, in both public and private dialogue, ever since I first spoke to him during the controversy over Dartmouth’s speech code. His concern for free speech on campus is obviously one that FIRE shares, and we were pleased that his efforts helped convince Dartmouth to reform its speech code back in 2005. T.J. has also been very concerned about maintaining a high teacher-to-student ratio at Dartmouth; not exactly a position that one would expect to be considered highly divisive and partisan.
But nonetheless, as Rago’s article points out, Dartmouth officials have branded T.J. part of a “radical minority cabal” and have dismissed him as a participant in a right-wing conspiracy. I find this odd. Having met T.J. once in person, I left with the impression that I had just spoken with a socially liberal Silicon Valley businessman. As the article explains:
Mr. Rodgers notes that certain professors “seemed to specialize” in accusing him of being retrograde, racist, sexist, opposed to “diversity” and so forth. Or, in the academic shorthand, a conservative.
A curious label for a man who is in favor of gay marriage, against the Iraq war, and thinks Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush. Mr. Rodgers’s sensibility, rather, is libertarian, and ruggedly Western. He is also a famously aggressive, demanding CEO, with technical expertise, a strong entrepreneurial bent and an emphasis on empirics and analytics. His lodestars, he says, are “data and reason and logic.”
In my time at FIRE, I have sadly become all too familiar with this tactic. If a college administration or faculty cannot come up with a good argument against a group it dislikes, it often resorts to describing that group as any of a short list of terrifying terms, usually ranging from “right-wing” to “conservative.” FIRE most recently had to deal with this hackneyed tactic from Professor Jon B. Gould, who wrote an intellectually lazy and sloppy hit piece on FIRE earlier this year. As you can see, Gould’s argument was meritless, but in academia such labels are often an effective way to shut down meaningful discussions on serious topics.
So what is really going on here? I am sure there are many factors at work. I am sure, for example, that there are alumni who genuinely see T.J. and the other “insurgent” trustees as part of some conservative conspiracy against Dartmouth College. But, as The Wall Street Journal points out, much of this half-panicked response from Dartmouth may come from the fact that so many colleges have insulated themselves from outside oversight and preferred trustees to sign checks and do little else. FIRE has been very successful in defending basic rights on campus precisely because universities have become so unfamiliar with and unskilled at defending their decisions beyond the campus community. Obfuscation, rather than explanation, is too often the order of the day when dealing with campus controversies.
As FIRE points out so frequently, living with dissent, like living with freedom of speech, can sometimes be a hard road. But we strongly believe, as did John Stuart Mill, that in the cauldron of debate and discussion bad ideas tend to fall away, new solutions arise, and, even if we leave the debate still believing what we had believed coming in, we often gain a deeper and richer understanding of why we held that belief in the first place. If Dartmouth College believes it is in the right, it should not be afraid of voices of dissent.