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When the campus PC police are conservative: why media ignored the free speech meltdown at William & Mary

A student walks on William and Mary's campus.
A student walks on William and Mary's campus.
Sarah Ross/FlickrCC

The College of William & Mary, where I did my undergrad, does not promise its students any "little paradises," as Yale University calls its residential colleges, which we referred to simply as dorms. It does not feature prominently in American popular culture and does not inspire long disquisitions from prominently placed alumni. The last president it educated was a slaveholder, and it has since settled into a comfortable reputation as Virginia's other public college.

There is one thing William & Mary does have in common with Yale: Both have recently endured tumultuous and painful internal fights over the line between free speech and cultural sensitivity. Ours culminated in formal hearings at the state legislature, student protests, a brief faculty strike, and, ultimately, the firing of the college president.

Yet you have probably never heard about what happened at William & Mary. There's any number of reasons for this. Social media had not quite taken off at the time, so students had less of a platform. Our school doesn't inspire the same fascination as the Ivies. Where Yale's dispute is over racism, ours was somewhat different.

I have another theory as well, one that has made it difficult for me to digest the barrage of articles warning that left-wing illiberalism and student intolerance are suffocating campus freedoms: The people limiting free speech and punishing ideological transgression on our campus were right-wing adults rather than left-wing students, and this does not fit into the media narrative du jour of terrifying campus political correctness.

What happened at William & Mary

As told, the story of William and Mary's meltdown usually begins with an 18-inch wooden cross, but as with so many culture war battles, that was in many ways just a symbol for the real dispute.

There was something like a campus-wide sigh of relief when in the fall 2005, a constitutional lawyer and former UNC Chapel Hill law school dean named Gene Nichol arrived as the new president of William & Mary.

The college, despite its aspirations as a small, liberal arts alternative to the University of Virginia, was in many ways still a bit of a Southern backwater. Its attachment to old Southern ideals of gentility had not aged well, and a habit of recruiting from Richmond and Arlington prep schools had made the atmosphere stale and at times unwelcoming to outsiders. The school's reputation outside of those enclaves had declined.

Nichol came in promising a more welcoming atmosphere for minorities, international students, and lower-income students. Faculty and students largely greeted this as good news, a sign that the college would grow from a provincial institution that primarily served Virginia's tidewater region into a cosmopolitan, 21st-century academy.

Not everyone was happy about Nichol's promises of change. The college's parochial legacy had left it with a base of alumni who'd grown up in the old Virginia of blue-dog Democrats, "traditional values," and rigid Southern class hierarchies.

To them, the college was remembered fondly as a stop-off between all-white prep schools and a job at one good-old-boy firm or another, one of the last vestiges of a cherished heritage that was under siege — particularly within Virginia, where demographics were shifting politics ever leftward. They'd resisted such change at the college for years, fighting, for example, to block or limit the establishment of women's studies and black studies departments. When Nichol, an outsider and an avowed liberal, promised change, what many of these alumni heard was a threat to take away the college as they remembered it and had long feared losing.

This was the background tension, already simmering, that exploded in October 2006, when Nichol removed an 18-inch wooden cross from an academic building. Though the building had been the heart of the school in the 1700s, and thus had been constructed to include a small chapel, it was now mostly a series of classrooms and offices at a public institution. Church and state, Nichol argued, required removing the cross.1

It was also perhaps an effort to deal with the school's troubled record of religious tolerance. As a Jewish student, I'd encountered overt anti-Semitism that was, while not widespread, disturbingly common. Muslim students tended to keep out of sight.

Conservative alumni, already suspicion of Nichol, saw this as the long-feared first strike against their heritage and the school's rightfully Christian identity. They launched a grassroots campaign to pressure the college to reinstate the cross and, if necessary, fire Nichol.

One of the organizers of this campaign was a former college board member. While writing for the student paper, I once found that she had been ghostwriting student op-eds criticizing Nichol, passing them off to conservative students and encouraging them to publish them in the school paper under their own names. When I asked her about it, she told me that if I reported what she'd done she would use her "connections" in Washington media to make sure I was "toxic" and thus would never find work as a journalist. I mention this not to insert myself into the story, but rather to illustrate that this larger campaign was not some high-minded intellectual debate but rather was experienced on campus as a bitter fight in which activist alumni were not above threatening students.

The pressure campaign, at first mostly online, became a boycott campaign, encouraging alumni to revoke donations — including, successfully, a promised $12 million gift from James McGlothlin, co-founder of a major coal company. The college was never rich, and with state funding drying up, the revoked donations were felt on campus. Long-overdue renovations to the humanities building, for example, where plumbing problems created odors so strong that some classrooms were near unusable, had to be delayed.

Things got much worse in late 2007, when a small student club announced it had invited a group called the Sex Workers Art Show, a well-reviewed variety show of performances and speeches by former sex workers. The group had performed on campus the previous two years to little controversy. But the alumni campaign against Nichol, by then well-organized and picking up every controversy it could, either organized or encouraged (it wasn't clear at the time) alumni protests on campus. They demanded Nichol step in to block the performance. He refused, issuing a statement highlighting free speech and academic freedom:

The First Amendment and the defining traditions of openness that sustain universities are hallmarks of academic inquiry and freedom. It is the speech we disdain that often puts these principles to the test. The College of William & Mary will not knowingly and intentionally violate the constitutional rights of its students. Censorship has no place at a great university.

Here was a college president standing up against censorship and against those who wished to curb campus speech simply because that speech abstractly offended them. But many of those voices who are today so concerned with academic freedom and campus speech were either nowhere to be found or siding with the censors.

In the final months before Nichol was fired, members of the Virginia state legislature urged him to cancel the performance. They summoned college board members, who are appointed by the state, to Richmond to be grilled in public hearings. The state, its budget a disaster amid the financial crisis, was at that point deciding just how much it would need to cut from the college's funding. The threat of further cuts hung in the air, now alongside the already-real threat of withheld donations. In early 2008, the board fired Nichol — and offered him a cash bonus (which he rejected) if he promised not to say that he'd been fired for his politics.

Right-wing campus censorship just doesn't rate

For two years, the feeling on William & Mary's campus was that a small number of people were attempting to stifle free speech on campus, to punish any speech that offended them, and to hold the college and the education of thousands hostage to get their way.

It felt far more threatening than the University of Missouri's protests, far more contentious than Yale's debate over racial sensitivity in Halloween costumes, and had a demonstrably greater effect on campus speech and educational quality than either of those student-led movements.

We desperately craved media attention, hoping to shine a spotlight on what was happening, but it never came. There were no cable news debates about the enemies of free speech on campus, no newspaper op-eds arguing that the speech police had gone too far, and no national pressure campaign to keep the campus politics free, open, and pluralistic.

When Nichol was fired, the students, outraged, held campus-wide protests. Much of the faculty shut down classes for a day, or even a few days. But no one off-campus really seemed to care. At the time I assumed this was just because campuses have always been riven by culture wars, and that it was no shock that the people with the checkbooks had prevailed.

But it turns out that national media in fact do have a tremendous interest in campus politics, and a great willingness to intercede into campus culture wars if it's felt those culture wars threaten basic principles of free speech. But this often only applies if those threats come from the left.

Why right-wing campus speech threats are ignored

Those experiences have made it difficult for me to stomach the past two weeks of commentary, like so many rounds of national outrage before it, over the supposedly dire threat of left-wing campus speech police. That is not to say that there are not other differences in the situation at William & Mary versus Yale or versus the University of Missouri that might also help explain the different reaction, but it's difficult to avoid the sense that our experience would have been different if the political roles has been reverse.

Just imagine the backlash if, after the University of Missouri's protests, Democrats in the Missouri state legislature had summoned Mizzou board members to the state capital to hint at university funding cuts if the school did not fire its president and immediately concede all protester demands. Imagine if angry students at Yale didn't just call for a professor to be fired — but punished the school by getting $12 million pulled from its budget.

Consider, for example, the national scolding campaign — including from President Obama — every time liberal college students, responding to a conservative guest speaker they don't like, walk out or stand and turn their backs. On our campus, the offending event, speeches and performances by former sex workers, was liberal and the protesters were conservative, which didn't seem to cause the same concern — even though our protesters went much further than just staging a walkout, trying to shut down the event itself and if necessary get some people fired to do it.

But because our speech threats came from the right rather the left, they did not support the prevailing media narrative of terrifying left-wing political correctness, and they were ignored.

This is not to endorse everything that has happened at Yale or Missouri, nor is it to argue that left-wing intolerance is fine because there is also right-wing intolerance. Rather, it's an observation that we often overhype supposed campus speech threats from the left and ignore them from the right — and that maybe this goes to show there's more than love of academic freedom at work in our growing fear of campus "political correctness."

This summer, during the most recent national backlash against syllabus trigger warning and classroom microaggressions, law professor Nancy Leong told my colleague Amanda Taub that much of the backlash against so-called identity politics is really about a sense that the status quo is under attack and fear that something worse might replace it.

Left-wing student campaigns or protests are generally about changing the status quo — changing the way black students are treated, say, or changing campus norms around Halloween costumes. But right-wing campus movements, like the one at William & Mary, are fundamentally about preserving the status quo: preserving a Christian identity at a public college, preserving campus cultural norms that consider a performance of former sex workers to be inappropriate.

Maybe the reason the national media cares more about left-wing speech threats than right-wing speech threats is not that the media is biased in favor of conservatives, but rather that it is, like people can often be generally, biased in favor of the status quo. It's not that they think conservatives did nothing wrong in their William & Mary campaign — I suspect many would agree they crossed a line — but rather that those conservative activists were not perceived as representing a larger threat. But because left-wing student movements are often about challenging the status quo, and because members of the national media (which remains dominated by white males) are often heavily invested in the status quo, those students are seen as representing something scary and dangerous.

Back at William and Mary, nearly eight years later, things have largely returned to normal. Nichol was replaced by Taylor Reveley, also a professor of constitutional law, who is still president. Nichol has gone back to Chapel Hill's law school, where he is teaching law and oversaw a center on research into poverty. Last year, state overseers voted to shut down Nichol's poverty center — partly under conservative pressure that it had become too politically liberal.