The topic of free speech is particularly buzz-worthy these days. With the dust still settling from the on-campus appearance of anti-choice activist and rightwing provocateur Kristan Hawkins, as well as the timely rupturing of the Freedom Project, both defenders and detractors of the (dis)value of the branded pluralism of the Project coalesce around the lecture hall as the chosen terrain of struggle. It’s a highly visible battle between the liberal, piranha-like majority of the College and the miniscule conservative dissenters who struggle to be heard, or so Project alums like Maya Rubin ’22 propound. Or, it’s a question of protest attendance (snacks provided!), a show of numbers against the unwelcome, one-time scourge of rightwing ideology. And yet the most salient distinction on the intellectually gutted, financialized and top-heavy college campus of today lies not between the liberal and conservative, or even the left and right; it more closely resembles a binary-muddling gulf between freedom and authority, intellectually and otherwise.
True, “freedom” and “freedom of speech” rest on shaky conceptual grounds with their histories of weaponization by figures as diverse as Far Right leaders, liberals and anti-fascists. Part of the mystification stems from the contradictions inherent to many of these different conceptions of free speech. Take white nationalist and infamous organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right rally Richard Spencer, who cultivated his base in part from speaking engagements at permitting universities. Asked recently whether he actually supported free speech, Spencer flatly replied, “No, of course not.” The twisting of words continues with figures like Kristan Hawkins, who claims that “PC culture” has cancelled and delegitimized the anti-abortion movement even as anti-abortion advocates rapidly gain headway in all major channels of government and enjoy disproportionate coverage in the news. Dr. Alice Dreger’s crusade against the recent “politicization of scientific research,” in the words of Professor Kathryn Lynch, disguises the ammunition her discredited theories have given to anti-trans politics and the explosion of legislation designed to police trans people. These are not the embattled victims of cancel culture they claim to be.
Yet, neither are universities. All under the ironic guise of fostering the very “freedom of expression” figures like Spencer openly disavow, the actions of many universities — supposedly the bastions of liberal tolerance — reveal, by making way for speakers openly sympathetic to the authoritarian creep blanketing the nation, their own incipient authoritarian DNA. To use another familiar example, one can only hear so many lamentations about the supposed demise of free intellectual inquiry from a Koch-funded program evidently more interested in defending the territory of the endangered centrist academic than the fast-eroding rights and narrowing channels of dissent for abortion seekers, protesters, migrants or at or below minimum-wage workers, just to name a few. In a rather similar vein, President Paula Johnson championed the merits of “freedom of expression” and “democracy” even while announcing her administration’s decision to disregard the voices of over 800 petitioners for the nine representing Wellesley For Life. Let’s be clear, then, about what figures like Hawkins and Dreger, and by association, our administrators, represent: neither the straightforward liberals nor conservatives on either side of an imagined point of societal political rupture, but defenders alike of an increasingly top-down, authoritarian status quo.
If the platforming of charlatans on campus is a symptom of a neoliberal model of university management designed to obstruct any attempts at democratic decision-making, then a deeper rot appears everywhere we look. The corporatization of Wellesley’s senior leadership has, not by accident, coincided with an increased reliance on precarious labor and tuition hike of 26% just over the past decade, even while top administrative members award themselves salary bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars and oversee one of the largest endowments among liberal arts colleges. The untenured faculty, staff members and students who enable the College to carry out its educational prerogative find themselves excluded from secretive budgeting decisions that continue to concentrate money and power at the top while unloading the costs of “financial streamlining” onto those least responsible for it. The heads of the fortress of the investment portfolio only agreed to divest from fossil fuels after extracting concessions from the trench diggers below keeping the flood of financial insolvency at bay. And, in a blow to true academic freedom, the College continues to cut beloved courses and faculty to cut corners. In our instinctual drive to center our resistance around the easily externalized figure of the bigoted speaker, we risk missing the forest for the trees by allowing purposely inflammatory ideas to direct our outrage away from the antidemocratic, free speech-suppressing heart of the host itself. What, anyway, is the value of freedom — of expression, of topic of scholarship — when subject to the unfree conditions of university governance and financialized education?
The state of free expression today clearly evades easy political descriptors. But for those of us committed to democratizing the ivory tower and unveiling the shadowy nexus of donors and bureaucracy that continually authorizes reactionary speech in the first place, the auditorium — or the steps leading into the auditorium — increasingly resembles a merely illusory site of resistance, the dissenting picket signs the last gasp of a fight against illiberalism already lost. Still, the many examples of nationwide organizing from one and a half years of COVID-exacerbated precarity may light a potential path forward. From withholding tuition, occupying campus buildings and demanding seats on governing boards to authorizing strikes in a bid to raise student worker compensation, students everywhere are refusing to shoulder the brunt of the debt-fueling decisions and tolerate the hierarchical intransparency of private university administrators. To set the terms of struggle where we stand, and not beneath the sneers of bad-faith “debaters” like Hawkins, perhaps we must also move beyond that speech calculated exactly to provoke and ensnare, and train our eyes inwards — or upwards, if you will — at the highest echelons of our own academic ecosystem, where the most consequential discussions over our financial and educational autonomy take place behind closed doors. Doing so will demand a much deeper interrogation of the many meanings of free speech, and its implications for the kind of politics we wish to claim.