When I set foot in Palm Springs, Calif. this January, I knew that attending the annual Koch Foundation Donor Summit as a speaker would be controversial. I’ve spent my past three years at Wellesley College, and the 17 years before that in a house full of proudly Democratic women who exemplified truth seeking and liberal leanings.
I knew some of my peers, and maybe some of my family members, might be confused by my decision to speak in front of one of the country’s most conservative groups. Particularly as I am not a conservative, I’m sure many have wondered what could have possessed me to speak to people who, whatever opinions they have, will likely oppose my own. Even more so, why would I risk my relatively liberal reputation on campus to participate in such an event?
I expected pushback, questions and even anger. I did not expect misrepresentation, distortion and polarization of what I had said.
At first glance, the Freedom Project, of which I am co-student director, may seem like a conservative institution funded by Koch money intent on promoting Koch principles.
In reality, the Freedom Project explores political viewpoints from across a broad spectrum, wherein any view with academic legitimacy is worthy of discussion. One of our many donors is the Koch Foundation, who, as stated in their contract, maintains no control over any aspect of the Freedom Project’s speakers, faculty or agenda. It is a small piece of the puzzle, not the main picture. If one looks at our website, speakers or fellows, one quickly learns that we are not an ideological mouthpiece and actually function as the opposite—a group of independently-minded thinkers who seek to ask questions and challenge the status quo. We talk about Palestinian refugee rights, color consciousness, freedom of speech and campus diversity as well as post-hurricane communal development in rural New Orleans. So why did the The Boston Globe paint us as a monolith intent on supporting a conservative agenda?
Of course, the recently published article, entitled “With patience, and a lot of money, Kochs sow conservatism on campuses,” includes some details about the Freedom Project’s mission but only within a highly relegated and narrow context. The author uses the Freedom Project as her primary vehicle for explaining how the Koch Foundation spreads conservative ideology at universities despite acknowledging they have no control over our efforts and that our mission statement is, in essence, apolitical. Our wide variety of points of view and predominantly liberal Freedom Project fellows are obscured behind the incorrect assumption that we serve as a Koch ally, “supporting their broader libertarian philosophy that, among other aspects, promotes small government and unencumbered markets.”
This article, describing Kaila Webb’s and my presentation before the Koch Foundation, mentioned Wellesley’s “hazardous political climate.” We speak from a position of personal witness, yet to misconstrue our intent as one which villainized Wellesley denies a significant concern about the political climate across the nation. We identified an impulse to isolate and ostracize viewpoints of all kinds that fall outside of Wellesley’s prevailing ideology. This use of social power to silence opposing opinions engaged in appropriate academic discourse is, more so than anything else, what the Freedom Project seeks to amend.
Kaila and I went on to note that many Wellesley students were increasingly willing to engage with alternative trains of thought, as our lectures were more packed than ever and our student fellows had doubled since last year. We were critical of Wellesley but certainly did not paint it as “the poster child for liberal intolerance.” We recounted events related to campus speech that occurred within the past year, both of which demonstrated Wellesley’s increasing open mindedness and how far it has yet to go. We intended to highlight our attempts to make the school we love a better place, not to demonize its character. However, none of this was mentioned in The Boston Globe piece, nor was an appreciation of the role of open debate and self-critique in of higher education.
Why, you may ask, does the loss of nuance here matter? Why does misrepresentation of what Kaila and I said, and of the Freedom Project more generally, make such a big difference?
The alarming tendency to polarize and politicize national dialogue—that is, to only read the headline and use it to fuel one’s previously existing opinion, without thought to underlying substance, details or reason––is tearing the United States apart. This phenomenon has become one of the few things which America’s political parties share. It is not an exclusive illness of the ‘elite, snowflake liberals,’ nor of the ‘closeminded, ignorant conservatives.’
Two students give a nonpartisan talk on stage about coming together and crossing bridges of political difference, only to be made into an example of the very intolerance that they are trying to fight. We need to take a close look at our desire to paint those who do not totally agree with us as the ‘other.’ Whether it be in academia, politics or journalism, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard if we hope to work together and bridge the gap.
Sorry to hear about the controversy over the Freedom Project at Wellesley. Instead of the Kochs getting credit for supporting an atmosphere of Enlightenment liberal values of freedom and tolerance, there are those who instead see Wellesley as in danger of being tainted by misperceptions of the Kochs themselves.