In an email sent out to the campus on March 12, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson explained that changes will be coming to the Freedom Project. She announced that the director of the project, Deffenbaugh de Hoyos Carlson Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of sociology Thomas Cushman, would be stepping down and replaced in the next year. She also announced the possible expansion of the project’s Scholars at Risk program, which helps protect scholars who are threatened for articulating their own views, and the formation of a constituency of faculty, students and staff “to explore the important role of free speech in an inclusive community.”
President Johnson further explained that “Freedom of expression is core to the teaching, learning, and production of scholarship that are at the heart of a liberal arts education” and also acknowledged that “There is work to be done to achieve a greater level of inclusiveness on campus that will enhance our ability to engage in discussion and debate.”
President Johnson’s email came alongside increased public attention to the Freedom Project, which included two articles published in the Boston Globe in February and March. These articles detailed the project’s financial support from the Charles Koch Foundation as well as the backlash against this affiliation. In light of these articles, many alumnae have recently demanded that Wellesley and the Freedom Project sever all ties with the Kochs.
Diane Ravitch ’60, historian of education, educational policy analyst, research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and a donor to Wellesley, explained why the use of Koch money is negative for Wellesley.
“The very idea that [the Kochs] were promoting ‘free speech’ at Wellesley was both ironic, because they use their vast wealth to buy speech and drown out the voices of people who are not wealthy, and insulting, because Wellesley has always been a bastion of free speech, and the only kind of speech that is shunned is racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, which is hate speech,” Ravitch explained.
In conversations with Judith Walker ’73, another concerned alumna, Wellesley administration officials tried to assure her that only a small portion of the Freedom Project’s funds come from the Koch brothers, but she remains unconvinced. She believes that even if Koch money is technically only a small part of the funding, many other donors are connected to the Koch brothers, and the college needs to work hard to completely rid itself of Koch ties.
“Other major donors George and Nancy Records were members of the Koch network. They were members of the relatively insidious dark money network that the Kochs and other very right wing ideological billionaires had put together,” Walker explained.
These claims come from the Globe article published in March which alleges that “the Charles Koch Foundation agreed to give Cushman’s project a $1 million grant in 2017, which was matched by a $1 million grant from Koch network donors George and Nancy Records.”
Walker initially contacted the administration in an attempt to find about more about the organization’s funding. However, they refused to release their sources to her.
“I asked them for the list of donors to the project, which is common, by the way. So the fact that administration said ‘well sorry Wellesley doesn’t publish donor lists or anything in any amount’ I thought that was pretty weird. That’s not usual. It would be good to figure out whether that donor policy of anonymity corresponded with the inception of the Freedom Project,” Walker commented.
Regarding the future of the Freedom Project, Ravitch strongly believes that it should not continue if it’s going to receive funding from the Kochs.
“I am waiting to see what happens next. My hope is that the College returns the funding to the Koch Foundation and other funders. There is no benefit to the College in accepting this money. I am offended by the idea that Wellesley needs a ‘Freedom Project,’ because it implies that free speech does not exist,” Ravitch stated.
Kaila Webb ’20, the co-student director of the Freedom Project, has a different stance. In her opinion, the discussion of Koch funding distracts from the important work that the Freedom Project is doing, especially in its scholars at risk program. Webb worries that the climate of hostility towards the Freedom Project on campus has discouraged current scholars from returning next year. She also pointed out that, in contrast to the image of the Freedom Project as a right-wing brainwashing institution influenced by the Koch brothers, many of its speakers present on traditionally liberal topics such as criminal justice reform, open borders and feminism.
“From my experience as a fellow, I’m concerned about the future of the Freedom Project. Many of our Scholars at Risk are not returning next year, in part due to the environment Wellesley has fostered for them. Wellesley might be losing fantastic resources if this isn’t handled properly; internships at multiple human rights organizations both domestic and abroad; funding for research on topics that otherwise will not occur . . . conference funds for gatherings of international human rights advocates” Webb said.
Mustafa Akyol, a senior visiting fellow at the Freedom Project, opposes any changes to the Freedom Project following the departure of Professor Cushman. He denies that Koch money has influence on the Project, and said that most people who criticize the presence of Koch money in the Freedom Project don’t actually know much about the Project.
“In the past 15 months I spent at the Freedom Project, I have never heard anything about the ‘Koch money’ or the ‘Koch agenda’ from anybody who is affiliated with the Project. I heard this only from people who are outside, and who often seemed to have very limited information about what the Freedom Project is really doing,” he explained.
Akyol also denied the accusation that the Koch funding for the Freedom Project has led to bias towards conservative speakers.
“There are about 50 scholars the Freedom Project has invited to Wellesley in the past five years, and only five or six of them would count as ‘conservative.’ Most are self-declared and prominent liberals,” Akyol stated. “But in a bewildering bias, some people, including a Boston Globe reporter, only saw that conservative minority and wrote that Freedom Project is all about bringing ‘conservative speakers’ to the campus. I have rarely seen a remark this unfair.”
Conversations about the Freedom Project will continue this month as the campus constituency, called the Task Force on Speech and Inclusion, begins to explore the role of freedom of speech at Wellesley.
I’m a professor at the University of New Orleans. Last week I was invited to campus by the Freedom Project to speak on how external funding can contribute to (or corrupt) the aims of an elite liberal arts college.
The purpose of an elite, liberal arts college like Wellesley is to, among other things, give students an opportunity to deeply reflect on the things they believe and why they believe them. Attending this type of college should be a transformative experience. And from my discussions with Wellesley students during my visit, it was quite clear how thoughtful and generally open-minded everyone seemed to be.
As I walked the halls that afternoon and looked at the posters advertising courses and other talks, I could not find anything in the humanities or social sciences that a reasonable person wouldn’t characterize as politically progressive. I mentioned this observation during my talk. But I quickly added that for someone like me who does not align in that way on every issue, I would love to have the opportunity to be in an environment like Wellesley (at least for a little while) and listen to intelligent people presenting positions that I’d walk into the room thinking I disagreed with. That’s the whole point at being at a place like Wellesley.
While this environment would be great for someone like me, it does not provide enough opportunities for students who generally identify as progressive to hear intelligent people present views that they may walk into the room disagreeing with. Based on the comments made by the students attending my talk, the Freedom Project was one of the few organizations on campus (if not the only organization) that brought speakers to campus who expressed diverse views. Whether or not the FP survives is not as important as making sure that students–especially progressive-leaning students–have the opportunity not only to have their views challenged, but also to challenge some of the top minds in the country with opposing views.
I do not envy the position of President Johnson. While I understand the concerns raised by Ms. Ravitch and others, it’s simply not reasonable to apply ideological purity tests to dollars being used to support worthwhile programming and deserving students. Perhaps more important, if Wellesley is going to remain one of the country’s elite liberal arts colleges, it must find a way to foster civil discourse and viewpoint diversity. As best as I can tell, the only folks interested in stepping up to support such projects with actual dollars were Mr. and Mrs. Records, the Koch Foundation, and Prof. Cushman’s other donors.