On Thursday, Jason Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, delivered the BB&T Distinguished Lecture at Virginia Tech University. His lecture, which centered on the problem of campus intolerance and came after he surmounted a disinvitation from Virginia Tech last year, should have been a triumph for free speech. Instead, Virginia Tech staged a public put-down of Riley. The university seized the occasion to insist again that Riley had never been invited in the first place, and it managed to forget to inform VT students that he was speaking.
First, a quick refresher. Riley was supposed to give Virginia Tech’s BB&T Distinguished Lecture last year. But, as Peter Wood and I recounted, the professor who invited Riley promptly disinvited him under pressure from the administration, which feared protests, because Riley writes as a black conservative critic of the Left. Eventually the university reversed course, but only under massive media coverage and a deluge of e-mails and calls from angry donors and alumni. And the university did so in the strained fashion of insisting, after three days of contradictory and confusing public statements, that its original invitation was never official and that it would issue Riley a new invitation — not a re-invitation.
That story plainly belied the fact that Riley had kept and publicly released his original, clearly worded invitation e-mail. Yet even at Thursday’s event, Virginia Tech insisted on having the last word. After Riley’s talk and the Q&A were over, Vijay Singal, head of the finance department, which hosts the BB&T Distinguished Lecture, stood to read a prepared statement recounting Virginia Tech’s side of the story. He claimed that “the moment we were made aware” that Riley had received an e-mail that sounded very much like an invitation, the university decided to officially “confirm” the invitation.
The spat over whether Riley did or did not receive a formal invitation last year is important because it shows Virginia Tech’s disposition toward free speech. The university was so reluctant to host a black conservative speaker that, on the most charitable interpretation, it mangled his invitation or, at worst, disinvited him. It was more concerned about its public image than about intellectual freedom, and eventually honored its invitation to Riley out of fear for its image and fundraising, not from principles of respect for its promises or for intellectual freedom. And rather than give Riley the space to start a conversation about the Left’s disregard for black conservatives and its growing disrespect for intellectual freedom, Singal hijacked Riley’s talk to redirect attention back toward the university’s story about the confusing way in which Riley eventually came to speak at Virginia Tech.
Singal’s overshadowing of Riley’s talk was not all the university did to closet Riley’s address. It left the event off the school calendar and, according to attendees present at the talk, marketed the event to alumni (whose respect and donations the university needed to regain) rather than to students. Riley estimated that of an audience of about 125, only three or four were students. Virginia Tech avoided the protest it feared Riley might spark, but it did so by keeping him out of the way, not by preparing its students to face ideas they didn’t like. In an interview, Riley said, “I think that this went down in a way that the university could say, ‘We’re not closed-minded or opposed to diverse viewpoints,’ while still shielding students from those diverse points of view.”
Contrary to what Virginia Tech may think, the substance of Riley’s talk is worth hearing. Here are a few highlights, drawn from notes published in the Roanoke Times and confirmed in conversation with Riley.
Riley argued that colleges and universities should avoid inculcating political views in their students and should instead welcome a plethora of arguments. He regretted that in college today, students learn to “silence people they disagree with, instead of debating them, especially on matters of race.”
He called out the problem of old-school leftists, once the defenders of free speech, abandoning respect for a diversity of views. “The people who led the free-speech movement 50, 60 years ago are now in control of the campuses, and they’ve decided that this movement was just about their own free speech.” And “the people who were burning down Berkeley 60 years ago for free speech are now throwing their hands up as the kids are burning it down to silence speech. It’s all been turned upside down.”
Riley also noted that the leftward bias in academia hurts students — and acknowledged that the solution is not to establish political quotas but to develop an ethos of respect.
In other words, Jason Riley’s lecture was exactly what students need to hear today. It’s a shame that so few did.
— Rachelle Peterson is director of research at the National Association of Scholars and a co-author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.