I was saddened to learn this week that the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, an academic center founded with the mission of fostering discussions, debates, and scholarship on the concept of freedom, will be overhauled or possibly dismantled next year.
The saga began with a Boston Globe report last month on donations the group had received from the Koch Foundation. The story quoted Thomas Cushman, director of the center, saying he would not consider a speaker like Jane Mayer — a New Yorker journalist who’d written a book critical of Charles and David Koch — as part of the Freedom Project series. Mayer accused the Freedom Project of “banning” her from Wellesley, and presented Cushman’s comments as an example of Koch-funded operatives’ setting out to discredit the family’s critics.
An alumni backlash followed, and now the entire project is in jeopardy.
As associate director of the Freedom Project during the 2016–17 academic year, I worked with Cushman to come up with a roster of scholars to appear at our speaker series, our faculty workshops, and our winter seminar for student fellows. I have avoided making any major public statements on the controversy up until this point because I underestimated the extent to which rumors and misrepresentations about the Freedom Project would spill into the public sphere. Mayer and organizations like UnKoch My Campus are calling my integrity into question by spreading these rumors and misrepresentations. It is time to make clear what actually went on behind the scenes.
We did mull over the idea of inviting Mayer to give a lecture at one point, but I advised Cushman against it. The rationale had nothing to do with ideology. I had read some of Mayer’s work on the topic, and as a political sociologist I found it to be short on evidence and long on unwarranted conclusions. If you have ever presented research in an academic setting, you know these transgressions will get you roundly criticized by colleagues.
Instead, I suggested that we invite a Columbia political scientist, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, to present his cutting-edge research on the growth of the Koch political network and its effect on Congress at a faculty workshop. I had known Hertel-Fernandez for several years at the point and admired his work. I also knew that he was a strong critic of the Koch network’s political goals, but this was irrelevant to our decision. It was good research worthy of academic discussion.
If our goal really had been to hide our relationship with the Koch Foundation and silence the organization’s critics, inviting Hertel-Fernandez to discuss the Koch network would have been a bad idea. The fact that we did invite him suggests that mundane assessments of research drove our decision not to invite Mayer.
I explained this to Mayer after the Boston Globe article came out. Rather than consider the possibility that a Ph.D. sociologist found shortcomings in her work, she doubled down on her Koch conspiracy theory.
The Freedom Project’s commitment to pluralism on campus was reflected in the variety of speakers we invited. I organized a panel to discuss contemporary conservatism on campus that included Amy Binder and Neil Gross. Elizabeth Popp Berman gave a talk on the rise of market logic within higher education. Kim Weeden spoke about how rent-seeking has led to rising inequality, and Fabio Rojas made the moral case for open borders at our winter seminar. The only thing they all have in common (besides the fact that they are all sociologists) is that they made provocative arguments that forced students to rethink their preconceived notions about the world.
We built a strict wall between donors and decision-making.
Like other academic institutions, we built a strict wall between donors and decision-making on how to run the organization, whom to invite, and what we might discuss. I have no idea if the Koch Foundation and other donors were pleased or displeased with my tenure at the Freedom Project. Cushman, who was responsible for fundraising, had the upmost respect for my academic freedom and never tried to pressure me to invite or not invite particular speakers.
This insulation from donor influence extended into the classroom, where we offered several courses related to the theme of freedom. My most popular course, Morals and Markets, explored the classic question of whether markets are destructive, civilizing, or feeble in their effect on society. My identity as a classical liberal shaped the choice of course topic while my identity as a sociologist shaped the course content. Unless you consider the American Journal of Sociology an outlet for a radical libertarian agenda, you would be hard-pressed to find ideological indoctrination in my course. Like every other course offered at the college, it was reviewed and approved by the curriculum committee.
I understand and support vigilance in safeguarding academic life against potential conflicts of interest between universities and donors. This is a core tenet of academic freedom. Vigilance without attention to all the facts of the case is simply conspiracy theory, though. It is easy for some to believe that the Freedom Project is doing the bidding of wealthy donors, but a cursory review of these facts makes clear that this characterization is entirely divorced from reality. I hope Wellesley alumni, journalists, and my colleagues in the social sciences see these accusations for what they are — baseless attempts to smear an ordinary academic organization.