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Is “BBC balance” via US billionaires the answer to the campus free speech question?

The Office for Students is to stage an event on free speech with an interesting choice of keynote speaker. Jim Dickinson follows the money.
This article is more than 1 year old

Coming up on December 15th, the Office for Students (OfS) is running an “insight event” on freedom of speech.

Its lesser-spotted chair Lord Wharton, along with Chief Executive Susan Lapworth will be hosting a wide-ranging discussion of free speech and equality in higher education.

Also taking part are Akua Reindorf, an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) commissioner who investigated a high profile case at Essex a while ago; Patrick O’Donnell, a past President of University of York Students’ Union who one of the student leaders who tried to make progress on free speech back in 2021; Ruth Smeeth from Index on Censorship; and Steve West, VC of the University of the West of England and Universities UK President.

That all looked innocuous enough until last Friday afternoon, when OfS announced an exciting last-minute addition to the agenda – a man called John Tomasi, who is President of the Heterodox Academy.

A nonpartisan collaborative

HXA is a body based in the US that describes itself as a “nonpartisan collaborative” of 5,000+ professors, educators, administrators, staff, and students who are committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by “promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”

It was set up by a trio of academics – one of which was University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, co-author of culture wars classic The Coddling of the American Mind. He has argued that political conservatives are under-represented in social psychology – and that that hinders research and damages the field’s credibility.

The choice of Tomasi has raised some eyebrows. At Brown University, Tomasi’s “Political Theory Project (PTP)” has spent a decade or so promoting “viewpoint diversity”, and has hosted debates on issues like teachers unions, whether or not the United States should support Israel, and inequality. And without funding from the university itself, it has received over $3.8 million from Koch-affiliated organisations since 2005.

Come again? To explain that latter line you’d need to be familiar with Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: how a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control, which describes a network of wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolling a “systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system.”

In the book, Tomasi is identified as one of Koch’s “pet professors”:

At Brown, which is often thought of as the most liberal of the Ivy schools, Charles Koch’s foundation gave $147,154 in 2009 to the Political Theory Project, a freshman seminar in free-market classics taught by a libertarian, Professor John Tomasi. “After a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years,” Tomasi confided “slyly,” according to a conservative publication. Charles Koch’s foundation gave additional funds to Brown to support faculty research and postdoctoral candidates in such topics as why bank deregulation is good for the poor.

According to this Inside Higher Ed piece, another funder of the PTP has been the Thomas W. Smith Foundation:

…one of the leading donors to other organisations currently attacking critical race theory and antiracist education in K-12 schools and universities, spending nearly $13 million as of July of this year on this project, including over $4 million to the Manhattan Institute, home of Chris Rufo, by far the most prominent and vocal of the attackers.

And this piece on attempts to institutionalise the PTP into Brown University has some additional commentary:

Tomasi, as well as other PTP-affiliated faculty members, are deeply tied to a web of right-wing donors who, in the words of MacLean, are engaged in one of the “most arch-right political projects you can imagine.” The Kochs – who famously made their fortune in the fossil fuel industry – and the foundations that have upheld their legacies, have financed organizations opposed to government action on climate change, racial discrimination, and regulation of corporations. Recently, these foundations backed groups that have fought mask mandates, and have perpetuated theories of mass voter fraud.

Apparently, Koch foundations have spent nearly $350 million since 2005 to spread right-wing, libertarian economic ideas across the US by sponsoring academic centres, tenured professorships and research in line with their ideals at over 300 universities. Oh – and an investigation by the Guardian’s George Monbiot revealed that Spiked US Inc. received funding from the Koch Foundation between 2016 and 2018 to develop a series of live campus events on free speech.

Conspiracy theories

Don’t get too excited – it’s hard to believe that this is some shadowy right-wing libertarian plot to infiltrate English higher education via the state’s “arm’s length” regulator. But it’s certainly the case that the Heterodox Academy critique of US higher education sounds a lot like the Spiked and Policy Exchange critique of UK HE – as here, commentators there point to flaws in the statistical analysis it uses to support its claims, arguing that a “small number of outlying cases of right-leaning academics facing hostility are being used to create a moral panic”.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with right wing billionaires funding things in US universities. The problem is when the connections are not transparent, and when the money ends up distorting what is and isn’t researched and taught – something which, albeit from another angle, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is supposedly quite concerned with.

Whether the Heterodox Academy’s nostrums end up in the OfS guidance that will accompany the new legislation remains to be seen. And while OfS’ intent might be innocent and principled stuff aimed at improving education in a sector that to some looks more partisan and left-wing than they think it should be, the best you can say about a booking like this is that it is fairly naive of the regulator to assume that it won’t end up being tainted by association.

Outside of the conspiracy takes, some argue that the “viewpoint diversity” thing that the academy advocates advocates is as problematic as “BBC Balance”:

It makes the same error that media organisations make when they invite equal numbers of both climate scientists and climate change deniers onto a panel in order to create an ostensibly good-faith balance in the discussion; one side is backed by rigorous research which represents the vast majority of people in their field, the other is a fringe idea backed by moneyed interests. When the two ideas are presented as being two equal sides with roughly equal merit, it does a disservice to observers by creating the illusion of political balance. In reality, the debate would be skewed towards the climate change deniers by their relative over-representation and by granting them legitimacy.

Others object to the nostalgia aspect of the Academy. On announcing Tomasi’s appointment, Haidt said:

And we both agree that the academy got a lot less fun around 2015. Before then there was a wide space between ‘I agree with you’ and ‘I demand that the administration punish you for what you just said.’ That was the space within which all productive discussions occurred. But that began to change in 2014.”

But as this commentator points out, many who have intersected with academia in the past have found it to be “arbitrary, hostile and punishing” rather than fun:

The disputes that have roiled campuses that Haidt finds so objectionable have been largely about addressing these realities. There’s no doubt that mistakes have been made in dealing with these disputes, but Haidt appears to be trying to wish them out of existence as opposed to confronting them head-on.

Yes – we’re back to that see-saw again between EDI and freedom of speech.

While we’re on nostalgia, I am reminded, by the way, of a passage in John O Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better on working on the student paper at Exeter:

While I had been a student I had written the occasional article for the official student publication of which one of my housemates was the editor. Thrilling features, like my account of a day spent on the non-stop picket of South Africa House, or articles on the arms race packed with factual inaccuracies. But in a surprise coup a bloke who claimed to be ‘apolitical’ packed out a student meeting with a number of friends and got himself elected editor of the magazine by promising to make it less left-wing. Then, as now, ‘apolitical’ was a euphemism for ‘right-wing but doesn’t realise or admit it’.

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