CMC Rolling Out New Free Speech Initiative

According to an email obtained by the Independent, Claremont McKenna College (CMC)—ranked number one for free speech among California colleges—is in the process of rolling out the Open Academy initiative. This initiative seeks to bring additional funding to expand viewpoint diversity in the Athenaeum speaker series—already recognized as a haven for speakers of many ideological perspectives —, in the classroom, and to help students build skills to engage in effective dialogue with those whom they disagree.

According to a document dated from June 2018 detailing the Open Academy, the college is in the process of raising funds for a $20 million endowment to support the program, which goals to generate $1 million a year from this endowment.

A portion of the funds will be used for the “[r]einforcement and expansion of Athenaeum programming to bring additional respected thought leaders in politics, economics, and culture who provide viewpoint diversity and participate in rigorous and thoughtful debates.”

Another portion would go towards “[c]urricular innovations that bring even greater viewpoint diversity to our classrooms” by allowing faculty members, after assigning works from authors across the political spectrum, to grant honorariums “for those authors to participate via videoconferencing in seminar style discussions with students.”

The final portion of the Open Academy funds will be spent on “a dedicated, four-year skill-building program that teaches students about freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity, and equips them with the skills to engage in effective dialogue to resolve complex problems across divisions.”

The Open Academy was launched in part, according to the document, because “[c]ommitments to freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and effective dialogue appear to have weakened,” made evident by “[c]oordinated, political reactions to shut down speaking events” and “abridge freedoms of speech and assembly.”

Only a year ago, CMC was forced to shut down an Athenaeum event by Black Lives Matter critic Heather Mac Donald due to student protesters who prevented attendees from entering the building and threatened student reporters. Although it is estimated that at least 90% of protest participants were non-CMC students from the other colleges of the Claremont Colleges Consortium—Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and Pitzer Colleges—and CMC students identified by the college were later punished, the incident damaged the national reputation of CMC as a sanctuary for speakers of diverse ideological backgrounds through association with the protest.

For example, while Heterodox Academy gives an exceptional rating to CMC for its commitment to upholding free speech, it continues to deduct points over the student protest despite very few attendees being CMC students and despite the action taken by the administration to sanction the few CMC students who did participate in the protest. The document acknowledged that “[s]ince its founding, Claremont McKenna College has been a leader in ideological diversity and commitment to freedom of expression,” demonstrated by the fact that “CMC faculty offer a greater range of political ideologies than peer institutions and importantly supports a critical mass of academics who fall right of center.” The document highlighted that CMC remains “the only higher education institution in California, and the only liberal arts college, to receive a “Green” rating for free speech from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)” and, “according to the Heterodox Academy, CMC stands out among its peers in having the most support for dissenting views on its campus.”

Additionally, the CMC Board of Trustees and faculty endorsed the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression and confirmed they are in alignment with CMC’s existing policies and values.

Recognizing all the commitments and accomplishments CMC has made concerning free speech, the document claims that CMC is “not immune from forces that are closed, exclusive, monolithic, intolerant, or reactionary”, especially when considering the hostile attitudes towards free speech values found among students at CMC’s peer institutions within the Claremont Colleges Consortium.

Unlike CMC, the other consortium members have not endorsed the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression and even refused to punish their students who participated in the Heather Mac Donald protest on CMC’s campus. The document also highlighted that “a recent Gallup survey of Pomona College found that 88 percent of their students and 63 percent of their faculty agreed with this statement: ‘The climate on my campus prevents students/faculty from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive,’” reinforcing the need for CMC—according to the Open Academy document—to “build on the values and character of our CMC community to take on these challenges with even stronger commitments and resources” and “seek to lead by example through a series of College-wide programmatic investments we believe can be adapted and replicated on a national scale.”

Aaryaman Sheoran, a third-year student at CMC, told the Independent that “from what I know about it I like it …That said, 20 million dollars is a lot of money that could be used in better ways.”

“But if alumni donated it specifically to fund diverse viewpoints at CMC I’m all for it…We are in danger of being in an ideological echo chamber in the 5Cs [the Claremont Colleges] and we need to take action to correct our current course,” he added.

While the Open Academy has been rolling out for months, it will be publicly announced on November 1st at the college’s Athenaeum, with Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institute Peter Berkowitz as the keynote speaker.

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