Dr. James Otteson, a business school professor at Wake Forest University, came up with an intriguing idea. What if he brought together a group of faculty, students, and outside scholars to explore how societies can best promote human welfare and happiness?
As befitting a seeker after classical wisdom, Otteson decided to call the project the Eudaimonia Institute, after a Greek term that translates as “human flourishing.” He gained the assistance of supportive Wake Forest colleagues from such disciplines as medicine, economics, religion, philosophy, languages, and communication. He secured the support of his administration at the business school. And he secured funding for the project from private donations that included $3.69 million from the Charles Koch Foundation.
Shortly after the Eudaimonia Institute launched last year, left-wing activists at Wake Forest decided to try to kill it.
By now, this has become a familiar story — so familiar, in fact, that it may well have lost its shock value. So before I continue the tale of the Eudaimonia Institute, just consider what it says about modern progressivism that its adherents now so often refuse simply to engage in scholarly discourse and the normal tussle of campus debate. Instead, they resort to censorship.
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I don’t use that term lightly. After an “investigation” that consisted largely of recycling conspiracy theories, members of Wake Forest’s Faculty Senate recommended not only that the university refuse the Koch Foundation grant for the Eudaimonia Institute but also that Otteson be required to get specific permission from campus regulators before engaging in his daily work as a university professor. In other words, if “academic freedom” were a village, these faculty activists concluded that in order to save it, they must destroy it.
Should faculty members be allowed to do whatever they want on a college campus, as long as they can get a private donor to pay for it? Your answer to this question needs to be coherent, not merely a reflection of what “side” you are on in any particular controversy.
For example, consider what’s going on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Its law school has housed the Center for Civil Rights since 2001. According to its own institutional history, the center has “pursued an aggressive social justice agenda combining litigation, scholarly research, and grassroots activism.” Among other projects, the center has sued other divisions of state government to compel changes in policy and even represented Moral Monday demonstrators who were arrested for violating the rules of the Legislative Building during their protests against Republican policies.
Steve Long, a conservative lawyer and member of the UNC system’s Board of Governors, argues that the Center for Civil Rights isn’t just a scholarly enterprise with a particular point of view. It is using the law school as a platform from which to engage in clearly political activity, much as the same law school was used as a platform for former U.S. Sen. John Edwards to run for higher office. (The product of that previous political scheme, UNC’s Poverty Center, was eventually shuttered.)
Regardless of your party or political philosophy, it ought not to concern you if willing members of a campus community, including willing donors, produce academic work with which you have disagreements. That academic work might include research, books, conferences, graduate seminars, or other scholarly products.
But a line is crossed when the academic work becomes political action. As a conservative, I have no objection to someone using private dollars to create a Center for Marxist Studies. I would have an objection, however, if the Center was used as a vehicle for organizing labor protests, lobbying the legislature, or suing the state.
At Wake Forest, Otteson’s Eudaimonia Institute is unambiguously a scholarly project. It has not and will not engage in anything remotely like political activism. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Center for Civil Rights mixes scholarship and politics, again beyond any serious dispute (its political goals are explicit). Faculty progressives may cling to their double-standard. But it won’t save them from ridicule.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.