Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Nicholas Dentamaro / Brown University

When Brown University hosted former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush last week, it was without incident. Despite having some controversial views that might rile the liberal student population at the institution, Bush was able to speak, and the questions were respectful. This was far cry from 2013, when the university made headlines after students drowned out Ray Kelly, the controversial former New York City police commissioner, when he tried to address the campus. Since then, particularly in the last 18 months, higher education has received much criticism over a series of such incidents.

To the frustration of some Brown officials, the public impression that the institution has a free speech problem lingers nearly five years after the Kelly incident, even though no speaker has been shouted down since Kelly’s appearance and the university makes special efforts to bring in a diverse range of speakers. A new student group now is trying to ensure that conservatives are more represented — and administrators at Brown are embracing that mission.

Greer Brigham, a Brown sophomore, said he decided to found the student group SPEAK because of the 2016 elections. Brigham, a longtime Democrat and Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer, said neither he nor the rest of the country anticipated Donald Trump’s win. He said he realized during the election he hadn’t explored a variety of information sources, and he wanted to make sure the speakers who came to campus were diverse in their political ideations.

Last fall, he launched SPEAK with a small group of students, with the intent of increasing the number of conservative speakers on campus. Brigham wanted to avoid scenarios such as what happened at the University of California, Berkeley, though, with former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who inspired riots during his talk, and with Richard Spencer at the University of Florida, where the campus essentially shut down for a day to accommodate the white supremacist.

While those are recognized conservatives, they are much more fringe, known more than their insults than the ideas they bring to campuses.

A SPEAK analysis suggested that the speakers Brown professors and administrators invite to campus are almost exclusively liberal. Administrators in interviews said while they admire the students’ intent, they disagreed with the methodology of the report, saying that giving purely academic lectures partisan labels only further exacerbates the polarization of the country.

“This implies that a scholar, a researcher, an academic, injected their personal views into their scholarship, which contributes to erosion in public confidence,” said spokeswoman Cass Cliatt. “It suggests that facts are just malleable expressions of belief. That’s where our country is going right now, that somehow facts are malleable … we just don’t think that’s true.”

SPEAK’s breakdown of speakers brought to events at Brown in 2017 showed that nearly 95 percent of them leaned left in their political views. The students determined this by studying the speakers’ previous jobs — such as if they ever worked for a particular federal administration — their campaign contributions and their social media posts.

The group met with faculty members, largely in the political science department, which organizes many of the campus lectures, and with Brown president Christina H. Paxson. Brigham said he didn’t want to release the data they had collected before they met with everyone…

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