Maybe you have heard of it, or seen it. You should be aware of it, since its affecting how college campuses are viewed by the public. It’s a branded Fox News segment, “Campus Craziness.” The segment has some variation – snowflake students, liberal professors, deplatformed speakers – but the core message is the same: conservatives face a hostile environment on college campuses. This is the story of how one of those segments came to be, one makes plain the bad-faith nature of certain right-aligned attacks on universities, which simultaneously evoke free speech while shutting down academic freedom.
This semester, University of Wisconsin-Madison Political Science Professor Ken Mayer decided to teach a class entitled “The American Presidency: Or, What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?” In the course syllabus, while explaining why this was such an extraordinary time to be studying the Presidency, Meyer emphasized the highly polarized reactions to President Trump — and ticked through some of the extraordinary legal and political challenges the he faces – using language intended to provoke students to think about what the modern-day Presidency means, and to generate reactions for discussion:
“There is no such thing as a bad time to study the American presidency. But some times (now, for instance) are better than others. We are 2 years into the most (how shall we put it?) unconventional presidency in American history, with a president who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behavior that have structured the office since George Washington.
To his supporters, this is not a bug, but a feature, and they rejoice in his contempt for what they insist is a corrupt D.C. establishment. If elites are against it, Trump’s supporters are for it.
To others, he is a spectacularly unqualified and catastrophically unfit egomaniac who poses an overt threat to the Republic. And this was before U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian operatives, with the approval of Putin himself, hacked DNC computers and carefully leaked embarrassing emails as a way of damaging Clinton, all with the goal of helping Trump; before multiple campaign officials pled guilty to lying to the FBI or to other crimes; before federal prosecutors said in a court filing that Michael Cohen was acting at Trump’s direction to violate campaign finance laws by making payoffs to multiple women who said they had affairs with Trump in order to buy their silence during the campaign, or that Cohen lied about ongoing efforts during the campaign to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Other shoes are almost certain to drop, and evidence continues to emerge of ongoing contacts and engagement between Trump Campaign officials and Russian intelligence assets and government officials.”
A student in the class, McKenna Collins (a former Miss Wisconsin whose platform was “teaching civility within political discourse to students”), posted the syllabus on Facebook, complaining that a failure to include mention of Trump’s accomplishments in these paragraphs prevented a thoughtful dialogue about the president. Her post quickly received hundreds of shares, and ended up drawing the attention The College Fix, who ran a story about McKenna and the syllabus. This drew the attention of Representative Dave Murphy — chair of the higher education committee in the Wisconsin assembly — who quickly produced and published a harshly critical letter against Dr. Mayer on the basis of this characterization. The College Fix then doubled-down on the story, reporting on the lawmaker’s response to their previous reporting. Breitbart then picked up the story. Within hours, it was on Fox News. All of this happened before he had taught his second class of the semester. The only problem is that their caricature of Mayer, as a radical liberal shutting down the speech of conservative students, is the polar opposite of who he is in real life.
Full disclosure: Ken Mayer is a regular co-author (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here) and a friend of mine. Additionally, I worked at UW-Madison for 13 years before leaving in 2018. As a result, I can offer some context and insights unavailable to Fox News viewers.
For instance, Mayer is about as strong a defender of free speech and fairness as one could wish for on any campus. You don’t have to take my word for it: He has a long record of working with a loosely affiliated group of UW-Madison faculty members, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, that fought for free speech on campus since the 1990s (whose work has been praised by FIRE, the National Association of Scholars, and others). When UW-Madison adopted a campus speech code, he was part of a successful effort to repeal it, arguing that such codes are akin to unconstitutional prohibitions on flag-burning. He has also encouraged students to understand that offensive speech is part of the price of free speech. Indeed, one of the last times I saw Ken, he reported on bringing a group of students to see a Charles Murray event on campus. Meanwhile, in 2012, Ken criticized his own university for staging a campaign visit by President Obama on the grounds that it could appear to be an endorsement of the candidate.
UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone declared Ken is “a popular instructor and award-winning presidential scholar who leaves his political opinions at the classroom door and asks his students to do the same.” A faculty organization at the school (PROFS) echoed this sentiment, insisting“Professor Mayer is a fair professor who is nonetheless willing to speak critically and honestly. That is a key element of the Wisconsin idea.” Even UW-Madison College Republicans, usually happy to allege widespread liberal bias among faculty, have characterized Mayer as “an intellectually honest professor that treats conservatives fairly.” Another former colleague described him as “pretty much the ideal among moderate/conservative intellectuals of what a polsci professor should be.”
Academic Freedom and Its Discontents
Incidentally, the politician leading the attack against Dr. Mayer also describes himself as a fierce advocate of academic freedom and free speech. His actions suggest otherwise. Just two years ago, after finding another syllabus he disagreed with, Representative Murphy demanded UW Madison cancel the course in question and fire the lecturer who taught it, or face defunding: “If the university stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”
Ultimately, the university did stand by their faculty and have since reintroduced the course. Nonetheless, Murphy vowed that his staff would henceforth screen courses in the humanities “to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.” Although he has no meaningful training in the humanities, social sciences or education, he seems confident that his judgement should supersede that of professors on what constitutes good pedagogy in these domains.
Regarding the “American Presidency” course, Murphy suggested in his letter that Mayer’s syllabus left little to “sift and winnow.” If that term sounds a tad archaic, it is because it deliberately evokes a touchstone event in the history of Wisconsin higher education. It originates from an 1894 university report that stated: “Whatever may be limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Sifting and winnowing has since become shorthand for academic freedom and free speech at UW, memorialized in campus lore and governing documents.
What Murphy appears to have forgotten was the reason such stirring words were needed in the first place: a conservative Wisconsin politician pressured the university to punish a professor for his progressive views. Murphy bizarrely evoked UW-Madison’s history of protecting academic freedom in order to justify his own attack on academic freedom.
Murphy sent his letter, accusing Mayer of “hyper-partisan value judgment,” to 58 people — including Mayer’s Chancellor, the President of the UW System, the Board of Regents, as well as to the other politicians on the higher education committees. Make no mistake, this was an attempt by an influential politician to selectively police speech he dislikes. Worse, it is part of a continued pattern for Murphy of using state power in ways that inevitably have a chilling effect on what faculty feel able to discuss – in the name of academic freedom, no less!
A Rush to Judgement
Unfortunately, Murphy is not alone in his hypocrisy on these points. On the same night that he quoted George Orwell during a segment bemoaning what he saw as ill-informed, reactionary and slanderous attacks on conservative teens from Covington High School, Tucker Carlson devoted a segment to Mayer. He presented Mayer’s name and photograph to his viewers, labeling an award-winning professor whose research has been citedin Supreme Court decisions as “deeply unimpressive” – and concluded by saying “all the dumb kids end up teaching at the University of Wisconsin.”
For her part, Collins seemed right at home on Carlson’s show, skillfully hitting a series of talking points. “The political proselytizing is unbelievable.” She characterized Mayer as having Trump Derangement Syndrome, and said she was “sure that I would be penalized” if she dissented from what she assumed were Mayer’s views. She called for the dean to get involved if Mayer was going to “spew unfounded claims that have turned out to be largely false” (neither she nor Carlson identified any specific claims on the document that were false).
All of this from a syllabus!
Yet what Collins failed to mention, but other students did, is that in addition to going over the course requirements, etc., Mayer gave his standard stump speech on the opening day of class: He asked students to set aside their partisan identities to be open to new ideas. He emphasized that all opinions are welcome in classroom debate and ideas should be expressed freely. In short, he did exactly what proponents of viewpoint diversity and vigorous debate call for.
Indeed, after Collins actually attended a couple lectures, she declared that she was “not concerned with the course itself being biased” anymore. Unsurprisingly, she was not called back to Fox News to correct the record.
The whole affair seems like a variation on a very academic joke: how can we brainwash students when we can’t get them to read the syllabus?
Here, the student argued that merely reading the syllabus, or her (mis)characterization of it, was enough to judge an entire class — and the career and intentions of a professor that she seemed to know little about. Yet at the end of the day, Collins is a student. And it is to her credit that she was willing to publicly adjust her position after she got a better sense of who Dr. Mayer was.
Unfortunately, by that time, her initial reaction had already been uncritically amplified and further exaggerated by right-aligned politicians and media outlets eager to push a particular narrative. Mayer subsequently deleted his Facebook account. His department removed his contact information from his webpage. You can guess what his inbox looks like. Mayer was judged, not on his merits as a teacher, or his record of encouraging real debate, but because he seemed insufficiently kind to their political leader on a course syllabus. It’s the very stereotype of identity politics that many on the right claim to oppose.
A Distorted Image
All of the parties involved in manufacturing this pseudo-event positioned themselves as advocates for more free speech and political discourse on college campuses. And why not? Representative Murphy got some headlines. Breitbart and College Fix got some clicks. McKenna Collins got to be on a primetime Fox News show — an impressive feat for a young conservative communications major.
However, it is critical to bear in mind that each of these actors are, themselves, committed political partisans: the student is a former intern of Republicans Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and has praised Ivanka Trump’s leadership. Representative Murphy is a Republican politician. The College Fix is funded by the DeVos family and other conservatives with one mission in mind: to expose what they see as runaway campus liberalism. Carlson is one of the most influential critics of liberals in America today, on an overtly partisan television network.
Indeed, disparaging professors has been especially fertile ground for Carlson. “Campus Craziness” is a recurring section on his show. If College Fix is the minor leagues, Carlson is the majors. And these attacks have been startlingly effective. Surveys show that confidence in universities has plummeted. The change has been so dramatic that it is not likely a result of anything different that universities are doing. Instead, it seems driven by the image Carlson and others are promoting about institutions of higher learning in this highly-polarized political moment.
To feed that narrative, faculty must be routinely demonized. The principles that free speech depends on – like academic freedom from political interference – must be sacrificed. The truth becomes a casualty.
Attacking someone like Mayer, who has an actual record on cultivating lively debate and protecting intrusions on free speech, lays bare the opportunism of the free speech grifters who run this con again and again. With the slightest of effort they could have found that Mayer was not the caricature they presented. But that would have required basic research and challenging their own biases before rushing towards a conclusion. This proved a bridge too far.
Not only does the case exemplify how the “campus craziness” narrative is created, it also illustrates the limited pushback against that narrative. Even as cases of deplatforming of campus speakers are carefully tracked, Mayer’s experience will not be captured in any database.
Literally millions saw Mayer falsely portrayed; relatively few heard the full story. While local news media in Wisconsin followed the case — and it was featured in a short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education — coverage typically explained competing narratives, rather than pushing back on the false one. The most visible media defense of the professor came from students, in the form of an editorial in a campus newspaper.
If Mayer was under real threat of losing his job we would expect a more vocal response. But should it have to come to that? Countries that are currently remaking campuses into tools of unquestioning political obedience, such as Turkey and Hungary, started by targeting faculty. The quickest route to destroy free speech on campus is to smother the academic freedom of those who work there. They set the tone for how to engage in speech in the classroom, and push the boundaries on what topics can be researched. If we look the other way when academic freedom is attacked, expect it to be attacked more often.