This Tuesday, a young writer of little reputation tried to take Emily Yoffe, a contributing editor of The Atlantic, down a peg.
Yoffe’s career, the writer argued, was built wholly on “casting doubt upon Title IX, the #MeToo movement, and the validity of sexual assault survivors’ experiences.” None of that is true, but it is now standard to apply the label “victim blamers” to those who suggest that barely-regulated blackout drinking may have something to do with sexual assault on campus.
The attack on Yoffe generated a surprising amount of negative Twitter attention. Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson, who is indispensable on campus Title IX issues, weighed in. The Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, Reason’s Robby Soave, and Slate’s Will Saletan commented, too.
The young writer is a junior at Wellesley College. She laments Wellesley’s willingness to entertain Yoffe’s argument. Her op-ed is, at best, a very small symptom of a problem we know very well. Some students and faculty have it in for speakers who disagree with them about matters they consider urgent. They deploy powerful insults— “racist,” “rape apologist,” and “fascist”—with a deplorable indifference to the meaning of those terms and the records of the people they target.
And yet, I wonder about the value of picking on one lone undergraduate of the 3.8 million or so undergraduates attending four-year private nonprofit colleges and universities. A more interesting story is how Emily Yoffe came to be invited to Wellesley in the first place.
She was invited by The Freedom Project, an academic center at Wellesley that is funded in part by the Koch Foundation. The Freedom Project runs the speaker series of which Yoffe was part, but it also introduces a substantial number of students to courses in which they encounter a wide range of ideas, including conservative ideas. Those who worry that students at small liberal arts colleges live in a political monoculture should be impressed that Wellesley’s students have heard not only from Yoffe, but also from Jeannie Suk Gersen and Laura Kipnis. Like Yoffe, they are critics of conventional campus Title IX wisdom. Through the Freedom Project, Wellesley students have also heard from Alice Dreger, a critic of the influence of left activism on science.
I’m not saying all’s well at Wellesley. Although her talk was in no way disrupted, Dreger did have to deal with protestors animated by a serious misrepresentation of her record. Consequently, she left Wellesley with “a renewed sense of just how f***** up campuses are right now.” Kipnis’s visit was also controversial and, in its aftermath, a handful of professors proposed standards seemingly designed to prevent someone like Kipnis from ever being invited again.
The Freedom Project has had more than its share of pushback from students and faculty, and disturbing levels of interference from the administration. At one point, Wellesley seemed to be considering shutting the whole thing down. Nonetheless, the Freedom Center has been around since 2012, and its new director, a strong supporter who previously served on the Project’s advisory board, appears inclined to continue its necessary work.
Enterprises like the Freedom Project are fragile. But they also represent a movement to preserve colleges and universities as centers for free discussion and inquiry into important matters, however controversial. Emily Yoffe, I’ve heard, spoke without disruption at Wellesley College on Wednesday, and she reports a good experience. It shouldn’t be so hard to make these things happen. But they are happening.