A University of Montana benefactor is re-evaluating future giving to the School of Journalism after the dean declined to host a conservative writer as its annual Cole lecturer.
Donor Maria Cole was married to the late Wall Street Journal reporter for whom the Jeff Cole Legacy Fund is named, and has given more than $1.2 million over the last 15 years to the School of Journalism.
The last nine years, Cole has sponsored the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, inviting former colleagues of her husband to speak. She wanted the 10th anniversary to be different and decided to create an event that would spark civil discourse.
Each year, Cole said she selects a lecturer, and the School of Journalism chooses a scholarship recipient. After vetting potential candidates for speaker, she invited and entered into a contract with Mike Adams, professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
Adams won a First Amendment case in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011, and he's a columnist for Townhall.com, which aims to amplify conservative voices in political debates.
Adams regularly mocks leftists in his writing and his views earlier sparked a petition for his termination at UNC. He has targeted LGBT people, Muslims and feminists, and he has described transgender people as mentally ill.
For the first time in the tradition of the annual event, School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson objected to the lecturer Cole selected, a reaction Cole said she never anticipated.
She said Adams has twice been voted best professor at UNC and he's a longtime defender of free speech, a foundation of journalism.
"I was so stunned," Cole said. "How can you say — especially the dean of a journalism school — how can you say you support free speech and deny this guy to come to campus?"
Cole said she will continue to sponsor a scholarship but is reconsidering other contributions.
Abramson said Adams may reserve space on campus if he chooses, but the School of Journalism will not sponsor his lecture. The dean defended the move as one that's best for students, and said Adams lacks the credentials to appear.
"As the dean of the school, I do have the prerogative to make sure we are inviting people who are speaking to our concerns as a profession and who I can recommend to our students," Abramson said.
He said the school has high standards for its distinguished speakers, and Adams isn't a journalist, nor is he talking about journalism issues.
In one column about a new “LGBTQIA Resource Center,” Adams mocked the acronym as a “veritable alphabet soup of liberal victim-hood.”
“For the record, I had to … ask her the meaning of ‘A,’" Adams wrote, noting it stands for ally. "I thought it might stand for androgyny or, perhaps, something to do with the buttocks. We already have the feminists reclaiming the c-word in 'The Vagina Monologues.'"
This week, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni called the School of Journalism's decision "shameful," especially for a journalism school teaching principles ensconced in the First Amendment. The ACTA is a conservative watchdog and proponent of academic freedom that advocates on a variety of higher education issues.
"A free press and free society know how to challenge and expose weak ideas," said Michael Poliakoff, head of the council. " ... Take (Adams) on. My guess is that every journalist would prize that opportunity."
Cole said she will continue to sponsor a scholarship, which provides a student with at least $2,000 a year. She also will continue to host staff from the student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, for an annual dinner at her home. But she is rethinking other funding.
"I'm totally re-evaluating that," Cole said.
Cole is looking for another venue to host Adams for the Feb. 13 lecture, possibly still one on campus. And she is reconsidering how to organize the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture in the future.
"For the lecture, I think I'm going to do it differently after this year," Cole said.
This time, she said she wanted to design a landmark event, and she decided to bring a person with a totally different viewpoint in order to stir civil discussion.
"We're at such a point in our country where people are so polarized they are on opposite ends," Cole said. "People can't even engage in civil discourse anymore."
So she contacted an agency that sent her dozens of bios of potential speakers, and she narrowed it down. She selected Adams because he has a different viewpoint and an interesting story defending free speech as a professor.
"His story is very engaging, and a very good one, and it is about freedom of expression," Cole said.
She was so thrilled about his upcoming appearance that she drove to Abramson's office to share the news with him in person. Cole said three minutes after she walked out of his office, the dean tracked her down and called her back to tell her he wasn't sure Adams was right for the lecture after reading about him online.
"It was like an exploding cigar in my face," Cole said.
Cole said she made her case. She raised the issue of UM's own "beautifully written" free speech and academic freedom policy. She also said she has a lot of faith in the students.
"I think they're going to attend this thing and really engage with this guy and really think ... ," Cole said. "Are people going to squirm in their seats?'' Cole said. "I have squirmed in my seat about some of the things Mike has said.
"But it's when you're uncomfortable and awkward and squirming when the greatest learning occurs."
Her arguments did not fly with Abramson. In an email to her, he outlined more of his objections:
"If you jump in at 3:30 on the link at the bottom, you can hear him talking about his opposition to tolerance of transgender accommodations. He appears to be siding with Christians in the 'culture war.'
"In this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oX9ya3EW04 he talks about his efforts to make sure that abortion providers give time to Christian speakers, in the interest of freedom of speech. He also talks about the prevalence of 'cultural Marxism,' and exclusively speaks on right wing sites. In this one, https://townhall.com/columnists/mikeadams/2017/04/07/why-im-banning-illegal-aliens-from-my-classes-n2310029 he talks about why he will no longer allow 'illegal aliens' into his classes.
"I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students. We can still have a conversation with him if you want, but he is pretty extreme in his views."
So Cole said she opted to move on without the School of Journalism.
"He (Abramson) dug his heels in and said it's not happening," Cole said. "I was stunned. But I said, it is happening because I have a legally binding contract. So I'm bringing Mike here and have to make this thing happen by myself."
Abramson said he's a passionate believer in the right to free speech, and he's proud the First Amendment is engraved on the first floor of the School of Journalism's building.
He's also thankful for the support Cole has given the UM School of Journalism over the years, and said she's offered more than financial support, welcoming recipients of the Cole scholarship into her family.
"She is a great partner, and I think that she basically supports what the journalism school is behind," Abramson said.
In this case, though, he said the issue isn't the speech, but it's the sponsorship by the School of Journalism. In the past, for example, he said UM has hosted the executive editor of the New York Times as a speaker.
"Somebody else wants to invite this speaker to campus and to have him speak, I would have no problem with that. But I don't think that's how we should be spending our time," Abramson said.
The email he sent to Cole was early in their conversation about the lecture, he said. He subsequently offered other ideas for speakers he believed would address the topic of free speech well, including Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of the books "Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate" and "Freedom From Speech."
Abramson said he has concerns with statements Adams has made — and, he said, appears to be proud of making — that "are hostile to the LGBT community and to feminists and other groups."
"We don't encourage name-calling at the School of Journalism, and I think a lot of the speech that I've seen online and in videos that feature Mr. Adams raise questions about that," Abramson said.
The dean said he made the decision after discussing the matter with other people on campus including the provost. In an email, Provost Beverly Edmond said she visited with Abramson several weeks ago.
"He expressed concern that the individual did not have the journalism background he felt was desirable," Edmond said. "At the time he and Ms. Cole were still discussing this selection. I support the dean’s position but did not advise him to take any specific position on this matter. This is not typically the role I would play in any event."
Institutions of higher education have been butting heads with controversial speakers in recent years, and some campuses have rescinded invitations to provocative figures.
Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education counted 43 instances of rescinded invitations or attempts to curtail speakers at campuses compared to just six in 2000, according to the New York Times.
In February, police at the University of California-Berkeley, canceled a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after violent protests erupted.
Texas A&M changed its speakers policy after part-time Whitefish resident Richard Spencer spoke there in December about white supremacy, according to CNN. The university subsequently told Preston Wiginton, also linked to white supremacy, that he couldn't hold a rally on campus.
Poliakoff, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said instead of running away from possibly unpopular viewpoints, the UM School of Journalism should challenge Adams' ideas and embrace a spirited debate — for the benefit of its students and for democracy.
"It seems shameful for a school of journalism to run away from a controversial speaker," Poliakoff said.
Poliakoff said shutting down controversial perspectives isn't only a disservice to students. He said it's becoming a threat to the republic, and one colleges and universities have been "aiding and abetting" since 2009 or 2010.
"If this trend of shutting down unwelcomed opinions persists, all we'll have is an echo chamber of stale orthodoxy," Poliakoff said.
He also said some other colleges have handled such conflicts differently, and he pointed to Columbia University as a place that is "an iconic example of what to do when there's a genuinely objectionable speaker."
In 2007, Columbia invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak, a leader who has denied the Holocaust. But Polliakoff said Columbia President Lee Bollinger took the opportunity to introduce Ahmadinejad, and in doing so, exposed his views, such as his "vicious attitudes" toward the West and women.
"By the time Lee Bollinger was done with the introduction, my guess is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn't so happy he had come to speak. But then he had the floor.
"That's so different than the practice that's becoming all too common on campuses of disrupting or silencing an unwelcome voice."
Earlier this year, First Amendment scholar David Hudson wrote about controversial campus speakers for the Newseum Institute. He reiterated remarks he had made in testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Rights.
“When dealing with controversial speakers who will offend others, college and university officials should embrace and advance the counter-speech principle rather than resort to silencing and disinviting controversial speakers," Hudson said. "Only in a true emergency should they resort to more drastic measures.”
In a column published on Townhall.com, Adams defended his views as mainstream, questioned Abramson's "intellectual courage," and also pitched himself as a new candidate for dean of the UM School of Journalism.
"Try to make sense of the logic of this dean telling me I am not going to be tolerated or welcomed at the J-school because I am not as tolerant and welcoming as they are at the J-school," Adams wrote.
"After finishing a career with NPR, now he’s teaching future journalists. Any wonder why we have a problem with honesty both in reporting and in higher education?
"If you were smart, you would lift the ban on me speaking at UM. Then, you could hire me as your new Dean of Journalism."
In the post, Adams also defended himself from Abramson's other objections point by point. He agreed he supported the controversial "bathroom bill" requiring people at government offices to use facilities that matched their birth certificate genders, but he called the issue a "transgender litmus test."
He also said he never referred to abortion "providers," but rather, to campus "Women's Resource Centers using mandatory student fees to fund speeches in favor of abortion but not those in opposition to abortion. That violates Supreme Court precedent."
Adams also disputed Abramson's claim he spoke "exclusively" on right wing sites.
"That is false. I have been on MSNBC, Air America, and numerous other left-wing stations and sites. I have also appeared on NPR where Abramson worked for nearly 30 years.
"Most importantly, I have spoken at 93 different universities, the overwhelming majority of which have been dominated by left-wing academics such as Dean Abramson. In short, I have stepped out of my comfort zone and demonstrated the kind of intellectual courage the Dean lacks."
This summer, Adams wrote that he was was penning his retirement letter from UNC — and noted he would date it no later than August 1, 2050; UNC still lists him as a professor of sociology and criminology.
Cole also said she was shocked to hear Abramson describe Adams' remarks as "hate speech."
"The whole hate speech remark stunned me. Stunned me. Because I've got to tell you, I don't think Mike Adams is a hater. I think he's a strong Christian with strong beliefs. But that doesn't make him a hater," Cole said.
She also wondered why anyone would think she would bring a hatemonger to campus. Cole is not only a benefactor to UM, she also worked on campus for more than seven years as the diversity and recruitment coordinator in the president's office.
"So why would I, OK, who is giving away tens of thousands of dollars to the university, why would I be the person who hires the hater to come to campus? That just doesn't even make any sense," Cole said.
Typically, the Cole lecturer has engagements on campus and visits classes, Cole said. Since the School of Journalism declined to tie itself to Adams, Cole set out to establish another agenda in Missoula for him.
As part of her effort, she contacted KGVO to see if it would host him as a speaker on the First Amendment. The conservative radio station learned about the conflict behind the request and subsequently published a story about the rejection by the School of Journalism, sparking more coverage.
"I couldn't have anticipated this. I'm sure my husband is laughing his ass off," Cole said.
She contacted his children to share the situation with them as well and ensure they believed she was honoring his legacy.
"They're like, 'Maria, you're absolutely fine. We stand by you 100 percent. This is what Dad would want. It's about freedom of speech,'" Cole said.
Originally, Cole had planned to host Adams at the event and honor people from the School of Journalism, School of Business Administration, and School of Law. Adams is a professor of sociology and criminology, and now that the lecture is not affiliated with the School of Journalism, she's planning instead to honor a couple of law enforcement officers and firefighters from Ravalli County and Missoula County.
"It's the 10th anniversary, and I'm willing to spend a lot of money this year to make this a really blow-out event," Cole said.