A Vietnamese 'white nationalist'? Arizona State bedeviled in hearing on free speech suppression

New dean of honors college allegedly rejected "diversified donor funding" plan for campus center after donor pulled out in protest of faculty trashing event with conservative speakers.

Published: July 18, 2023 11:30pm

If professors told students during class they should avoid an upcoming campus event featuring "white nationalist provocateurs," drew national attention to the event, then protested at the venue entrance, would students at the mercy of their grading feel unconstitutionally chilled from attending the event or expressing agreement with the speakers?

The tensions between faculty and student speech was the subject of a hearing Tuesday of the Arizona Legislature's four-day-old Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona's Public Universities, whose members didn't all know each other yet.

The hearing was prompted by Arizona State University's decision to shutter the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development in its Barrett Honors College after benefactor Tom Lewis yanked the grant that funds 40% of the center to protest the "alarming and outright hostility" of Barrett faculty and administration toward speakers at its Feb. 8 "health, wealth and happiness" event.

ASU resisted pressure to cancel the event with conservative pundits and faculty-dubbed "purveyors of hate" Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk, cardiologist Radha Gopalan and "Rich Dad Poor Dad" author Robert Kiyosaki, which officially drew about 600 paid attendees – students got in free – and 25,000 online. 

But the university fired the four-year-old center's executive director, Ann Atkinson, citing ASU's inability to make up the lost grant, from which her salary was taken.

ASU did not sanction the 75% of Barrett faculty who publicly denounced the event and slurred the center in a Feb. 1 public letter — some of whom also protested in person — and continues paying center-affiliated faculty from its remaining funds, drawing scrutiny from the Republican-led Legislature. 

Atkinson blasted the school in a June 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed, the day before Lewis publicly confirmed his pullout, citing students who said they didn't attend for fear of professors finding out they went. She testified Tuesday, accusing Barrett's first-year dean, Tara Williams, of destroying nearly 20 years of progress by her predecessor, Mark Jacobs, whom Lewis praised in his statement. 

The new dean spurned Atkinson's "diversified donor funding" plan based on verbal commitments she secured from several would-be benefactors after Lewis privately shared his plan, Atkinson told lawmakers. Williams killed the center as it was becoming a "global brand' and let the "faculty mob assume control of a jewel at ASU" that had run 150 "well attended" events under Atkinson's leadership.

Lawmakers traded partisan barbs throughout the hearing, which Democrat state Rep. Analise Ortiz called "a performance" by Republicans.

Each side accused the other of tolerating attacks on the First Amendment rights of students or faculty, including those who may have been pressured to sign the public letter, which called Kirk and Prager "bigoted" and "anti-intellectual." They also questioned why arguably relevant witnesses weren't invited or didn't show up. 

When Democrat state Sen. Christine Marsh speculated that death threats kept the 39 faculty who signed the public letter from testifying, committee Co-Chairman Sen. Anthony Kern, a Republican, retorted that lawmakers generally receive death threats. "That's a lame excuse for them not being here," he said, but couldn't confirm whether Republicans invited Dean Williams, who was sought by Democrats.

Invoking his escape from Communist Vietnam as a child, Co-Chairman Rep. Quang Nguyen (R) compared ASU's alleged silencing of dissenting views to that of dictators such as Pol Pot, whose "view is the only view" tolerated.

Even as he conceded ASU under President Michael Crow "for the most part has been doing a good job on free speech," Kern questioned whether its policies – lauded by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression – were observed around the event, particularly with faculty allegedly inveighing against it in class.

ASU Vice President for Legal Affairs Kim Demarchi falsely claimed in response that FIRE's ratings incorporate whether a school practices what it preaches.

Democrats emphasized ASU's claim that it received no formal complaints from students, through the campus "hotline" or other methods, about bias or intimidation by professors regarding the event. Kern claimed he had "quite a book" of informal complaints from students.

Vice Provost for Academic Enterprise Patrick Kenney recited a who's who of conservatives welcomed to speak on campus, including former President Trump's election lawyer John Eastman, himself a victim of cancel culture

But he had difficulty answering questions definitively, including whether Crow had "plea[ded] at all" to Lewis to continue funding the center. When Nguyen asked if ASU would defend him as an invited speaker if faculty also slurred him as a white nationalist, Kenney called that "a very hypothetical question." A fellow lawmaker actually slurred the Vietnamese immigrant as such in 2021, Nguyen said.

Atkinson claimed lawmakers would find "overwhelming evidence" of faculty misconduct around the Feb. 8 event if a real investigation were conducted, including use of university email addresses to harass her.

Even though they claimed to be intimidated by their inclusion on the Professor Watchlist maintained by Kirk's Turning Point USA, some ASU faculty members have been documented asking to be included on the list, according to Atkinson. 

A professor alleged worked with ASU information technology staff to identify a student who leaked her missive against the event, and another student claimed a professor spent one-and-half class sessions discussing "the dangers of our event," Atkinson said.

ASU reps at the hearing and Atkinson, who testified separately, deeply disagreed about how the university marketed the event.

Kenney said it went through normal channels and that he was not aware of any removals after the faculty backlash. Barrett notified its students, according to Demarchi.

Expanding on her WSJ op-ed, Atkinson alleged "the deans personally" ordered removal of marketing from both campus walls and ASU's Instagram posts. Officials asked how the invited speakers were different from the Ku Klux Klan in a meeting with Atkinson, she said.

The most startling "act of intimidation" she perceived was ASU breaching security protocols at the tightly monitored event, which required collaboration with several police departments, so that university officials without clearance could stand backstage as she opened the event, according to Atkinson. 

She suspects this was related to Barrett officials repeatedly telling her to deliver a "warning statement" to the audience about the potential offensiveness of the speakers, though Kenney denied this was an ASU practice when asked by Kern.

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