Case study in free speech? Not really. Mike Adams at the University of MT

Note: This was originally penned before Mike Adams was re-scheduled to speak on the University of Montana campus. His visit is not officially sponsored by the University of Montana.

Maria Cole is a major donor to the University of Montana School of Journalism. She is the widow of WSJ reporter Jeff Cole and in his memory has given money to the School of Journalism not only for scholarships but for an annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture. We now know that Cole is also heavily involved in the selection of the lecturer. This year, Maria Cole selected Mike Adams. October 2017, a story in the Missoulian reported that the School of Journalism’s dean Larry Abramson was rejecting Cole’s pick due to Adams’ “lack of journalism credentials. He (Abramson) also feared Adams would offend students”. Adams offensive opinions/writings as detailed by The Missoulian include the following:

Abramson’s stance has been painted as a violation of free speech by Maria Cole. Mike Adams, and the new University of Montana president. But is it? A more careful look at how and why Adams was ultimately not invited by the University of Montana School of Journalism clearly demonstrates that Abramson had sound reasons not to invite Adams and that this lack of an invitation impedes no one’s free speech. What does become clear is monied special interests are more invested in having their way than fostering a free-thinking academic community.

Benefactors and donors to higher education have tremendous power. This is exemplified at the University of Montana where, amidst a budget crisis, a new Champions Center has just opened with a ~$12 million dollar price tag. $7 million was donated by just two individuals. Faculty have no say in these budget conversations. However, faculty provide the disciplinary knowledge and expertise to guide the intellectual life of campus and this should certainly including evaluating and inviting, or not inviting, speakers to campus. The tone and organization of content in The Missoulian‘s coverage paints Abramson as a bully instead of someone who is doing his job. It quotes Cole’s reaction of Abramson’s decision: “How can you say – especially the dean of a school of journalism – how can you say you support free speech and deny this guy to come to campus?” This statement is misguided. Abramson is not denying Adams’ right to free speech (or Cole’s for that matter) he simply said that the School of Journalism would not host this individual. Using his disciplinary expertise, Abramson evaluated Adams as a choice and found his credentials wanting. Adams has never been a journalist, as the Cole Lecture Series was meant to support. His scholarly background is in criminology. And even Adams’ most recent academic scholarship (this is besides his essays/opinion pieces written for conservative news sites) was written for a dubious and ideologically-motivated publication. Of the three most recent publications listed in Adams’ vita, two involve censorship and his personal legal battles with the UNC system, not the study of criminology.

The journal Academic Questions features prominently in Adams’ vitaAcademic Questions has been called by reviewer Jonathan Rauch of The Times Literary Supplement “a missionary journal, not a scholarly one”.  It is published by the conservative organization the National Association of Scholars. Their primary motivation is to promote conservative viewpoints on college campuses and the teaching of “classics” over “books that emphasize personal perspectives”. For instance, their Center for the Study of the Curriculum lamented that the most assigned reading in higher education for the year 2011 was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks instead of a “classic” literary text.

It is further worth calling into question Adams’ judgement as a scholar from the lack of disciplinary discretion exhibited in an article titled “My Philosophy of Mental Illness”. This is the article in which Adams calls transgender people mentally ill. His “philosophy” is based on the fact that identifying as transgender, until recently, was classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the defining diagnostic text in the medicine and psychology). Adams says the removal of Gender Identify Disorder, as it was called, ” was done solely for political reasons” but offers no other medical or psychological justifications for his viewpoints. In this article he also concludes that as a result of “identify relativism”, “the idea of peer-reviewed research is also rendered obsolete”. Disdain for peer-reviewed scholarship is contrary to a basic understanding of scholarship, research, and academia.

Beyond Adams’ lack of credentials, Dean Abramson makes a misstep in one portion of his justification: “I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students.” Stating that Adams would “offend students” is most certainly not the reason to keep a speaker from being sponsored by the School of Journalism. “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.” This is a fair sentiment. But calling whole groups of people “mentally ill” based on their gender identity or using harassment and mocking language towards groups and individuals that don’t fit with your faith-based views does not prepare you to “engage in civil discourse”. The problem is not that Adams’ views are controversial; it is that, as he presents them, they are civilly indefensible.  The National Institute for Civil Discourse specifies: “Civility is showing mutual respect toward one another.” How can Mike Adams show mutual respect, for instance, in a discussion on immigration when he refuses to let “illegal aliens” in his classroom?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has many articles on campus free speech: for instance, how to invite speakers. “A Practical Approach to Campus Speakers” provides, in particular, one very useful recommendation that the University of Montana School of Journalism might consider to prevent this type of negative scuttlebutt in the future. Author Robert C. Boatright explains Carleton College’s approach to selecting on-campus speakers for their main convocation series: “Carleton’s convocations are planned in advance by a committee that has sought to balance different disciplinary and ideological viewpoints…the convocations offer a statement about the range of views that the college wishes to be heard. If done well, this approach can demonstrate that a wide range of viewpoints must be part of the college experience.” The inclusion of students in Carleton’s process is crucial. Conservative interests blast academia for brainwashing students; this type of decision-making body turns students from passive consumers of ideas into decision-makers.

We need structures on college campuses that assert the expertise of faculty over donors and that bring compelling, relevant voices to our academic communities. This drawn-out incident at the University of Montana makes clear that its administrators are unsure how to articulate their own values and expertise in terms of what free speech is, and what it certainly isn’t. Mike Adams is not a relevant, scholarly voice that merits invitation by the University of Montana School of Journalism.

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