by Brett Cooper
When Davidson College senior Maya Pillai was asked about her greatest college memory, the first-generation immigrant answered, “I don’t have one.”
In an August 2020 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Pillai, the president of Davidson’s chapter of College Republicans, described her alienating college experience.
“Because of my political affiliation, it led to not having friends,” said Pillai, who received a full, merit scholarship to the highly-respected North Carolina institution. “And because it led to not having friends, it led to not having a fair reputation on campus. So I’ve been essentially outcast due to my political views.”
Pillai’s work with national Republican leaders earned her a spot as an alternate delegate for the Republican National Convention in 2020. In addition, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Pillai organized a significant and well-attended rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to urge politicians to re-open the state. Though she was proud of her work, Pillai’s efforts were met with hostility from students and professors on Davidson’s campus.
Multiple hit pieces were written about Pillai, published in the school’s widely respected newspaper, The Davidsonian.
One classmate wrote that “Pillai and other Reopen protesters believe that individual lives, particularly those who are Black, Brown, disabled, fat, or low-income, are expendable for the sake of America’s oppressive capitalist machine,” an ironic statement, considering that Pillai herself is a first-generation minority.
Though the campus re-opened to in-person classes in fall of 2020, Pillai chose to finish her degree online because the threats she received were so severe.
“The main reason I decided to attend virtually is not entirely because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but because I am afraid of being targeted. … If students have written these articles about me in the few months of being off campus,” said Pillali, “imagine what they will do to me on campus, when they see my face and see me walking around.”
Pillai is not the only free-thinking student who has faced harsh discrimination at the nationally-ranked liberal arts college, and when the Davidson administration refused to step in and actively support the students, concerned members of Davidson’s alumni community began to take note.
Though the small, prestigious college has produced a United States president (Woodrow Wilson), multiple senators, a North Carolina governor, and 23 Rhodes Scholars, Davidson College has recently garnered a dismal rating for free speech.
FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has labeled the school a “red light” institution, indicating that its campus policies and practices substantially inhibit free speech. The organization has given the school the lowest ranking in its measurement system for failing to institute safeguards for openness and inclusivity.
In response to FIRE’s negative rating — and to the experiences of outspoken students like Pillai — a small group of Davidson College alumni formed the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. Upon their creation, this alumni group began using their resources and sway to bring intellectual diversity back to campus.
They are not alone in this cause.
Across the country, alumni at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities have similarly come together to take a stand against the recent trend of blatant censorship and assaults on free speech in higher education.
Though organizations such as these have taken higher education administrations by surprise, this movement started organically. As their alma maters became increasingly radical-leaning and drifted away from a focus on free inquiry, alarmed alums began to pull their financial donations, ending years of major giving. Slowly, communities were formed over these shared concerns and values, and the grassroots campaigns took flight.
The mission of these alumni organizations is largely guided by the Chicago Principles, a declaration on free expression in academia originally developed by the University of Chicago.
After a series of incidents that “tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse,” the University of Chicago established the Committee on Freedom of Expression in 2014 to write a statement articulating the school’s dedication to ideological diversity.
To sum up the principles and push back against ideological censorship, the committee asserted that, “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed [on campus] because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
Supporting the free market of ideas, the Chicago Principles stated that, “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”
Following the creation of the Chicago Principles, a campaign arose to get them adopted on other college campuses. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that their implementation became a trend. Prestigious institutions like Columbia University, Claremont McKenna College, Vanderbilt University, and most recently, the University of Virginia have all endorsed Chicago’s statement, and this was accomplished with significant help from concerned alumni.
This commitment to fostering debate and deliberation is an essential part of any university’s educational mission, because it challenges students to become articulate, independent-minded, critical thinkers. Traditionally, this has been the goal of higher education. However, in today’s culture, that objective has been superseded by political agendas.
In the case of Davidson College, the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse have been pushing for the school’s adoption of the Chicago Principles since 2018. As recently as last week, the administration continued to strike down the request. However, the alumni group offers no indication of backing down.
The Davidson alums, along with so many others, are watching as their alma maters become environments that are hostile toward free inquiry and antithetical to genuine intellectual exploration. The quality education they themselves received as students is being eroded in front of them, so it’s not surprising that they’re using their sway as donors, leaders, and trustees to counter this deterioration.
“This whole effort is really about freedom of expression and discourse,” said John E. Craig, Jr, a founding member of Davidson’s alumni group. “We regard the Chicago Principles as the definitive effort.”
Engaged, independent students such as Davidson’s Maya Pillai deserve environments that help them explore and grow as free thinkers, and this alumni movement might have the power to restore free inquiry and discourse in American higher education.
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Brett Cooper is a professional actress and a Libertarian-Conservative writer. She’s an ambassador for PragerU and TurningPoint USA and content manager at Unwoke Narrative. She is a contributor to the Foundation for Economic Education.