Paying the Price

April 2005

College administrators make decisions every day, so dealing with the consequences of unpopular ones is nothing new. Often those decisions are private, and even if their consequences are large, their visibility is relatively limited. But once in awhile, a decision has to be made on an issue that has tremendous public visibility and broad consequences. I recently had to make just such a decision.

As of 6 p.m. on February 1, I had never heard the name Ward Churchill. That evening, returning on a plane from Atlanta after several alumni visits, I read a news article about a scheduled presentation by Churchill at Hamilton College in New York. As my eyes briefly glanced over the page, I remember feeling compassion for Joan Hinde Stewart, Hamilton's president, and the agony she must have felt over canceling his lecture there. I noted the threats, the security issues, the alumni concerns, and I remember thinking to myself, That is a no-win situation.

The next morning I opened my e-mail and read the headlines from The Chronicle. Once again the name of Ward Churchill crossed my path. Ten minutes later, sifting through several days of correspondence, I saw a poster announcing four speakers for Native Pride Week at my Wisconsin university. To my surprise, Churchill was among them.

Instantly I knew it was one of those situations that would have a dicey outcome. No matter what decision was made and no matter how carefully, there would be a price to pay. The only question was how great.

At that point I had yet to fully comprehend that the four weeks leading up to Churchill's presentation, scheduled for March 1, would make February such a riveting month. But I had enough of an inkling that I called together the student leaders organizing the event to talk privately with them about the nature of the invitation, and what they knew about the speaker. Their insistence that Churchill was an integral part of the four-speaker series impressed me.

Next we held a meeting with a range of campus groups including our police department, academic and student services, the dean of the sponsoring college, and several student organizations. I told everyone that within a few days I would decide whether to rescind the invitation to Churchill. We discussed a number of the issues that were involved, including security, the First Amendment, and alternative points of view. We then issued a news release saying that a decision would be made within a week.

In the meantime Churchill found his speaking invitations cancelled by a succession of institutions: Eastern Washington University, Wheaton College of Massachusetts, the University of Oregon, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, the latter of which was Churchill's employer. All of them cited security issues, although Oregon officials said they felt that the presence of such a highly visible speaker would overwhelm the general purpose of their conference. Colorado later changed its position and went ahead with his talk, saying, among other things, that the security threats had been exaggerated.

I began to read as much of Churchill's writing as I could in a relatively brief period of time. It was obvious that his views did not coincide with mine, and his rhetoric in some instances was highly inflammatory.

Communications started pouring in. They came via telephone calls, e-mail messages, written letters, and some less-civilized forms of communication. Things were yelled at me from around corners in restrooms and from passing vehicles as I walked down the street.

By and large, the comments at this point were evenly divided between people advocating continuing the invitation as supporters of First Amendment rights, and people wanting the invitation canceled who viewed the speaker as having engaged in "hate speech." I believe the communications were evenly balanced at this point because a decision had not yet been reached. The real firestorm was yet to come.

I consulted with some individuals from other campuses that had either retracted their invitations or were dealing with security-related fallout for planning to go ahead with his talk.

On February 10 I made the final decision to allow Churchill to speak on our campus. I did so based on a series of stipulations, including that I remained convinced that we could maintain the safety and security of our campus, that no state money would be used, and that no one would be required by assignment to be in the audience.

One of the things that I have learned about decisions that involve so much passion is that people on both sides believe that the decision is simple -- a no-brainer -- even while the conclusions they reach are polar opposites. It was a no-brainer to vigorously defend the First Amendment. It was a no-brainer to cancel a forum for hate speech.

I was reminded of several other controversial calls on our campus in recent years. On one occasion I strongly defended several faculty members who were under siege for making remarks in the wake of September 11 that some alumni and donors considered anti-American. On another occasion numerous people had demanded that I dismiss a student who had appeared briefly in blackface during a homecoming skit. I did not. Some of the same people who lauded the first decision decried the second, and vice versa.

Once I made my final decision about Churchill's talk, the rhetoric in the communications I received began to heat up, and it switched from evenly divided to about 80 percent in opposition. I think that was to be expected, given that those who had wanted me to rescind the invitation were on the losing side. It was all the more imperative for them to express their opinions. I respect and understand their objections.

The news media became more and more actively involved in the process, and in fairly rapid succession, bloggers generated a torrent of e-mail messages, many of which lacked civility, and a handful of which were threatening, to both Churchill and myself. Many of those people engaged in the same type of hostile communication for which they excoriated Churchill. They asked how he could viciously condemn people he didn't even know, while they were doing exactly the same to me.

It soon became obvious that the negative reactions were largely from people unconnected with the university. They often demonstrated little firsthand knowledge of the actual content of Churchill's writings. I found it odd that a person who had lectured with virtually no attention since September 11 at numerous universities -- including Arizona State, Brown, Michigan State, and Syracuse -- was now becoming the object of widespread public wrath.

As the pounding kept up, it was joined by an area legislator who introduced a resolution into the state legislature, both condemning Churchill for hate speech and requesting that the president of the University of Wisconsin System and its governing board direct me to disinvite him. The resolution passed the Assembly, 67 to 31. Interestingly, the content of the e-mail messages sent to me started switching to "Why can't I get a ticket?"

I was gratified to receive full support from our system president. In the meantime, people on the campus swung into action in a way in which I am most proud. The university police and event-security officials created easy access for those who wished to protest, and offered them a physical presence in a secure environment. Similarly, the police worked to create adequate security for the event itself, taking steps beyond those we had ever had to use for speakers. Students continued with their plans for Native Pride Week, and state and national news media continued to drive unprecedented visibility of the lecture.

On March 2 both the first and the second speakers in Whitewater's third annual Native Pride Week made their presentations. Ada Deer, the first Native American woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, spoke first, followed later that day by Churchill. The first talk attracted an appreciative but quiet crowd of about 100 people; the second generated 112 media credentials, 440 sold tickets, and more than 300 people in two protests.

The university and the community responded as I expected they would. We learned that we have nothing to fear in words. In fact, controversial issues are best handled by giving them an outlet, and then allowing people to draw their own conclusions.

Was there a price to be paid? Most definitely. Among the numerous people who expressed their disdain for me personally over the course of the month were some who stated they would withdraw their support of the university in the future.

To date there have been well over 1,000 e-mail messages from members of the public, and numerous additional letters and phone calls. As of a few days ago, there were more than 230 communications from people who identified themselves as alumni. More than 80 of them said that they would make no further donations to the university. Clearly, that is a price to be paid.

Of those people who said they would give no further, only 14 had made a donation the previous year. Our annual phonathon was going on during this time, and 55 individuals who had given to the campus said they would no longer do so. Together those two groups represent about $7,000 in annual contributions.

To date no major contributors to the institution have withdrawn their support for a capital campaign to support a new business building. Nevertheless, I am quite certain some of them are greatly disappointed with me and the institution for going ahead with the speech.

There has been a political cost, an alumni cost, and an energy cost for the decision. Nonetheless, it was based on the belief that we could maintain security. Most importantly, although some critics have mocked this, I believe that the First Amendment issues were real. I don't believe that academe should be forced to make popular or politically correct decisions -- regardless of how this particular speaker's future unfolds at his employing institution.

On a more personal note, I do decry the insensitive comments that Churchhill made that were deliberately hurtful to families of deceased, innocent victims. My heart goes out to all of them. There are connections, too, with our Midwestern university. One of our most esteemed alumni is the chief executive of a corporation that lost 176 people in the World Trade Center. Supporting Churchill's appearance on our campus, even when it was advocated appropriately by student organizations, and financed without state tax dollars, was still something that was difficult for me.

If, as a president, you find yourself in such a difficult situation, what I would first advise is that you have a transparent communication process. Don't explain yourself time after time to reporter after reporter. Make your decision for the right reasons. Recognize the consequences, and stick with what you believe is right. In the final analysis, there will be a price to be paid either way. It is easier to pay that price knowing that you believe deeply in your decision.