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Free Money Meets Free Speech

I received an interestingly timed message last week from the University of Montana’s journalism school.

The message’s sender, the new director of development, chose that day to reach out to me as an alumnus and former member of the school’s Journalism Advisory Council. It also happened to be the day of the 10th annual Jeff Cole lecture at UM, sponsored by Cole’s widow, Maria Cole. While the original email had nothing to do with the lecture, my response had everything to do with it.

A couple of months ago, I wrote in this space about the shameful treatment Maria Cole received at the hands of Larry Abramson, the current dean of the journalism school. Cole has been extremely generous to her late husband’s alma mater, not only sponsoring the lecture series bearing his name, but also supporting journalism students with scholarships, hosting an annual dinner for staff of the student newspaper in her home, and working diligently as part of the Advisory Council starting in 2005. In all, she has given more than $1.2 million to the School of Journalism over the past 15 years, not to mention copious time and energy.

Yet when Cole decided she wanted to invite a controversial conservative professor and columnist to deliver this year’s Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, Abramson balked and withdrew the journalism school’s sponsorship of the event. He subsequently declined to answer when asked to tell a local paper whether he planned to attend the lecture, which Cole proceeded to organize without the journalism school’s support. By all accounts, he did not show up.

Abramson initially objected to the fact that Mike Adams held thin credentials as a journalist. Cole, however, wanted to invite Adams to speak because of his history of pushing back for First Amendment freedoms in academia and in order to spark larger conversation among students. As Montana blogger James Conner observed in a commentary on Abramson’s objections, “A lecture by Adams would be a perfect opportunity for learning how to cover controversial speakers and subjects.” Teaching young journalists to listen to and cover points of view with which they disagree is squarely in the journalism school’s purview. But Abramson evidently did not see it that way.

Moreover, Abramson did not restrict his objections to the fact that Adams is not a journalist, pushing back because of Adams’ personal views as well. In an email to Cole, he bluntly stated, “I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students.” Cole was stunned.

Despite Abramson’s conspicuous absence and some initial concerns about security, this year’s lecture went on with only minor incident. A few attendees were escorted out of the venue. A local activist group tried to disrupt it in advance by registering for hundreds of tickets they didn’t plan to use; Cole spent five days discarding registrations connected to invalid emails. However, the event drew a larger-than-average crowd compared to previous Jeff Cole lectures, with attendees mostly filling the lower level of the 1,100-seat venue.

And, despite Abramson’s hand-wringing, that crowd included students who disagreed with Adams and voluntarily came to hear him out. Chris Young-Greer, a student who spoke to the Missoulian, said she attended the lecture because she supports free speech. “I also think it’s important to come and hear first-hand the rhetoric he speaks so we can combat that in an educational way,” she added.

While Abramson was a no-show, the journalism school wasn’t entirely unrepresented. I have known Peggy Kuhr, the former School of Journalism dean and former university vice president for communications, for many years; I’m sure she attended the lecture both on principle and out of friendship for Maria Cole. I suspect the same is true of the members of the journalism faculty who attended. I can’t speak for the representatives of the UM Foundation who were there, but since the Foundation itself took no stance on the matter – understandable but regrettable considering how much Cole has given to the school – it is not unreasonable to conclude that they were in it primarily for the money.

The world did not end because a speaker some would find objectionable came to campus. A handful of protesters exercised their right to demonstrate outside the venue. Hundreds of people inside heard some things with which they agreed and some others with which they presumably didn’t. Ideas were exchanged, which one would hope is not so uncommon at a university. The school’s new president, Seth Bodnar, took a principled stand in favor of allowing the event to go forward, though he didn’t go so far as to lend the school’s imprimatur to the lecture. In the end, Cole’s wisdom in bringing the speaker to campus was borne out, and the journalism school’s timidity and narrow-mindedness were exposed.

As for the future, Cole has said she is reconsidering both the future of the Jeff Cole lecture series and her support of the journalism school, though she is committed to continuing the scholarship program. Nobody can blame her for having second thoughts.

For my part, I told the director of development who happened to reach out to me the day of the lecture that any development efforts directed my way will be a waste of time as long as Abramson remains in his post. The dean speaks for the school until someone in authority says he doesn’t. He turned his back on one of his school’s biggest supporters, and that stands as an object lesson to the rest of us. It should come as no surprise if past supporters like me turn our backs on the school in turn.

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