A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

23 October 2017 — 1554 mdt

Cole Lecture fiasco hurts UMT journalism school


Larry Abramson (left), dean of the University of Montana’s journalism school, has sterling journalism credentials, and is neither a bigot nor a fool. But in rejecting Maria Cole’s choice of Mike Adams for the 2018 Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, he foolishly did too much explaining. Now he’s in trouble, and so are UMT and the university’s journalism school. Keila Szpaller (Story 1, Story 2) at the Missoulian has the details, which I’ll summarize.

Cole, a Bitterroot resident who worked seven years in the UMT President’s office as a diversity and recruitment coordinator, has underwritten the lectures for nine years in memory of her late husband, Jeff, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. She’s selected the lecturers, all journalists thus far, but the journalism school is the formal sponsor of the lecture. Until now, the journalism school has agreed with her choices.

Abramson became the journalism school’s dean on 1 July 2014 after a long career at National Public Radio. He holds masters and baccalaureate degrees in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley, home of the free speech movement. According to UMT’s handout announcing his appointment as dean:

In the 1990s, he designed and oversaw the NPR Diversity Initiative, a program to bring more young, minority journalists to public radio. As an educator and teacher, he has designed workshops on radio journalism and reporting ethics.

Mike Adams is a professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and a columnist at Townhall.com. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and criminology from Mississippi State University. No one would call him a liberal, but he’s been a popular and provocative professor. His latest column at Townhall is Grizzly Bigotry at the University of Montana.

Abramson objected to Adams’ thin credentials as a journalist. That’s a fair but weak argument. A lecture by Adams would be a perfect opportunity for learning how to cover controversial speakers and subjects. Abramson should have limited his objection to Adams’ paucity of journalism credentials — but he didn’t. Instead, reports Szpaller, he sent Cole emails that suggest to me his real motive was protecting fragile students from Adams’ politically incorrect commentary (during an interview with KGVO radio, Abramson likened Adams’ comments to “hate speech”):

“If you jump in at 3:30 on the link at the bottom, you can hear him talking about his opposition to tolerance of transgender accommodations. He appears to be siding with Christians in the ‘culture war.’

“In this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oX9ya3EW04 he talks about his efforts to make sure that abortion providers give time to Christian speakers, in the interest of freedom of speech. He also talks about the prevalence of ‘cultural Marxism,’ and exclusively speaks on right wing sites. In this one, https://townhall.com/columnists/mikeadams/2017/04/07/why-im-banning-illegal-aliens-from-my-classes-n2310029 he talks about why he will no longer allow ‘illegal aliens’ into his classes.

“I think we can find a speaker who will talk about free speech issues, without running the risk of offending students. We can still have a conversation with him if you want, but he is pretty extreme in his views.”

Some consider Adams’ “siding with Christians” remark as anti-Christian bigotry. I’m not persuaded that it is, but whether a speaker is pro or anti Christian, or might offend some students, has no bearing on his fitness as a Cole Lecture speaker. Abramson’s concern for his students’ feelings speaks well of his humanity, but it runs counter to former University of California President Clark Kerr’s dictum that:

“The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” Chemerinsky, Erwin; Gillman, Howard. Free Speech on Campus (p. 74). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

As University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone wrote in the university’s Report on the Freedom of Expression:

…it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

…the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed 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. 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. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission. [Highlighting by FM.]

Cole, to her credit, still intends to bring Adams to Missoula, and to continue sponsoring journalism scholarships. But, and she may yet change her mind, she’s not eager to donate more money to the university after being rebuffed by Abramson.

If the journalism school, which apparently believes in hearing only what tender ears are thought capable of handling, will not sponsor Adams, then the University of Montana’s president, currently Sheila Stearns, should. That would be a rebuke to Abramson, but he’s earned it.

In the longer term, if the Cole lectures are to continue, and I hope they will, there needs to be a formal procedure for selecting speakers, and probably less direct involvement by Maria Cole. The journalism school needs a better process for determining whom to sponsor, and Cole, if she’s to step back, needs to know the process takes into account more than the whims and prejudices of the journalism school’s dean.

Beyond that, both the university and Abramson need to consider whether he should continue as dean. His rejecting Adams because of Adams’ views is not consistent with a university’s obligation to challenge students by exposing them to a wide range of ideas, and especially to ideas they find unsettling or offensive. If he cannot accept that proposition, he’s in the wrong job.

Until this situation is sorted out, journalism students should seriously consider avoiding UMT’s journalism school.