Figures of Speech
For over a decade, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program has portrayed itself as a beleaguered defender of free speech and “intellectual diversity” at Yale. This year, its annual conference ended with a call to fire left-wing professors.
“Universities do not pursue knowledge and truth — they pursue deceit and lies,” thundered J.D. Vance LAW ’13, the former “Never Trump” conservative who, over just a few short years, has metamorphosed into a lib-owning pugilist running for Senate in Ohio. Vance was speaking at the second-ever National Conservatism Conference, a three-day affair in late October and early November 2021 that brought conservative politicians, writers, talking heads, think tank denizens, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and more to Orlando, Florida with the ostensible goal of piecing together an intellectual scaffolding for, as one conference-goer put it, “a more muscular, assertive, and masculine vision of conservatism.” Vance’s speech — the weekend’s final keynote address — was on the topic of higher education.
But as even some conservative commentators noted at the time, the conference often felt less like a sober discussion of ideas and more like a ritual flaying of the right’s sworn enemies, old and new: “globalists,” “woke capital,” “illegal aliens,” “the Chinese Communist Party,” “climate alarmism,” “race Marxism,” “transgenderism,” “the left’s assault on manhood,” all spun together into an apocalyptic, chest-thumping call to arms. Vance’s speech was no exception: “If any of us want to do the things we want to do for our country and the people who live in it,” he said, “we have to honestly and aggressively attack the universities.”
Vance said he wanted to end his speech — and the conference altogether — on an inspirational note. He said he looked to scripture. He said he looked to the writings of the saints. He said he examined the “great heroes of Western civilization.” But the quote he ultimately landed on came from “the great prophet and statesman,” Richard Millhouse Nixon: “The professors,” Vance barked, scowling into the lights of the Hilton Orlando ballroom, “are the enemy.”
A month later, John Burtka and Michael Knowles ’12, two prominent conservative figures who had spoken at the National Conservatism Conference, virtually came to Yale. They’d been invited to speak during the final day of the 10th annual conference of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, a student organization founded in 2010 by Lauren Noble ’11, who still serves as executive director. The program’s stated mission is to “promote intellectual diversity on Yale’s campus,” largely through hosting conservative speakers. It has operated as its own 501c(3) nonprofit since 2011 and claims to be Yale’s largest undergraduate student organization, with over 400 members. Burtka currently serves as the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit that promotes conservative thought on college campuses. Knowles, who was an inaugural “Buckley Student Fellow” as a Yale undergraduate, is a right-wing political commentator and a fixture on the college campus speaking circuit, where he gives speeches with titles like “Ban Transgenderism” and “America’s Real Injustice: Under-Incarceration.”
This year, the conference was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of “God and Man at Yale,” the book that helped launch the career of William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, the program’s eponym and the man often claimed as the “father” of modern conservatism. The book, published in 1951, infamously portrayed Buckley’s alma mater as a citadel of secular and socialist indoctrination. Buckley attacked former Yale president Charles Seymour for failing to do enough to “Christianize” Yale, complained that there was “no bias” in favor of capitalism in Yale’s newly established American Studies program and charged a variety of academic departments with “deifying collectivism.” “Individualism is dying at Yale,” he mournfully proclaimed, “and without a fight.”
Knowles introduced the day’s topic virtually from the Yale Club in New York City: “‘God and Man at Yale’ and the Conservative Movement Today.”
“Today, so many people invoke William F. Buckley Jr. as this wonderful, moderate, anodyne-type figure who was so open-minded to everyone,” Knowles began. “A lot of self-styled Buckleyists say that we need to be very open and tolerate all sorts of points of view,” he continued. “This would have been news to William F. Buckley Jr.,” who “hated academic freedom” and “did not support the open society.”
Knowles didn’t have to do any fine-grained exegesis to reach this assessment: the very subtitle of “God and Man at Yale” is “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” Buckley alleged that academic freedom — a principle which holds that university professors should be able to engage in professionally competent forms of teaching and research as they see fit — was a smokescreen for liberal indoctrination, which he proposed to remedy by having Yale alumni and trustees strong-arm the school into teaching their pro-Christian, pro-capitalist values. Knowles hastened to add that Buckley’s second book, co-authored with his former Yale debate partner Brent Bozell Jr. ’50, was a rousing defense of McCarthyism, which Buckley and Bozell considered “a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.”
Knowles’ reasons for praising these aspects of Buckley’s legacy soon became clear. “We must wield the state,” he said of the conservative movement. “I want to wield political power to fire bad professors and academics who are brainwashing children and harming their education.” That line reprised a core claim of Knowles’ latest book, which called on conservatives to embrace a “just and prudent censorship” by, among other actions, amending obscenity laws to suppress left-wing speech.
“ We must wield the state…I want to wield political power to fire bad professors and academics who are brainwashing children and harming their education. ”
Knowles wasn’t spinning a fantasy. Spurred by widespread conservative backlash to the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Republicans have advanced a deluge of state legislative initiatives that restrict how K-12 teachers and university professors can speak about racism and U.S. history. Since January 2021, over 100 of these bills — dubbed “education gag orders” by the free expression nonprofit PEN America — have been introduced in dozens of state legislatures across the country. “Schools and universities are being threatened today to a degree that has no recent parallel,” Jeffrey Sachs, a historian and political scientist who writes frequently on campus speech issues, wrote in February. “There is a willingness, and even eagerness, to bring the weight and power of government to bear on controlling classroom speech.”
That eagerness has been epitomized by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ’01, a likely 2024 presidential candidate and frequent Buckley Program donor, whom both Knowles and Burtka offered as a model for how conservatives should approach education. In June, DeSantis backed a Florida school board initiative that banned The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project from public schools and forbids teachers from teaching that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems.” Yale Richard C. Levin professor of history Timothy Snyder called the ban a “moral catastrophe” and argued that it would “make it impossible to teach basic elements of U.S. history, such as redlining, segregation, voter suppression, the racial cleansing of neighborhoods and counties, not to mention slavery itself.” Two weeks later, DeSantis signed a bill requiring public universities to survey students and faculty to ensure “intellectual diversity” and threatened that schools could lose funding if they were found “indoctrinating” students. “We know the results of government officials policing educators: paranoia, persecution and the opposite of the free speech Republicans say they want to protect,” wrote the Miami Herald’s editorial board in response.
Many on the American right, however, have long argued that the greatest threats to free speech in America come not from lawmakers wielding state power but from censorious left-wing college students and their professors. In a keynote address at the 2016 Buckley Program gala, DeSantis himself argued that “the biggest problems in the U.S. with free speech exist on our college campuses.” It’s a narrative central to the Buckley Program’s identity. “A gospel of wokeness, enforced by an army of social justice warriors, has become the accepted dogma at Yale and at many posh colleges across the country,” the program’s chairman, conservative editor and publisher Roger Kimball GRD ’77 ’82, wrote in 2019. “The ironical consequence is that institutions that were created to perpetuate the search for truth and foster robust debate have become the graveyards of intellectual independence and free speech.”
Though the Buckley Program has only existed since 2010, the arguments that animate its work have been at the core of conservative politics for over half a century. Many of the Buckley Program’s board members, speaking guests and biggest donors cut their teeth in decades-long debates over university curricula and culture that have indelibly shaped the current contours of the politics of campus speech and intellectual life. Considering the program’s recent actions in light of that history might explain why an organization that claims to be a space for students to “engage in intellectually open and respectful dialogue and to hear all sides of issues” ended its annual conference with a call for government censorship.
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP
In August 1971, a little-known corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, just months before Richard Nixon elevated him to the Supreme Court, issued a confidential memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying organization representing U.S. businesses. The memo, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was a clarion call for a new era of business activism against New Deal and Great Society liberalism and the social movements of the 1960s. In Powell’s topsy-turvy world, “few elements of American society today have as little influence in government” as the American businessman, who had been turned into the “favorite whipping-boy of many politicians.” Of all the institutions he saw aligned against the “free enterprise system” — the media, the civil rights movement, labor unions, the arts and sciences — Powell regarded one alone as the “single most dynamic source” of the attacks: the university campus.
“Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who … despise the American political and economic system,” Powell declared, quoting the journalist and Yale alumnus Stewart Alsop ’36. Like Buckley, Powell noted that “the campuses from which much of the criticism emanates” were financially supported by the wealthy. But instead of Buckley’s penchant for invective and hyperbole, Powell called for a more nimble approach. “Few things are more sanctified in American life than academic freedom,” he admitted, and thus it would be “fatal” to attack the principle head on, as Buckley had in “God and Man at Yale.”
Instead, intuiting that campuses would want to avoid the poor optics of “refusing a forum to diverse views,” Powell advised the Chamber to insist on “equal time” for pro-capitalist campus speakers. He’d pioneered that argument when, as director of cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris, he argued that the First Amendment entitled tobacco companies to “equal time” to dispute public service announcements about the health hazards of smoking. He also called on the business community to fund pro-capitalist scholars and then pressure university administrations and boards of trustees into promoting greater ideological “balance” within faculties, another value universities would find it difficult to explicitly oppose.
In the same breath, Powell maintained that “there should be no hesitation to attack” anyone who “openly seek[s] destruction of the free enterprise system,” from consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader to German American critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. “There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system,” he concluded. “Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.”
The Powell Memo crystallized a powerful strand of opinion in the business conservative community at that moment in U.S. history. In the following decades, Powell’s call was taken up by a group of extraordinarily wealthy, arch-conservative families, including the Olins — munitions and chemicals — Scaifes — banking and oil — Kochs — chemicals and oil — and Bradleys — manufacturing. Applying their industrial acumen to the world of culture and politics, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building a right-wing idea mill that would manufacture raw materials and refine them for public consumption. The result was a steadily expanding set of think tanks, legal outfits, political organizations, media operations, faith-based groups, academic centers and more. And their biggest target was exactly what Powell said it should be: higher education.
“If you want to have an influence on the world of ideas, books are where you want to put your money,” Michael Joyce, the long-time president of the Bradley Foundation, said in 1999. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several right-wing foundations bankrolled a rash of book-length broadsides against American universities, which included Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987), Charlie Sykes’ “The Hollow Men” (1990), Dinesh D’Souza’s “Illiberal Education” (1991), Martin Anderson’s “Imposters in the Temple” (1992), Christina Hoff Sommers’ “Who Stole Feminism” (1994) and Richard Bernstein’s “Dictatorship of Virtue” (1994). Together, these books helped produce a public belief that universities had been overrun by what came to be known as “political correctness,” or “PC”: the product of an intolerant and repressive left shutting down speech and tearing down the vaunted achievements of “Western civilization.”
One of these early salvos came from Roger Kimball, who has served as the Buckley Program’s chairman since 2011. In “Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education,” published in 1990 and supported by the Olin, Bradley, and Scaife foundations, Kimball argued that the student radicals of the 1960s had grown up to occupy cushy tenured positions in the country’s best universities, where they had installed a “radical menu at the center of their humanities curriculum.” History books, he wrote, were being rewritten to “soothe wounded ethnic feelings,” and a “politics of victimhood” had sullied once-noble and intellectually rigorous academic fields, reorienting them to “cater to the demands of various politically approved ‘marginalized’ groups.” Suffusing his account with warlike language — he called the book a “report from the front” and accused new methods of literary criticism of being “weapons of subversion” — Kimball claimed to have discovered a left-wing “blueprint for a radical social transformation that would revolutionize every aspect of social and political life.” At stake, he argued, was a future of either “culture” or “barbarism.”
The charge of “barbarism” became a go-to arrow in the anti-PC rhetorical quiver. “The barbarians are not at the gate,” Allan Bloom told an audience at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “They, without our knowing it, have taken over the citadel.” “Visigoths in Tweed” read the title of one of Dinesh D’Souza’s articles attacking a “new barbarism” on college campuses. While the authors’ invidious and dehumanizing language might have scored them polemical points, it also revealed how little interest they took in engaging the objects of their criticism, which they routinely caricatured and distorted.
“From the beginning, and particularly in recent years, people who fashion themselves as opponents of PC tend to say that they support free speech or debate,” said Moira Weigel GRD ’13 ’17, a professor at Northeastern University who is working on a book about the rise of anti-political correctness. But the accusation of being “PC” itself “serves to shut down debate,” she argued, partly by placing certain subjects beyond the pale and claiming to embody an unquestionable and objective “common sense.” The etymology of the word barbarian, after all, comes from the ancient Greek barbaros, or “babbler”: an outsider who doesn’t speak “our” language.
Beyond any specific distortion, the anti-PC writers’ most tendentious claim was that only their opponents were political and self-interested, while they stood for capital-T Truth and what Kimball called “the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.” “The people out there making arguments about being scrappy underdogs trying to speak against the establishment — there’s almost always millions and millions of dollars behind them,” said Mary Anne Franks, a legal scholar at the University of Miami who studies free speech and discrimination and whose latest book, “The Cult of the Constitution,” studies campus speech controversies. “These people try to present their views as intellectually untainted, when in reality we’re talking about corporate sponsorship.”
That corporate sponsorship served an undeniably political purpose. Complaining about “politically correct” intellectual elites, Weigel said, “allowed business elites and their spokespeople” to “brand themselves as populists.” As Weigel elaborated in a lengthy Guardian article that became the basis for her book project, anti-PC posturing “allowed conservatives to displace responsibility for the hardship that many of their constituents were facing. It was not the slashing of social services, lowered taxes, union busting or outsourcing that was the cause of their problems. It was those foreign ‘others.’” Directly fanning the flames of the campus culture wars, it turned out, was an even more effective strategy for protecting the interests of American business than the one Powell had laid out two decades earlier.
By the mid-1990s, the belief that college campuses were overrun by a liberal thought police had leached into the American mainstream, thoroughly scrubbed of its highly partisan and deep-pocketed origins. Bloom, D’Souza and Kimball were regularly cited as neutral authorities, and mentions of “political correctness” in newspapers and magazines skyrocketed. Just over a decade after Kimball’s book hit shelves, the legal scholar and literary critic Stanley Fish GRD ’60 ’62 begrudgingly admitted that the right’s campaign against higher education had been an astonishing success. For much of the public, he argued, American colleges and universities were now considered places of “radicalism and pedagogical irresponsibility where dollars are wasted, nonsense is propagated, students are indoctrinated, religion is disrespected, and patriotism is scorned.”
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES DO NOT EXIST TO PROMOTE FREE SPEECH
In her Guardian piece, Weigel argued that “after 2001, debates about political correctness faded from public view, replaced by arguments about Islam and terrorism,” before resurfacing again at the tail end of the Obama years. But it’s perhaps more accurate to say that in the febrile atmosphere of post-9/11 America, the campus culture war metastasized. In the same way that conservative critics of “political correctness” aimed to shut down debate, so too did many of the same critics attack professors and students whose speech was deemed insufficiently patriotic or supportive of the War on Terror. Yale was no exception.
In spring 2002, Donald Kagan, a prominent conservative professor and military historian at Yale who would later help found the Buckley Program, published an article entitled “Terrorism and the Intellectuals” in the Intercollegiate Review, a conservative magazine. In it, Kagan inveighed against the “majority of people designated as ‘intellectuals’” who, in the thrall of “leftist intellectual orthodoxy,” had deigned to try to examine the “underlying causes” of the terror attacks or question the headlong rush to war. Summoning the sober patriotism and Manichean gravitas of the Greatest Generation, Kagan quoted Winston Churchill, who in the lead-up to World War II argued that Britain’s “worst difficulties … come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to its culture, take much from its strength.” In a thinly veiled reference to the previous decades’ curriculum debates, Kagan decried attempts “to replace our common culture with narrower and politically divisive programs that are certain to set one group of Americans against another.”
Setting aside the article’s empirical accuracy — several Yale professors were central to building Bush’s case for going to war — the upshot of Kagan’s argument was clear: if the United States foundered in the War on Terror, the effete, pointy-headed academics and their unpatriotic, politically radical students were to blame for having sapped the nation of its martial resolve.
One of the “brainy people” Kagan may have had in mind was Glenda Gilmore, Yale’s Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward professor of history and a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. In October 2002, as the Bush Administration readied to launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq, Gilmore wrote a column in the Yale Daily News warning that an unprovoked attack would transform the American character, turning the United States “into an aggressor nation that cannot tolerate opposition.” “How many Americans and innocent Iraqi civilians will die?” Gilmore asked. Two decades later, the answer: over 4,000 Americans and around 200,000 Iraqi civilians, according to one conservative estimate.
While Gilmore was careful to couch her critique of American bellicosity in explicitly patriotic terms — she marshaled Cold War diplomat George F. Kennan and U.S. policy during World War II to support her case, while conspicuously omitting many of the unprovoked military attacks, invasions and coups that stud American history — she was inundated with rape and death threats. Her column put her in the crosshairs of Daniel Pipes, an infamous Islamophobe and the director of Campus Watch, an organization that encouraged students to spy on Middle East Studies professors and began publishing McCarthy-style dossiers on anti-war and left-wing intellectuals in the years after the terror attacks. “The time has come for adult supervision of the faculty and administrators at many American campuses,” Pipes wrote in an article attacking Gilmore and several other “Profs Who Hate America.”
Six months later, on the evening the U.S. military moved into Baghdad, Gilmore spoke on a panel of professors that aimed to take stock of the chaos already unfolding throughout Iraq. The tenor of the panel so incensed two pro-war undergraduates, Jamie Kirchick ’06 and Eliana Johnson ’06, that they took to the pages of FrontPage magazine, a national publication that frequently published diatribes against supposedly traitorous professors throughout the post-9/11 era. The magazine was published by David Horowitz, a self-proclaimed “campus provocateur” and author of “The Professors: America’s 101 Most Dangerous Academics.” “Coming to a campus near you: terrorists, racists, and communists — you know them as The Professors,” read the dust jacket.
Kirchick and Johnson didn’t mince words. They declared Gilmore’s speech a “smug” and “self-righteous” “spectacle of self-aggrandizement” in which she “found it difficult to discuss anything but herself.” “While pro-war students have been vindicated by the liberation of Iraq and were rightfully ebullient on Wednesday, a common trope of the professors and their sycophantic followers in the student body was that a quick and easy military operation in Iraq should not be equated with a victory in the war,” Kirchick and Johnson wrote. The war would go on for seven more years and cost over $2 trillion. “On one of the most momentous days for America since September 11,” they continued, “few positive comments about our military victory were heard from the faculty panel,” who refused to celebrate the “kisses from Iraqis on American soldiers’ cheeks.” A little over a week later, they went on MSNBC to discuss their article; the news ticker, Gilmore remembers, read “Traitor Professors at Yale.”
For conservative individuals and organizations on the front lines of the campus culture wars, the post-9/11 national atmosphere of civilizational besiegement and revanchist bloodlust provided welcome ammunition. One such group was the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA, an organization founded in the 1990s by future Second Lady Lynne Cheney on explicit opposition to “political correctness.” Two months after the attacks, the organization issued a report titled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The report called university faculty a “weak link in America’s response” to 9/11 and listed the names, institutional affiliations and anti-war statements of dozens of professors, which included lines such as “build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls,” “break the cycle of violence” and “there is a lot of skepticism about the administration’s policy of going to war.”
“When a nation’s intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give aid and comfort to its adversaries,” charged the report’s authors, who sent copies to university boards of trustees across the country. The irony, of course, was that while ACTA moaned that “academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response” to the attacks, it had made its name as one of the most strident advocates for “intellectual diversity” on college campuses.
“ Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. ”
The ACTA report exemplified the post-9/11 moment, when criticisms of U.S. foreign policy were frequently attacked as anti-American and even treasonous. By intimidating anti-war voices into silence, such accusations served to stifle any substantive debate about Bush Administration’s decision to go to war and everything that followed, including torture, the mass surveillance and detention of Muslims and the hydra-like growth of terror networks in response to ongoing U.S. occupation. A decade into the war, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham captured the zeitgeist: “Free speech is a great idea,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation, “but we’re in a war.”
None of the post-9/11 attacks on anti-war voices at Yale and beyond make it into the Buckley Program’s account of speech and dissent on college campuses, though the connections are difficult to miss. After helping found the program, Kagan served on its board of directors until his death in 2021. The current president of ACTA, Michael Poliakoff ’75, spoke at the December conference, where Eliana Johnson was also scheduled to speak alongside Knowles and Burtka — she had to cancel due to a medical issue. And when Jamie Kirchick ran an abortive campaign for the Yale Board of Trustees in 2018 on a platform centered on protecting free speech, Noble worked as his campaign advisor, helping organize a national listening tour and boosting his campaign on Buckley social media accounts. “That’s not irony, that’s hypocrisy,” Gilmore said of Kirchick’s campaign.
Even Kimball, whose every other word as the Buckley Program chairman is a lament for the death of free speech at the hands of campus mobs, joined in on the attacks. “Please do not launch into a sermon about ‘free speech,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘academic freedom,’” he wrote in 2005 after a panel discussion at Hamilton College on dissent in the post-9/11 era was canceled following threats of violence. “Colleges and universities do not exist to promote free speech.”
The conservative attacks on anti-war voices had more in common than a shared enemy. A few months after Gilmore published her Yale Daily News column, one researcher found that nearly all of the individuals and organizations orchestrating attacks on anti-war professors — including Daniel Pipes and Campus Watch, David Horowitz’s cluster of organizations and ACTA— could be traced back to a familiar set of deep pockets: the Bradley, Koch, Olin and Scaife foundations, among others. What Gilmore had originally taken to be “a broader trend among conservative commentators, who since September 11 have increasingly equated criticism of the Bush administration with lack of patriotism” was in fact, the researcher found, “only the tip of an iceberg of organizations, funded by a core group coordinating a right-wing agenda to put a chill on more than just academic speech.” At the time, Gilmore called it an “organized plot funded by right-wing foundations to shut down dissent.”
A TROJAN HORSE OF A DARK DESIGN
As of December 2020, the Buckley Program boasted nearly $2 million in net assets and an annual budget of over $700,000. According to tax documents, the Bradley Foundation, which awarded Kimball a $250,000 prize in 2019, has given over $100,000 to the Buckley Program over the past decade. The Scaife Foundation, where Kimball sits on the board of trustees, donated $275,000 between 2017 and 2020. And the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, a relatively recent entrant into the right-wing donor network, gave over $150,000 from just 2016 to 2018. The program has also received $81,000 from DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund whose top contributors include the Koch brothers and DeVos family.
The swelling tide of donations sponsored an ever-expanding menu of programming. It brought dozens of speakers to Yale every year and sponsored multi-day seminars over fall, winter, spring and summer breaks on topics including “The Morality of Capitalism” and “Free Market Fairness.” It funded group dinners at New Haven’s most expensive restaurants: wine and duck nachos at Kitchen Zinc with Amy Wax ’75, a law professor who has argued that America would “be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites”; tapas at Barcelona Wine Bar with the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez, author of “The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics Divides the Land of the Free”; dinner and drinks at the penthouse of The Study Hotel with Heather Mac Donald ’78, author of “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine our Culture.”
Beginning in 2015, the Buckley Program’s most lavish expense became an annual black-tie ticket “Disinvitation Dinner” feting a public figure who’d had a campus speaking invitation rescinded. The most recent installment, held in the ballroom of the five-star Pierre Hotel on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, celebrated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, as Kimball wrote after the $1,000-per-ticket event, “devoted his long life to propagating the civilizing values of Western civilization around the world.” “A back-of-the-envelope count would attribute three, maybe four million deaths to Kissinger’s actions, but that number probably undercounts his victims,” Yale Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward professor of history and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Latin America Greg Grandin GRD ’99 wrote in 2016. Kissinger is also a frequent donor to the Buckley Program.
Yet the program still claims to serve a nonpartisan mission of promoting “intellectual diversity” on campus. “My work at the Buckley Program is about advancing the program’s mission, not my own views,” Noble told me. For decades, however, scholars have warned that conservative calls for “intellectual diversity” on college campuses can serve as cover for an explicitly partisan agenda. As early as 2004, for example, Fish warned that those on the right calling for “intellectual diversity” were “taking a phrase that seems positively benign and even progressive (in a fuzzy-left way) — and employing it as the Trojan horse of a dark design.”
Kimball perhaps best personifies the designs Fish feared. In a 2016 article, Kimball deemed the entire University of Colorado at Colorado Springs a “reeducation camp” after three of its professors had told a class of students that, for the purposes of their course, the science of anthropogenic climate change was not up for debate. At this “Indoctrination U,” he wrote, “only one perspective on this subject will be tolerated.” For a “dissenting” view, Kimball invited the students to read “The Climate Surprise: Why CO2 Is Good for the Earth,” a pamphlet he had produced with the CO2 Coalition, a denialist think-tank whose mission is to “educate the public that increased atmospheric levels of CO2 will benefit the world” and whose biggest donors include the Bradley, Scaife, Koch and Thomas W. Smith foundations.
The Buckley Program seems to have taken its chairman’s criticisms to heart, at least when it comes to the programming it has hosted on the climate crisis. In a 2016 event on climate policy, the Stanford Hoover Institution’s Jeremy Carl ’95 hypothesized there was a “real chance that there will be no [damage]” from climate change. Two years later, the program hosted Oren Cass, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute, which receives millions of dollars in fossil fuel industry funding, for a discussion titled “How (Not) to Worry About Climate Change.” Two years after that, the program invited Nicolas Loris — an energy policy researcher at the Heritage Foundation who has spent his entire career in the extended Koch network, and who a few years prior had written that “no consensus exists that man-made emissions are the primary driver of global warming” — for a debate on fossil fuel divestment.
Kimball’s public pronouncements took an increasingly reactionary and conspiratorial turn toward the end of the Trump Administration, which he declared a “salubrious and morally uplifting enterprise.” During summer 2020, the Buckley Program chairman railed against the nationwide protests over, as he put it, “the death of George what’s-his-name” and called Black Lives Matter the “contemporary version of the KKK.” After the election, he constantly repeated Trump’s voter fraud lies, and, in a now-deleted article for the far-right Epoch Times, parroted the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Biden’s victory was “a left-wing power grab, financed by people like George Soros.” More recently, he claimed that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “hoax” and endorsed the theory that it was an “intelligence set-up” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“ We live in a free country and those are his personal views…We are focused on our mission, not regulating the personal views of board members which are not impacting our activities. ”
Noble told me she doesn’t share Kimball’s views on the 2020 election, and said she hadn’t spoken with him about them. “We live in a free country and those are his personal views,” she said. “We are focused on our mission, not regulating the personal views of board members which are not impacting our activities.” Yet, as with climate change, it’s difficult not to see Kimball’s recent fixations reflected in some of the organization’s latest programming.
In July 2020, three months before the presidential election, the program hosted a virtual event on “election fraud” with Hans Von Spakovsky, an attorney at the Heritage Foundation. For two decades, Von Spakovsky has worked tirelessly to popularize widely discredited allegations of pervasive voter fraud in the U.S. electoral system, which have been wielded by Republican lawmakers to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. “It’s like he goes to bed dreaming about this, and gets up in the morning wondering, ‘What can I do today to make it more difficult for people to vote?’” the late senator and civil rights leader John Lewis once said of Von Spakovsky. More than perhaps anyone else in American politics, Von Spakovsky built the voter fraud tinderbox that Trump eventually set alight.
Just over a year later, the program hosted Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where Kimball is a trustee. For the last 16 months, Rufo has led the conservative campaign to demonize and censor critical accounts of racism and U.S. history in American schools. His crusade has centered around the accusation that students around the country are being indoctrinated with “critical race theory,” a decades-old and relatively marginal scholarly tradition with origins in the legal academy that examines how structural racism is perpetuated in law and society. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor who has himself been a harsh critic of CRT — the academic discipline — wrote in September that figures on the right like Rufo had “repurposed ‘critical race theory’ and related thinking to demonize anyone who would challenge the right’s whitewashed fable of American exceptionalism.”
The censorious campaign that Rufo has helped spark isn’t just about shoring up a sanitized version of U.S. history. Surveying the spate of Rufo-inspired educational gag orders in an article for The New York Times Magazine last summer, Yale’s Timothy Snyder observed the majority of those that made it into law were passed by state legislatures that had also passed laws restricting access to voting in the very same legislative session. These attempts to censor the teaching of U.S. history, Snyder concluded, help enable the voter suppression.
Just before the spring semester began, I reached out over email to Jasper Boers ’22, then the Buckley Program student president. I asked him whether he agreed with Knowles’ call for conservatives to wield the state to fire left-wing professors, and I asked him why he thought Von Spakovsky and Rufo, among others, were worthwhile additions to campus intellectual life and whether he felt they represented the Buckley Program’s values. “We do not endorse what our speakers say,” he replied, ignoring my questions about individual speakers. “We simply host interesting guests that draw a large audience.”
The morning after I followed up on his response, Boers wrote an email to the editor in chief of the News and the editors in chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine pressuring them to drop the piece. He claimed to be speaking out of concern for the magazine’s journalistic standards, and “not because [he] was personally involved with the Buckley Program for over 3 years.” “I hope you will reflect on the way Jack is representing The Yale Daily News and the way in which his writing is affecting the perceptions of myself and others about the institution,” Boers wrote. When I reached out again to ask how he reconciled his email with the Buckley Program’s commitment to freedom of expression, he claimed he “intended to start a dialogue.” But over the next month, he declined or ignored multiple requests to sit down for an interview.
HOTBEDS OF ANTI-AMERICANISM, LIBEL, AND CENSORSHIP
For decades, many conservatives and some liberals have portrayed William F. Buckley Jr. as an icon of what is often called “principled” or “reasonable” conservatism. According to this narrative, Buckley’s principal legacy was his putative ability to erect and maintain an ironclad boundary between a respectable conservative mainstream and the conspiracism, paranoia and racism that lurk, as the story goes, on the far-away fringes of the American right. According to Kimball, Buckley is best understood as a “beneficent apostle of limited government, ordered liberty, and the civilizing potential of democratic capitalism.” But this airbrushed story elides how much Buckley really shared with the far right, including his strident defenses of Jim Crow and McCarthyism and his long standing, open admiration for some of the 20th century’s most repressive and authoritarian right-wing regimes. Yet it is precisely those aspects of Buckley’s legacy that perhaps best explain the American right’s attacks on higher education.
In 1973, with the backing of the CIA and Henry Kissinger’s State Department, Chilean right-wing military leader Augusto Pinochet overthrew democratically elected president Salvator Allende, plunging the country into two decades of military rule. Buckley was an early and vocal supporter of the new regime, which he saw as an opportunity for “instituting Catholicism and capitalism through authoritarian means,” according to Johns Hopkins professor Becquer Seguin. In 1975, Buckley helped set up the American-Chilean Council, a public relations group which received funding from Pinochet. The money helped send reporters from the National Review, Buckley’s magazine and a major organ of modern conservatism, to Santiago, where they served up sunny dispatches while the military dictatorship killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands of others. Buckley himself was a frequent beneficiary of journalistic junkets to authoritarian countries, including apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia and Spain under Francisco Franco, whom Buckley called an “authentic national hero.”
Following the coup, one of Pinochet’s top targets was the country’s university system, then regarded as one of the best in Latin America. Philosophy and sociology departments were swiftly shut down for harboring independent voices of dissent. By 1975, 24,000 students, faculty and staff had been expelled from the University of Chile in Santiago alone. While Allende had expanded higher education to segments of Chilean society that had previously struggled to access it, Pinochet slashed state support for schooling, turning what had been one of the crown jewels of Chilean public life into a privatized and profit-driven system oriented around job training. Pinochet’s new education minister justified the purges by claiming that universities had become centers of “Marxist propaganda and indoctrination,” “violence and illegal armed conflict” and “the preaching of hatred.”
Nearly half a century after Pinochet came to power, Donald Trump strutted to a podium in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for a speech during the September 2020 “White House Conference on American History.” Though he dialed back his tone for the august setting, the content of the speech smacked of campaign-rally demagoguery. “Students in our universities,” Trump declared, “are inundated with critical race theory,” a “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.” Attributing “left-wing rioting and mayhem” — a reference to the previous summer’s protests, the overwhelming majority of which were peaceful — to “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools” and their promulgation of “hateful lies,” Trump ended the press conference by signing an executive order establishing a commission to “promote patriotic education” and “the miracle of American history.”
Two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the commission unveiled its work: the “1776 Report,” a slim, 45-page document that included no citations, bibliographies or scholarly references. “Universities in the United States are often today hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel and censorship,” argued the report’s authors, three of whom have been Buckley Program guests and none of whom were credentialed U.S. historians. Echoing Trump’s claims, the report blamed “deliberately destructive scholarship” for “the violence in our cities, suppression of free speech in our universities, and defamation of our treasured national statues and symbols.” Yale Sterling Professor of American history David Blight called the document an “insult to the whole enterprise of education” that “may end up anthologized some day in a collection of fascist and authoritarian propaganda, if one is needed.” Kimball, who runs the publishing house that released a hard copy of the report in May, praised its “depth, authority and rhetorical power” and called it “an eloquent, closely argued exposition of the distinctively American principles of liberty.”
For New York University professor and scholar of authoritarianism Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Trump’s actions and rhetoric followed in “a long, international tradition of how illiberal and authoritarian rule has managed universities.” But Trump’s attacks on universities didn’t emerge ex nihilo. As Ben-Ghiat observed in a 2020 piece in the New York Review of Books, Trump stood on the shoulders of a modern Republican Party that had “already shifted away from mutual tolerance and other values that underlie liberal-democratic models of learning.” In 2015, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set about gutting state financial support for the University of Wisconsin System, he proposed removing parts of the university’s mission statement devoted to “the search for truth,” “public service” and “improv[ing] the human condition” and replacing them with language concerned with meeting “the state’s workforce needs.” That same year, after North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory urged universities to focus on the “skills and subjects employers need,” the University of North Carolina Board of Directors voted to eliminate academic centers dedicated to the environment, poverty and voting.
When Buckley published “God and Man at Yale” 70 years ago, Yale historian David Potter chided him for wanting “his college to do exactly the same thing which he wants his church to do — that it hand down to him a directive telling him what to believe.” Buckley essentially admitted as much in the book: he’d arrived at Yale with “profound respect for American institutions and traditions” and a steadfast belief in “limited government and free enterprise” — despite, he conceded, “only a scanty knowledge of economics” — and was so incensed at having those beliefs challenged that he called on his alma mater to “narrow the existing orthodoxy” on campus. On a rhetorical level, the Buckley Program’s commitments to “intellectual diversity” and free speech appear diametrically opposed to the arguments of its eponym. But on a spiritual level, the continuities run deeper. Though Kimball and Noble portray the Buckley Program as a “unique bulwark against the tyranny of groupthink that dominates so many institutions,” its history and recent actions, placed in the broader context of the modern conservative movement, offer a far less flattering picture of where the more alarming threats to vibrant and independent intellectual life on American college campuses lie.