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The Point: Dark Money


Today’s Point was written by Maurice T. Cunningham who retired in 2021 as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science.

When I finished my book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization in 2021, I figured I had a pretty good handle on the billionaire funded attacks on public education. But then I learned much more about their efforts and the importance of unions while helping to defend a UMass Boston colleague from a right-wing attack.

I became familiar with Isaac Kamola’s  Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-wing Attacks, Follow the Money, and Ralph Wilson and Kamola’s Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War, published in 2021. What these authors have shown is that orchestrated campaigns begin with right-wing funding for selected universities, think tanks, provocateurs, and a propaganda network. Typically, a remark or writing from a professor perceived as liberal—often LGBTQ+ or faculty of color-- would be taken out of context. The remark would be blown up on media like The Daily Caller, Breitbart, or in our case, Turtleboy, and sometimes make it to Fox News. The publicity would generate social media attacks, anonymous threats of violence, donor or state legislator pressure, and occasionally an administration caving in to reprimand the professor.

Attacks on universities for “bias,” “wokeism,” and “a free speech crisis” have accelerated.  The Koch network funded Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has roiled some universities with its report on campuses that it claims violate free speech rights. According to FIRE, universities are incubators of groupthink enforced by Marxist professors who intimidate students. While FIRE presents itself as nonpartisan and has, on occasion, defended the rights of left-leaning scholars, Wilson and Kamola wrote “Funding from Koch network donors to FIRE has surged as the free speech ‘crisis’ has blossomed.” 

Thus I was drawn to a recent Substack entry by Georgetown professor Thomas Zimmer titled In Defense of My Students. It was about a discussion he led concerning how Germany teaches the history of the Holocaust—a fraught topic any time, and especially now. I’ll let Zimmer take it from here:

we have been warned for weeks by mainstream reporters and pundits that campuses across America are experiencing a wave of extremism that makes rational debate and serious learning utterly impossible.

Here is what actually happened in class: We had a calm, nuanced, and deeply serious discussion. That’ (sic) it. That’s the everyday normal on college campuses. But if you read the nation’s major newspapers and political magazines, you would not know that.

Zimmer tied these attacks to propagandist Chris Rufo, the architect of the fabricated K-12 Critical Race Theory controversy. Rufo advocates that right-wingers should associate the universities with any bogey-man of the moment to generate acrimony. To Rufo, “public universities are not a ‘free marketplace of ideas.’ . . . They are governed by the laws of the republic, not the laws of supply and demand. Ultimately, the voters decide.": As with his K-12 work, Rufo’s aim is to delegitimize public education to promote privatization.

To support these efforts, right-wing networks have developed robust communications capabilities. It operates to launder fabricated controversy originating from far-right and alt-right outlets into a matter of serious public discussion in reputable forums. Popular data analyst Nate Silver stepped out of his lane to decry a free speech crisis he attributes to intolerant leftist students. A New York Times guest essay projected terrible instances of anti-Semitic actions on some college campuses as representative of campus life. On August 21, 2023 the Boston Globe published a commentary by FIRE board members Samuel J. Abrams and Harvey A. Silverglate accusing left-wing UCLA students of hijacking a faculty hiring decision.

Meanwhile what’s actually happening on campuses? The New York Times reports that right-wing attacks on scholars have prompted faculty to flee Florida’s universities and a University of Florida faculty senate report concluded that in the liberal arts departments, “Faculty of color have left.” Rufo, appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis as a trustee of the New College, is giddy at the brain drain: “To me, this is a net gain for Florida.” At about the same time that The Globe offered op-ed space to FIRE to whine about a faculty search in Los Angeles, West Virginia University academic programs were being gutted (see Prof. Melnick’s issue of The Point, “Potemkin Universities,” 10/19/2023). The Globe did not cover the West Virginia story.

Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson have noted that while progressive organizations exist across many legitimate concerns, the only institution that concentrates on the rights of working people are unions. We can see from the concocted free speech crisis that our union has even greater responsibility—to defeat corporate intrusion into intellectual life and save democracy itself. Get active in your union.

Maurice T. Cunningham retired in 2021 as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. He continues to research and write about dark money and education.