Sportsmanship Gives Way to Bullying and Censorship at Saint Vincent College?

The Pittsburgh Steelers recently suffered a tragedy, and then inflicted one. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins, age 24, was struck and killed by a car on April 9 as he attempted to cross Interstate 595 near Fort Lauderdale. Haskins was, by all accounts, a talented athlete and a good man. He was in Florida for Steelers football training. 

The other story is not likely to appear on ESPN or the sports pages, and it doesn’t sound at first as though it has any connection to the Steelers. That same weekend on which Haskins was killed, the Center for Political and Economic Thought (CPET) at Saint Vincent College held a conference titled “Politics, Policy, and Panic.” Saint Vincent is in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. Latrobe is a typical down-at-its-heels Western Pennsylvania town, very much part of the country that Obama mocked in a speech at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco, where he explained that “these small towns in Pennsylvania” have lost their jobs, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” 

I spent a portion of my childhood living a few miles from Latrobe and have been back many times. I can testify to the economic distress, a fondness for guns, and a strong respect for church but the bitterness has eluded me. The locals are a sturdy bunch; ambitious but aware that their prospects are not that bright; and friendly to outsiders. They are, however, pretty disdainful of the coastal elites, and Latrobe is definitely in the heart of Trump Country. 

Saint Vincent College was founded by Benedictine monks in 1846, and remains a small Catholic school of about 1,500 students with a mostly liberal arts academic program. It has some minor distinctions. Fred Rogers, of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” was from Latrobe and left his collection of puppets (King Friday XIII, Queen Sarah, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, etc.) and his cardigan sweaters to the college, which has them on permanent display. Latrobe is also the hometown of golf legend Arnold Palmer, whose aura surrounds the 200-acre campus. If you dig a little further, you’ll discover that the banana split sundae was invented at a pharmacy in town in 1904, a fact celebrated with a banana split festival every August. 

In other words, Saint Vincent College nestles in an “Our Town” setting, in which the dominant tone is relaxed wholesomeness, though no doubt one wouldn’t have to go far to find meth lab entrepreneurs cooking up their products in trailers. 

What really distinguishes Saint Vincent College are two things. For more than 30 years, it has hosted the Center for Political and Economic Thought, and since 1966 it has hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers summer training camp. CPET is widely known in conservative circles for its conferences and the steady stream of scholarly publications. The Steelers are known for winning six Super Bowls. The football franchise dates back to 1933, when it was founded by Arthur J. Rooney, and the Rooney family remains its primary owners. The current team president is Arthur J. Rooney’s grandson, Art Rooney. Art Rooney also happens to be the chairman of Saint Vincent College’s board. 

Be patient. We are getting there.

That CPET conference held on the weekend of Dwayne Haskins’ death addressed the question of what sets off and sustains public panics within our constitutional republic. The program consisted of nine talks, four of them about the COVID pandemic, and the others dealing with matters such as the 2008 financial panic. One talk, however, stood out: David Azerrad, a professor at Hillsdale College, spoke on “Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America.” And something very like hysteria ensued. 

Four of the fellow panelists, Jacob Howland, Keith Whitaker, Jeffrey Anderson, and Wilfred Reilly have described what happened next. 

Howland, writing in City Journal, “Proving the Point at Saint Vincent College,” caught the scene before college president Father Paul Taylor’s fateful announcement. Whitaker, writing at Minding the Campus (“Winged Words,” republished on American Greatness as Panic at St. Vincent”), described the Hobson’s choice visited on CPET: “Extinction or forced conformity to the party line looms.” Anderson writing in City Journal, “A Tyranny of the Minority,” reported on the panicked response of St. Vincent’s administration, which only hours after the conference concluded issued a thundering repudiation of the conference followed by a letter from Father Taylor announcing that CPET itself was being put into a kind of receivership. Reilly, writing in Spiked, “Never Apologise to an SJW,” treated the whole affair as a “case study” in “how cancellation works.” He observed, “At no point did any critic, with the exception of two witty St. Vincent students, address the actual veracity of what Azerrad said or attempt to debunk it.” 

I cannot improve on these eyewitness accounts, but I can summarize and provide easy access to the key documents. Here is the video of Azerrad’s talk. Here is the immediate follow-up letter from a college official, Dean Gary Quinlivan (apparently ghost-written). And here is Father Taylor’s announcement. Both the follow-up letter and Father Taylor’s announcement were sent to the whole college community without any consultation or advance notice to CPET’s director. 

The essence of this controversy is that the Saint Vincent  administration found it unbearable that Azerrad titled his talk “Black Privilege,” thus inverting the near-ubiquitous phrase, “White privilege.” Azerrad in his opening remarks says Kamala Harris would not be vice president were it not for her Jamaican father who conferred on her a special privilege. “Thanks to him, Harris qualifies not just as a person of color but as a person of the most important color, because in America today, we have a semi-official racial hierarchy called BIPOC, ‘black, indigenous people of color,’ and then of course come whites.” If Azerrad had stopped there, it would probably have sufficed for the reaction that followed. “Some students,”—no one will say how many exactly—found these views offensive and hurtful and the powers that be at Saint Vincent agreed that such words could not be spoken at the college. 

Father Taylor affirmed “the tenets of Academic Freedom—academic rigor and reasoned analysis—are treasured,” at the college, but apparently as the kind of treasure one locks away for safekeeping. He added that the college community “will not allow the platform of our College to be used to promote a message contrary to our mission.” (Emphasis in the original.) Exactly how Azerrad’s talk ran contrary to Saint Vincent’s mission is a bit tangled, but the initial letter from Quinlivan speaks of “the sanctity of human life,” overcoming “bigotry,” and “the common bond of being Children of God.” Anything that “may be interpreted as a form of invidious discrimination” violating these precepts is outside the protection of Academic Freedom. 

Of course, “may be interpreted” is the most elastic of elastic clauses. A recipe for applesauce “may be interpreted” as “invidious discrimination” by someone—perhaps someone who prefers pears. But never mind the reductio ad absurdum. Azerrad’s talk was plainly provocative. He said what many millions of Americans know and understand to be true but which is currently deemed unsayable in public. It is unsayable because we live at a moment in which public life is completely dominated by fear of the accusation of racism. It is unsayable, in shortest compass, because of “Black Privilege.” Azerrad stuck his neck out, perhaps assuming that a CPET conference was, temporarily at least, a “safe space.”

And it may have been. If the college officials were worried that a single paper at the CPET conference might occasion some friction from students or faculty members, they easily could have distanced themselves from the whole affair with words to the effect that, “Saint Vincent College rejects Professor Azerrad’s statements, which are his own views. The College upholds very different views.” 

A number of us have wondered why the college rejected that approach in favor of an overreaching attack on the whole conference and the CPET itself, to the point of (effectively) demolishing the college’s most prestigious academic enterprise. 

I may have an answer, but first let me acknowledge my own connection to this affair. I have been a past speaker at several CPET conferences. The head of CPET is Professor Bradley C. S. Watson, who is both a personal friend and a member of my board of directors at the National Association of Scholars. Keith Whitaker, who spoke at the conference and whose report is linked above, is the chairman of my board. And I know several of the other speakers. So I don’t come to this matter with complete equanimity. CPET, in my view, was not only an ornament to Saint Vincent College but one of the mainstays of conservative scholarship in the United States. Its loss—if so it proves—will be grievous. 

In that regard, I welcome the intervention of FIRE, which is particularly concerned with the college’s astonishing new policy in which it will take total control over who is allowed to speak on campus. St. Vincent’s administration ignored the letter from FIRE, and on June 2, FIRE announced that it had written a complaint to the college’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The letter points out that the college has violated the accreditor’s standard of “Ethics and Integrity” by abrogating its commitment to academic freedom.

But then there is this. On a recent visit to Latrobe in which I was able to speak to a variety of people, I learned that Father Taylor had a stronger incentive than a desire to protect Saint Vincent’s mission from the taint of Azerrad’s excessive candor. It seems that the chairman of his board thought the college too small to host both CPET and the long-standing summer training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I have very good reason to believe this account is true, but let me present it for now as merely hearsay. An enterprising reporter might want to put the question to Art Rooney or to other members of the Saint Vincent board. 

If it is true, it represents a significant breach of a trustee’s fiduciary duties, and it hardly reflects well on Taylor that he accepted that kind of intervention. Let us anticipate denials all around. But let’s at least consider what this might mean: that the owner of an NFL team could at a stroke wipe out genuine academic freedom at a small college. Why might he do that? Racial politics is certainly a major factor in professional football today. It could be as simple as not wanting the “optics” of holding a training camp at a place where someone gave a talk titled “Black Privilege.” There are, after all, other kinds of privilege: reputational privilege and money privilege among them. 

This is not to suggest that Rooney acted alone. Another board member, failed 2018 Democratic congressional candidate Bibiana Boerio, attended the whole conference, apparently in the spirit of conducting opposition research. She described Azerrad’s talk in the press as a “rage-inducing extreme speech.” 

Axing the CPET will cost Saint Vincent something. The main financial backers of CPET have already suspended their support, and the college’s reputation among conservatives has nosedived. That could make a difference for a small college in Western Pennsylvania. I am not optimistic about the outcome of this affair, but I am pretty sure it is not over. Two months have passed since the conference and the college’s despotic response. I imagine that Father Taylor and the college’s board believe they can ride this out. People will move on. The public will forget. This article, like FIRE’s letter to the accreditor, is to say, “No, we won’t.”

I referred at the beginning to two tragedies: Dwayne Haskins’s death, which has the pathos that A. E. Houseman summoned in To an Athlete Dying Young, whose consolation is he will “not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honours out.” The other tragedy—if so it be—is of sportsmanship descending to bullying. Censorship these days takes many forms. Apparently, we don’t need a Disinformation Governance Board to do all the dirty work.

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