Twenty-nine years ago, a group of graduate and undergraduate students from a large Southern university organized a national conference in defense of intellectual freedom on college and university campuses. They chose to take the fight to the epicenter of what was then called political correctness. On April 11, 1994, students from nearly 50 colleges and universities converged on Harvard Yard in what the Washington Post at the time called “the spring offensive in the continuing battle on the nation’s campuses over issues of freedom, civility, and rights.”
The skirmishing, wrote the reporter, took place at Harvard but was typical of the campus culture wars raging from Bowdoin to Berkeley. In 1992, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had summed up the state of affairs in his book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, writing that “a particularly ugly mood seems to have settled over the one arena where freedom of inquiry and expression should be most unconstrained and civility most respected—our colleges and universities.”
Led by the First Amendment Coalition, a student organization founded at the University of Florida (not the legal entity FAC), the national conference was sponsored by the Harvard Conservative Club, the National Association of Scholars, the Young America’s Foundation, and David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now the David Horowitz Freedom Center). At the conference, students from across the nation ratified a document called the “Cambridge Declaration,” a manifesto of beliefs and concerns regarding the present state of higher education in America. Written by two graduate students at UF and edited by leaders of a sister chapter at the University of Pennsylvania, the Declaration was sent to presidents of the colleges and universities represented at the conference.
The conference attracted national and international media from both liberal and conservative outlets, including the Voice of America, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald, Investor’s Business Daily, and even the Wall Street Journal. It was the first time students representing a wide cross-section of American colleges and universities had gathered in one place to call on university presidents, administrators, professors, and students to reaffirm their commitment, in word and deed, to intellectual diversity, universal standards, and academic freedom.
“We must immerse ourselves in that great body of literature called the Western tradition, whose . . . themes are liberty and freedom,” I, along with David Horowitz and other speakers, exhorted the students and faculty in the audience. About 50 chapters of the student-led First Amendment Coalition were established as a result of the conference. Start-up packets were given to students, providing practical guidance on how to start their own chapters.
As students from Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, and more than 40 other institutions came to the stage and signed the “Cambridge Declaration,” members of a radical leftist organization called the University Conversion Project, a national Marxist organization devoted to student activism, sneaked into the conference and stole the First Amendment Coalition’s literature and replaced it with their own. Not a surprising turn of events, given that conservative student newspapers were being stolen by the radical left on campuses across the country at the time. One of the publications the left-wing group stole from the literature table was, ironically, 100+ Cases of Campuses Censorship, a pamphlet that included the “Cambridge Declaration.” First Amendment Coalition students quickly replaced their stolen collateral.
Twenty-nine years later, political correctness is now called wokeness. The radical Left is much better organized and funded than they were in 1994. There was no Antifa, nor was there a BLM, though there were militant student organizations promoting the same brand of Marxism. Seven years before the Harvard conference, the late Allan Bloom had written in his book The Closing of the American Mind that American universities had failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. Today that statement is still true.
The “Cambridge Declaration,” a timeless document as relevant today as it was 29 years ago, was a manifesto in defense of the Western tradition and a call for administrators, faculty, and students to reaffirm their commitment in word and deed to intellectual freedom.
Now may be a good time to call on students and faculty across the country to assemble again for a national conference and rededicate themselves to the fight. Better, invite the leaders of the woke movement to gather for a reasoned and civil debate. To use the words of Francis Bacon, my suspicion is that, like jesting Pilate, they will not stay for an answer.