2023 Alumni Summit on Free Expression
April 18, 2023 | Emily Burden Rees
On March 30 and 31, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) co-hosted the second annual Alumni Summit on Free Expression at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. More than 120 alumni and supporters of free speech learned about AFSA’s vision for the national alumni movement and how to protect free expression at their alma maters. The conference was generously supported by the Stanton Foundation.
Attendees represented AFSA’s 16 member groups of organized alumni at Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, Washington & Lee College, Bucknell University, the Virginia Military Institute, Cornell University, the University of Virginia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others.
Thursday’s keynote remarks were delivered by Janice Rogers Brown, retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and former associate justice of the California Supreme Court. In her speech, “The Wisdom of Sesame Street or the Madness of Mao?”, Judge Brown traced the origins of Marxism, communism, and social justice theory in America’s academy and how these ideologies make truth-seeking difficult. She stated, “The act of persuasion presupposes a common medium of discourse in which both judgments and desires can be shared and differences of view resolved. But when those differences become incommensurable, there is no yardstick against which diverse perspectives can be reckoned."
The next day, ACTA President Michael Poliakoff, U.S. Representative Greg Murphy, and AFSA President Chuck Davis (recently elected by AFSA’s Executive Council in January 2023) each gave opening remarks. They praised alumni for acting as watchdogs of free expression at their alma maters and for working with students, faculty and administrators to foster open inquiry and intellectual diversity. Referencing students who are fighting back against restrictions on free speech, Representative Murphy said, “It is absolutely incumbent upon us—us—to stand behind them.”
Following these remarks, four panels explored AFSA’s growth and mission; how to use the legal system to address First Amendment violations on campus; the work of nonprofits to promote open discourse and debate; and student perspectives on campus culture and viewpoint diversity. Our expert panelists included ACTA’s Steven McGuire and Bryan Paul, student and alumni leaders from AFSA member groups, Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Cherise Trump of Speech First, Samantha Harris of Allen Harris Law, John Tomasi of Heterodox Academy, and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation.
Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera delivered a luncheon keynote address, entitled “Defending Virginia’s Hallmark: Free Speech and Inquiry in Education.” She remarked, “The undisputable trend is that campuses are on the verge of losing the very thing that led to their prominence: free inquiry and free speech. Unfortunately, this attack on individual freedom to express thoughts different than the prevailing group think of the day has spread across our society.” She highlighted Governor Glenn Youngkin’s work with university administrators and trustees to protect free speech and improve
d accountability and transparency at Virginia’s colleges and universities.
In the robust Q&A sessions that followed each presentation, our panelists and Secretary Guidera answered questions from attendees about how to tackle specific problems at their institutions.
During the conference, ACTA premiered Alumni Rising, a short video highlighting AFSA and the national alumni movement and inviting others to join. “It is a fundamental miscarriage of an institution’s vision to think of its alumni as simply a group of walking checkbooks. They are the guardians of values,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff. Davidson College alumnus and chairman of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, John Craig, said, “I care deeply about my country and I’m very worried about its future; and the one thing that I felt I could do in my retirement where I could make a real difference was . . . to do something about it [at my school].” View the video on ACTA’s YouTube channel here.
Attendees praised the panel topics, speakers, and the opportunity to convene on a pressing national issue. Daniel Wagner of the Steamboat Institute shared that his most valuable takeaway from the event was “that there is a growing network of concerned, sincere, motivated alumni who deeply care about the state of education and freedom of speech in this country.”
ACTA was honored to co-host the Alumni Summit on Free Expression. We look forward to the continued growth of AFSA and the alumni movement as more Americans realize the urgent need to restore free expression and intellectual diversity at their alma maters.