Earlier this year, Virginia Tech’s business school invited conservative commentator Jason Riley to speak to its students. Then suddenly, 10 days later, Riley, the author of a controversial book about race, received an email informing him the lecture was off. The department head and others on campus were “worried about more protests from the looney left if you were to give the lecture,” the email said.
But instead of helping the university avert a backlash, retracting the invitation actually sparked one—with a firestorm of negative media coverage and threats to cancel donations.
To get a window onto the conversation behind the scenes as the school awkwardly invited, disinvited and finally reinvited Riley, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, Heat Street asked for hundreds of pages of Virginia Tech correspondence around the time of the controversy.
There’s a lesson in here for colleges about the storm that can be unleashed when they try to censor the dialogue on campus. And Virginia Tech is far from alone: The number of colleges that have disinvited speakers has steadily increased since 2000, according to figures from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which tracks such incidents.
The momentum to disinvite almost always comes from opposition by the left. Already in 2016, FIRE has counted 18 incidents where a speaker has been disinvited from campus, including Ben Shapiro, disinvited from California State University in Los Angeles over his discussion of race issues and civil liberties; Asra Nomani, disinvited from Duke University over her views on Islam; and John Brennan, former CIA director, who was shouted off stage at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Virginia Tech-Jason Riley saga began on April 19, when the director of the school’s program on capitalism and freedom wrote to Riley inviting him to speak in the fall. Ten days later, he sent Riley an email retracting the invitation, citing the worries about “more protests from the looney left.”
In explaining their about-face, university officials first said Riley had never been formally invited. Then they changed their story to say the invitation had been issued without proper permission. Eventually, Virginia Tech apologized and reinvited Riley, but by that time, the damage had been done.
The story went viral, first appearing in National Review on May 2, then in the Wall Street Journal and Megyn Kelly’s Fox show on May 3, in addition to about 50 other news outlets throughout the week, by Virginia Tech’s own count, according to internal emails. The university received more than 100 emails expressing outrage at the decision, including from donors threatening to withdraw support.
That vociferous public opinion weighed heavily on officials at Virginia Tech as the university struggled to react. “While we can respond to the people who write us, we cannot dispel the negative impression created by the media against the president, the university, the dean and the college, and the department,” wrote the head of the finance department, Vijay Singal, in one memo. “This is a matter of grave importance to us all and, therefore, requires strong action as appropriate that can be cited to external constituents including the media.”
The backlash was not limited to the finance department or business school hosting the lecture. On May 4, a political science professor at nearby King University wrote that, as a result of the Riley controversy, “I will actively discourage my students from attending your graduate programs or from transferring into your undergraduate program in the future, and I will not write any letters of recommendation for anyone wishing to attend your program.”
Timothy Luke, a professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Scholars, forwarded the King University professor’s note to colleagues in university relations, adding: “From a liberal arts college in Bristol where we have successfully recruited MA students.”
The senior vice president for university relations added: “I will respond. And yes, this is having an impact across the campus.”
At Heat Street’s request, Virginia Tech mailed us the printouts of emails from upset donors, alumni and parents of current or prospective students, as well as the university’s responses to these emails. Double-spaced, the correspondence is about three inches thick.
Several alumni threatened to pull donations or cancel bequests to Virginia Tech in their wills. “Don’t ever ask me for money again,” writes one 1992 graduate following the Jason Riley controversy. “I’m done.”
“Seriously, I am packing away my VT apparel, canceling my plans to attend some football games this fall and no longer traveling to attend any VT Bowl Games,” another “former Hokie” wrote. “Future donations to the University? You’ve got to be kidding!”
The Virginia Tech Alumni Association also emailed university relations, noting that “we had a trip cancellation [from a 1965 graduate] over the Riley situation.”
Virginia Tech’s associate director of gift planning, Bob Smythers, wrote to university relations on May 9 that he had received several emails from distressed givers. “These are donors I have worked with for many years, and I am going to have to give them a personal call because of the depth of our relationships,” Smythers writes. “Can you provide any guidance for me?”
As the university responded to the blitz of phone calls and emails, it also meticulously tracked the story’s movement on social media, bemoaning that “much of the social interactions throughout the week were overwhelmingly negative toward the university and higher education in general.”
Virginia Tech’s media report put the potential reach on Twitter—based on mentions for “Jason Riley” combined with “Virginia Tech”—well into the millions of users.
In one report, the university noted critical tweets from students. “Ah, the death of free speech. ‘Mere fear of potential protests swayed #virginia_tech to cancel Riley’s event.’” Another, sent by “an apparent student,” says: “What are you all afraid of. Do you just assume all conservatives will be protested?”
The school appears to have backed away from Riley because of his contrarian views on race, among other issues. Riley’s book, Please Stop Helping Us, published in 2014, argues that many well-intentioned liberal policies crafted to help blacks have actually ended up hurting them. He has also written frequently about economic issues and immigration. Douglas Patterson, the director of a program that sponsors lectures on capitalism and freedom, told Riley in his disinvitation email that his department head had raised concerns after “he learned that you had written about race issues in the WSJ.”
Ultimately, the backlash prompted Virginia Tech to reinvite Riley—and it also may become part of the topic of his speech, which is planned for the coming academic year. “Perhaps we could invite him to speak on a panel about how colleges are and aren’t fostering free speech and intellectual honesty,” wrote Tracy Vosburgh, the senior associate vice president for university relations. “This could be powerful.”
The lesson for other colleges and universities: Canceling a controversial speaker may well cause more uproar than it prevents.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Steamboat Institute.