Campus has once again been plunged into controversy regarding a recent planned talk. The Tocqueville Society, a political thought group that hosts various speakers (and weekly meetings amongst the Political Thought Club), invited Mrs. Mary Eberstadt to give a talk on Monday, Mar. 27. The talk was an approved CLP, entitled “Why Don’t We Know Who We Are? The Origins of Today’s Identity Confusion.” Eberstadt canceled her talk and penned an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining her reasoning and her concern for academic freedom and discourse on Furman’s campus.
On Mar. 26, one day before the scheduled talk, Eberstadt published her WSJ article: “You Can’t Cancel Me, I Quit.” In the article, she explains why she canceled her talk, discussing her recent book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. She details the progression of cancel culture and political trends from her commencement speech at Seton Hall’s 2014 graduation ceremony to the climate of 2023. Eberstadt discusses the recent protests at Scott Yenor’s Tocqueville CLP earlier this semester, highlighting his experience with protesters at his talk on Dostoyevsky and revolution. Eberstadt contacted Dr. Yenor asking for his take on the matter, and in the article he is quoted as saying: “Never in my life have I experienced a crowd so uninterested in learning, and so unwilling to hear…”
She continues in her article, claiming that the Furman Cultural Life Program committee revoked the credit that was originally approved for the talk, and after this, she continues to discuss the opinions piece in The Paladin ("How The Tocqueville Program Makes Furman a Worse Place") published on Feb. 13. She criticizes the article for “taking potshots” at her and undeservedly smearing Catholics. Eberstadt seeks to push back against the criticisms in the article and remarks that “There’s no evidence that the indignant writer had read my books or even knew their titles.”
Eberstadt notes that the posters advertising her CLP disappeared around campus the week before the planned event and were once again removed after individuals replaced them. She states in the article that Furman community members informed her that a letter was sent by some students to the CLP committee, caricaturing her work and calling her names, seeking to revoke the credit for the speech.
I sat down with one of the members of the CLP Committee, politics professor Dr. Brent F. Nelsen, to hear the perspective of some of the committee members and discuss the claims of the article as well as the lead up to the event and the letters sent to the committee.
Dr. Nelsen noted that the CLP committee meets regularly on Mondays (usually around lunchtime) and that, regardless of a formal appeal, the event still would have occurred even if it didn't have CLP status. Nelsen stated that an appeal for an already approved CLP is extremely rare, noting that he cannot recall a revocation of a CLP during his tenure on the committee.
There were three letters sent to the committee (over the course of that week and into the weekend) seeking an examination of the event and possible revocation of CLP designation—one from English professor Nicholas Radel, one from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, and one from the Furman University Young Democratic Socialists of America. Dr. Nelsen noted that the time frame for the committee’s action was very limited. They had not heard an appeal to a CLP in years (it is possible that the current body of members all collectively had never heard an appeal) and would have to address the appeal at the Monday meeting, the same day as the planned talk.
Dr. Nelsen pointed out that the original proposal for CLP credit was rejected by the committee and revisions were made for its approval. Specifically, the committee asked the Politics & International Affairs Department to find a different sponsor for the event (Politics professor Dr. Zubia had been the sponsor for previous Tocqueville events, as the organization’s director). The department decided to have Dr. Zubia be the introducer for the speaker, with Dr. Halva-Neubauer as the moderator, and Dr. Nelsen and Dr. Guth as co-sponsors. These revisions were accepted by the committee and the CLP scheduled for Mar. 27 was approved (before any of this controversy occurred in the week leading up to the talk). Since Dr. Nelsen officially became one of the sponsors on behalf of the Tocqueville Program, he recused himself from any possible decisions on the revocation of CLP credit.
The committee planned to hear the case for the appeal and vote on whether the CLP credit should be retained on the Monday of the talk. The committee had an emergency meeting on Friday the 24 to set the agenda for the upcoming Monday, as the formal process of this form of appeal had not been fully fleshed out and the members did not have experience with this scenario. Ultimately, the vote was never taken as that weekend Mrs. Eberstadt notified the Tocqueville Program and the committee that she was pulling out of the scheduled visit.
Dr. Nelsen stated that the committee was “aware of the unprecedented nature of what a revocation of a CLP credit would mean.” In theory, it is possible that the credit could have been revoked by the committee vote, but Dr. Nelson stated that “It is absolutely wrong to know how anyone in the committee would vote.” The CLP committee has five faculty voting members alongside two student and two administrative voting members.
Remarking on the changing campus culture and heated political climate as of late, Dr. Nelsen said that “It is not so much Furman as the culture” and that “in many ways, Furman is just ten years behind national trends in polarization.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Steven Raney, the co-chair for the Furman Young Democratic Socialists of America, to discuss their organization’s perspective on recent events. He stated the group had a general monthly meeting on Mar. 17, in which one of the members brought Eberstat’s planned talk up. The Central Committee (club officers) met the following Monday and invited members to create signs to protest the event, which were posted on the organization’s Instagram page with the caption: “Huge thanks to everyone who made a poster tonight—join FUYDSA on the Trone Patio, 4:30 Monday to fight Mary Eberstadt’s anti-women and anti-trans message.”
Mr. Raney stated that an email was sent to the CLP committee requesting a revocation of the CLP credit for the event. Around 30-35 people co-signed the request. He stated that club officers met the next Monday, Mar. 27, and were happy that her event ‘promoting hate’ was canceled. Mr. Raney stated to me that by and large the club sees this as a victory and that the group is “dedicated to keeping hateful and reactionary speech off campus.” According to Mr. Raney, FUYDSA has 43 registered members, with about 20 or so active members.
President Davis sent a campus-wide email on Wednesday, Mar. 29 entitled “Setting the record straight” in which she addressed Eberstadt’s Wall Street Journal article. Davis writes, “I wanted you to have the facts, as the piece misrepresents what happened and falsely maligns our students.” Davis attached several images within the email attempting to highlight that the original protest of Dr. Yenor was not hateful or representative of an ‘angry mob.’ Davis claimed that Eberstadt did not give Furman a reason for canceling her talk or provide administrators with an opportunity to address her concerns. The email also contained a quote from Furman politics professor Dr. Vinson, signaling the civility of the protest and Furman’s supposed commitment to a variety of viewpoints. President Davis ended the email by turning to Furman Engaged: “To see what’s truly happening at Furman, we invite you to attend any event on campus to see for yourself. In fact, we will be highlighting our students’ engaged learning experiences, including their scholarship and research… I am certain that, if you attend any of these events or any others, you will witness students, faculty and staff who are engaged, thoughtful, and passionate about pursuing truth and knowledge. That is the Furman we all know.” A condensed version of Davis’ email was published in the Wall Street Journal.
On the morning of Mar. 31, a short response by Mary Eberstadt and Scott Yenor was published in the same Wall Street Journal opinions section. In this response, Eberstadt applauded students in the Tocqueville Program, whom she hosted a seminar over Zoom with. She goes on to state “My op-ed wasn’t about students like those, but the increasingly militant minority that menaces and humiliates invited guests, and whose doings are whitewashed or ignored by administrators.” Eberstadt again referenced the incidents with the advertising posters on campus, which Davis’ email did not address, noting one of the posters for the talk was defaced, crossing out her job descriptions and replacing them with the word 'fascist.' She adds that her family fled fascism in Northern Italy. Eberstadt goes on to claim she canceled her talk due to the need for armed security and a lack of campus leadership.
Yenor begins his portion of the article saying, “Ms. Davis worries that the Furman students at my February talk on campus are misrepresented as an ‘angry mob.’ She should be more worried about the hostile, anti-intellectual culture she is building at Furman.” Yenor states that protestors occupied as much as 20% of the seats, and that those that left the talk robbed others who may have otherwise wanted to hear the lecture. He ends the article on this note: “Ms. Davis might think about how Furman’s academic environment could be better if she dropped woke programming and took rigor and mutual respect seriously. Perhaps she should work toward cultivating a campus climate where speakers don’t need police protection. Until she does that, she is part of the problem.”
Continued political polarization can be seen throughout this controversy. It seems that different groups have greatly varied definitions of what classifies as hateful speech and what speech is free, protected speech. The Tocqueville Program is expected to undergo structural changes, but details have not been established at this moment.
One can read the various articles mentioned below: