US university leaders who shut out speakers ‘inflaming problem’

CU Boulder president also urges expansion of student Pell Grants to middle class in future

October 25, 2017
Milo Yiannopoulos
Source: Getty

US university presidents who bar “controversial” speakers from campus are “inflaming the problem”, according to the leader of an institution that hosted alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

Phil DiStefano, chancellor of the public University of Colorado Boulder, said that the best approach to ensure a diversity of voices on campus and to avoid the protests getting out of hand as they have at other institutions was to ensure that students could host an alternative event at the same time.

This is the approach that was adopted when CU Boulder’s College Republicans put in a request for Mr Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, which he did in January.

On the evening of Mr Yiannopoulos’ speech, the chancellor said that he had started at the alternative event, where he spoke and thanked participants. He then moved on to what was a “command centre, basically”, where he monitored video relays of Mr Yiannopoulos’ speech and of the protests (there were three arrests on the day).

“What we’ve done is we’ve worked with students and student groups [so] that instead of protesting the speaker, [there was] an alternative event,” Dr DiStefano said.

“I think what’s happening in some places where the chancellors or presidents or others are trying to say ‘no, you can’t have this speaker’, I think that’s really inflaming the problem,” Dr DiStefano continued. “I’d much rather work collaboratively with various student groups to bring in controversial speakers – that’s what the university should be...let students decide if they want to hear the speaker.”

Dr DiStefano grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, which he described as “a steel mill town, very blue collar” and “very diverse”, before starting his working career as a high school teacher in his home state while taking his master’s degree, then joining CU Boulder as an assistant professor in the School of Education in 1974.

“I think that being a first-generation college student, coming from that background and now being the chancellor of a major public university, I think that I take a different point of view than some of my colleagues [leading US universities],” he said.

“I’ve been afforded opportunities I never dreamed about. I want to make sure that our first-generation students – all of our students, but especially our minority students and our first-generation students – understand that there are so many opportunities with a degree in higher education.”

CU Boulder, which has 33,000 students, has prioritised lowering dropout rates and recently announced that it will eliminate $8.4 million (£6.4 million) per year in course-related fees, to lower costs for future students.

The cost of tuition, fees and accommodation combined comes to about $25,000 for in-state CU Boulder students and about $50,000 for out-of-state students, said Dr DiStefano.

Moves to lower the costs of higher education more widely have to come “at the federal level”, he continued. “Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen, I don’t think, with this administration.”

He advocated as the best option for future reform a significant expansion of federal Pell Grants, currently for students from low-income families, “to include more in the lower middle class [and] middle class”.

State government funding provides just 4 per cent of CU Boulder’s $1.6 billion budget, said Dr DiStefano (Colorado has a population of just 5.5 million).

Raising $140 million in private funds last year, increasing the level of federal research funding won (CU Boulder specialises in space research and receives more funding from Nasa than any other US public university) and recruitment of out-of-state and international students (who pay higher fees than in-state students) have been solutions.

Donald Trump’s budget proposals for cuts to federal research funding have been rejected in Congress, where alternative proposals for an increase in research funding, notably for the National Institutes of Health, are moving forward. “Right now, it’s looking more positive than it did six months ago,” said Dr DiStefano, highlighting lobbying by universities nationwide.

The chancellor was in the headlines earlier this year when he was suspended without pay for 10 days – at his own instigation – after he failed to report an allegation of domestic violence against an assistant football coach (subsequently fired) to the relevant university official.

Dr DiStefano said: “I took the responsibility that early on I should have notified our Title IX director.

“Whether anything [different] would have happened or not we don’t know, but I didn’t do that, so I felt that I needed to self-impose, with the [Board of] Regents’ approval, this suspension: as a way of showing, number one, taking responsibility; and, number two, that I thought it was the right thing to do and it was the right message to send to our faculty and our staff and students.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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