Fight over controversial speaker lands at Skidmore College

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A group of Skidmore College students are pressing forward with a plan to bring a controversial Canadian academic to campus in the fall – a plan that has stirred outrage among other students.

Freshman Madelyn Streb is among the students trying to bring Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, to the college for a speaking event. Peterson has been hailed as a powerful public intellectual by his supporters and denounced as peddling hateful, far-right politics by his detractors.

Streb said she thinks Peterson would challenge Skidmore students intellectually and would draw interest from within and outside the school community.

“I’ve been to talks on campus. The people they bring are puff people,” she said. “It doesn’t draw interest. It doesn’t draw students. It doesn’t challenge you to think.”

She has the support of the Skidmore College Republicans – that group’s vice president said they would sponsor the Peterson visit if need be – but she has also experienced resistance from other Skidmore students who argue Peterson represents racist, misogynistic and transphobic views.

Opposition to Peterson, who has raised ire on both sides of the border over comments about transgender students and other subjects, was formally articulated in an online petition aimed at keeping him from visiting the college.

“There is monumental opposition to this, as Dr. Peterson has made a career of peddling paleo-fascist, outdated, social-Darwinist pseudoscience to the alt- and far-right,” Skidmore student Darien Watson wrote in the introduction to the online petition that drew more than 350 signatures. “His thinly-veiled racism, classism, misogyny, and blatant transphobia have no place at Skidmore College.”

Watson wrote that the petition and a letter written by Skidmore students “who would be affected by, excluded from, and appalled at Dr. Peterson’s visit,” would be delivered to Skidmore President Philip Glotzbach. (Watson did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article.)

Watson and other opponents of Peterson pointed to his opposition to a Canadian law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and extends hate speech protections to transgendered people. At the time, Peterson argued controlling and compelling speech was a step toward tyranny and suggested he wouldn’t refer to students by their preferred gender pronouns.

Those positions should disqualify him from speaking at Skidmore, the students suggest.

“For the vast majority of marginalized people, politics cannot be separated from real life,” Watson wrote in the petition. “A lecture delivered by a man who purposefully disrespects trans identities by intentionally misgendering them is not a lecture for all students.”

It’s unclear whether Peterson will ever make it to Skidmore. Streb and other students are applying for grants to help support Peterson’s $35,000 speaking fee – up from $15,000 when Streb first explored bringing him to campus earlier this school year.

A GoFundMe page Streb set up had raised just $475, as of Tuesday, but she said she and others pushing for Peterson to visit Skidmore are confident they will come up with the money. Streb and David Solovy, vice president of the Skidmore College Republicans, said they have received assurances from an outside organization that it would cover much of the cost, but they didn’t specify the organization.

“I don’t believe that money will be an issue … the issue is more the social repercussions on campus,” said Streb, who comes from Andover, Massachusetts., and studies neuroscience.

They also held out the possibility that Skidmore administrators could quash a Peterson visit by asking the student organizers to also pay for security for any speaking event.

Solovy pegged the chances that a Peterson visit would materialize at “60/40,” while Streb thinks it’s more like an 80 percent chance.

“If we do end up not being able to bring him, I hope we can say we tried our best — gave it our all,” Solovy said.

College officials said in a response to questions that the administration does not generally approve or deny invitations to speakers, which are usually made by formal campus organizations. But they also raised the issue of security costs and suggested free speech can be promoted in many ways.

“The college would not support a speaker whose presence on campus presented issues of physical safety or would require extraordinary resources to assure the physical safety of the speaker or others,” college spokeswoman Diane O’Connor said in an email response to questions. “We encourage students to engage our community in conversations about issues of free speech, and there are other ways of doing so, besides bringing a specific individual to campus.”

Streb and Solovy said they have faced “vile” comments on social media from students who oppose their efforts. They also said that, as the controversy was heating up over the winter, they placed dozens of signs around campus that said “free speech.” Those signs were torn down or defaced, they said. They put up more signs, which they said were also torn down or vandalized.

Streb said the response she has seen doesn’t seem to fit with the values espoused by a liberal arts college like Skidmore.

“I thought the motto that ‘creative thought matters’ would be taken under consideration,” Streb said, referring to the school’s motto. “For a community that preaches open-mindedness, it’s actually quite closed-minded.”

But they also said they felt they had already accomplished something by just presenting their plans for a Peterson visit, arguing the debate has spurred discourse about free speech and how students should engage with controversial speakers.

Peterson, who has posted more than 100 lectures on his YouTube page, is seen by his supporters as a crusader against political correctness and identity politics. He argues on Fox News and elsewhere that social justice movements alienate vast swaths of society.

“They are too preoccupied with identity politics by a large margin, and they tend to categorize everyone by their ethnicity and their sex and their gender,” he said of liberals on Real Time with Bill Maher over the weekend. “I think all that does is turn people into tribal actors, and the end result of that is catastrophe.”

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