The Daily Athenaeum sat down with West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee for an interview Thursday following the launch last week of the University of Austin, a new school that its founders say will combat a culture of censorship on college campus. Gee is not a Trustee at the school but is a member of its Board of Advisors.
His comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Daily Athenaeum: You said in your 2017 State of the University address: “Any attempt to deny free speech protections to others is a threat to our own freedom. It is a threat to education. And it is a threat to democracy itself.”
Why do you see the university system as so integral to defending free speech?
Gordon Gee: This is the place where all ideas should be welcome. Universities were established in the year 1200 as places in which people can gather together and create ideas.
You know, we don't produce cars. We don't produce widgets. We don't produce electric vehicles. We produce ideas. And if ideas are not at the center of what we're doing — all ideas, good ideas, bad ideas, irritating ideas, irrational ideas — then we have lost our ability, I think, to really call ourselves a university. And that by the way is my only real enthusiastic part of the University of Austin, which is the fact that it is really a center of the road, all ideas are welcome kind of a place.
I think a couple of things. We are in real danger of not feeling comfortable talking about uncomfortable ideas. 62% of students in higher education right now are fearful of saying what they think. 71% of students who are left to center would rat on their faculty members or other students. I mean, I find that to be abhorrent. When Dave Chappelle, when Bill Maher, when Jerry Seinfeld refuse to come on to a university campus, because of the fact that they feel that we have a censorial approach, that shows that our institution is in danger.
DA: Do you think that the stifling of ideas, censorship, cancel culture, whatever term you…
Gee: I hate those kinds of terms.
DA: What do you call it then?
Gee: I just call it that we don't have the kind of free thought and free speech that we should have.
DA: Do you think that happens here [at WVU]?
Gee: I think it happens less here, because I think we attract a unique kind of student, but it does happen here on occasion.
I remember Milo Yiannopolous. People told me, “You can’t allow him to come on campus.” I had so many people say that. We allowed him to come on campus. But guess what, I exercised my free speech. He attacked a great friend of mine, Daniel Brewster. And I said, you know, the guy, I just don't like what he had to say. But I exercised my free speech. And guess what? He came, he spoke, students appeared.
I had a student at the Mountainlair about two days ago. This kid came up to me — from West Virginia, from the southern part of the state. And she said, “Can I talk with you for a second?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, you know, I've been reading a little bit about what you had to say. The truth of the matter is I do not feel comfortable. I feel like if I really spoke what I believe that I would be censored, that I would be ostracized.” One student believing that is one too many.
And now I have been to places — I would say that Brown being one example of, University of Colorado being another example — where there was a real political catechism. I don't believe that so much here. But I do believe that we need to be fierce defenders of the ability for people to speak up and speak out.
DA: Do you think that stifling of free speech happens more on the conservative side here or on the liberal side?
Gee: No, I’ll tell you something. I think it happens on both sides. I think it happens from the wings. I’ll just use this as an example. Remember the Young Communist League? You know, someone over here is reporting them to the state legislature. I've had that happen, too.
If you're talking about wokeness, wokeness comes from both the left and the right. In fact, David Brooks, a couple of years ago, wrote a wonderful piece in The New York Times, about the fact that wokeness is a danger to our country, but it comes from both ends of the spectrum. I'm just a believer in ideas, and I'm not afraid of ideas, and I'm not afraid to have the marketplace of ideas.
DA: At the University of Austin (UATX), did you know that your name was going to be used on the board of advisors?
Gee: Well, they had asked me to be on the board of advisors. I did not know that he [UATX Founding President Pano Kanelos] was going to come out with that statement. Of the other 45 people on it or so, there’s a lot of things that he said that people disagreed with, including me and I said that very clearly.
But I think that everyone on there no matter where they find themselves politically, you get a very wide spectrum. You get a Bari Weiss from New York Times here and you get a Niall Ferguson here, you get a David Mamet, a great playwright who's gonna be in the center. I mean, you get them from all over.
And it's a who's who crowd. There's no doubt about it. And I felt pretty damn privileged to be included among it. And I was the only public university president, and I guess the only sitting president. But my issue that I was helping them with is because I am a sitting president I know how to gain accreditation. And I worked very hard on that.
And then secondly, just the issue we talked about which is the free speech issue. And, and I think that anytime we can find any institution that stands up clearly, unequivocally for that, I think it’s important.
And you know what, I'll tell you what really irritated me. I was asked a question and I answered, and in a very sharp way. But when someone says what do you tell your students of color, your LGBTQ students, the question was rhetorical. The question is, well, because you're associated with this group, what do you say? I have 41 years of experience. This is the great thing about being me, I say that, with all humility, the fact that I have a really extensive track record, but I just stand by my track record. And I don't want anyone characterizing me as anything other than what I am.
DA: Do you think that there's anything that people still don't understand about your involvement in the University of Austin?
Gee: Absolutely. I think the issue of explaining something like that, you know, the problem that we have is people have an ability to be able to define anything you're doing by almost immediate regurgitation on social media.
I'm certain there are a number of people who think that's the craziest damn thing I've ever heard of. And some people who say that it's wonderful. They're from all over the gamut. I've got a lot of people that write to me. I get a lot of letters, as you can imagine.
It kind of divides itself this way: The people who are external to the University, about 80% say “you go right ahead there.” And then within the University, about 80% of them say “you're a doofus.” But I figure I'm doing the right thing, if I've got enough of the beehive stirred up, you know.
DA: Do you think you could ever see yourself teaching at the University of Austin? Being the president there?
Gee: No, no, no, I'm devoted to this place. I came back here as an accident the next second time around. I had no intent on staying and here I am. And I bought a home at the Greenbrier. This is my home. And I'm not hunting for another job. I'm just trying to finish the one I have right now.