Stevens and the Gianforte Problem

This spring, Stevens Institute of Technology, the university where I work, will name a new building, sometimes referred to as the “Academic Gateway,” after Greg Gianforte, who has given the university $20 million dollars.

Here are some of Mr. Gianforte’s proud accomplishments:

  • He is a billionaire or millionaire, depending on who you ask. He began his career at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories before going on to found a number of successful companies, including RightNow Technologies, a maker of customer relationship management software.
  • He is a politician. In 2016, he ran unsuccessfully to be the governor of Montana, and he is currently running in a special election for the US Congress.
  • Gianforte has donated at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly more, to anti-LGBTQ organizations, including groups that fought against gay marriage and support discredited and anti-scientific forms of “gay conversion therapy.” One of the organizations, the New Jersey Family Policy Council, claims, “Scientific research reveals that children are not simply born gay, and New Jersey victims deserve the right to receive treatment as the result of unwanted (same-sex attraction) brought on by pedophiles.” Another of the organizations has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Gianforte also led an effort against a proposed non-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ individuals in Bozeman, Montana, claiming that such a law was unnecessary and that, if a law was passed, it should add a sexual orientation category of “ex-homosexuality.”
  • Gianforte has also made donations to Turning Point USA, which, among other feats of generosity, started the website Professor Watchlist, which creates lists of left-learning professors. Gianforte is hostile to values of academic freedom, or at least has never bothered to publicly distance himself from attacks on it.
  • Gianforte helped found the Glendive Dinosaur & Fossil Museum, including by donating the museum’s T. rex and acrocanthosaurus exhibits. The museum puts forward the Young Earth Creationist view that Earth is merely thousands of years old and that humans and dinosaurs lived together at the same time.
A scene from a future Stevens Creation Science Center? Perhaps. This is a model at the Glendive Dinosaur & Fossil Museum, in Glendive, MT, which Greg Gianforte funded. The museum puts forward the view that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. In this image, a pretty tough-looking prehistoric dude has apparently domesticated a triceratops and is riding it around like a total badass.  Another diorama depicts dinosaurs milling around Noah’s Ark. The dinosaurs didn’t make it onto the ark, which explains why they are no longer with us, the poor drowned bastards.

A scene from a future Stevens Creation Science Center? Perhaps. This is a model at the Glendive Dinosaur & Fossil Museum, in Glendive, MT, which Greg Gianforte funded. The museum puts forward the view that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. In this image, a pretty tough-looking prehistoric dude has apparently domesticated a triceratops and is riding it around like a total badass.  Another diorama depicts dinosaurs milling around Noah’s Ark. The dinosaurs didn’t make it onto the ark, which explains why they are no longer with us, the poor drowned bastards.

On April 3, 2017, a group of present and former Stevens students sent out a petition raising questions about the school’s decision to name the building after Gianforte. The petition brought to a boil concerns, worries, and anger over the university’s involvement with Gianforte that had been simmering for months—in some circles, years. (Stevens isn’t even the first university where such concerns have been raised: in 2014, students and faculty at Montana Tech protested after their administration chose Gianforte as their graduation commencement speaker.) In December 2016, the Faculty Senate—the highest-level faculty governing body at Stevens and of which I am member—expressed apprehension about the naming of the building and questioned why Stevens administration had not consulted the faculty about this decision. The Senate failed to take further action, however. (I take partial responsibility here.)

The students’ petition began a spirited debate at Stevens, particularly on faculty email lists. Some faculty, including myself, supported the students and argued that the situation required further discussion. Other faculty reacted with outright hostility. George Calhoun, a professor at Stevens School of Business, wrote, “I’ve been wondering when this sort of aggressive political correctness would reach Stevens—as it has now infected so many other colleges in this country.” He accused the students of proposing an ideological “litmus test,” of holding an “illiberal and intolerant perspective,” and of being like the controversial students at Yale, Berkeley, and Middlebury College.

On April 4, 2017, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin sent an email to specific groups addressing the brewing controversy. In some ways, Farvardin’s email was pretty good. It expressed unequivocal commitment to academic freedom, diversity and inclusion, and the pursuit of scientific truth. It also claimed that Gianforte did not mean to shape scientific research or discrimination policy at the school and that the school would not take money from any person or group who sought such influence. But in other ways, Farvardin’s email was quite weak and didn’t even begin to address the concerns or requests made in the petition or subsequent discussions. I will discuss these shortcomings in the rest of this post.

Before addressing these problems, however, we should acknowledge the more general context: Diversity isn’t Farvardin’s strong suit. In fact, he’s lousy at it. The Stevens student body features some pitifully small number of African Americans (~2–3%), far away from the national population (12.3%), let alone that of cities in Stevens’ immediate neighborhood (New York–25.1%; Jersey City–28.32%; Newark–53.46%). The student body is 70% male, 66% white. The faculty has few women, even fewer minorities. Yet, Farvardin rarely, if ever, makes diversity a primary point of his public appearances, preferring to ruminate once again on the university’s place in college rankings and, as frequently as possible, repeating the phrase, “return on investment.”

Recently, when Farvardin introduced the diversity and racial equity expert Shaun Harper at a public event, he focused his remarks on the few times the university held other discussions about diversity instead of being an honest broker and stating frankly that the university has a problem. Occasional public statements, like the university’s “strategic plan,” spend a few nice words on the value of diversity, but the school has not meaningfully changed the way it recruits or supports students, faculty, and staff or created resource-intensive diversity-centered programs to demonstrate that it will match words with action. As a colleague recently put it, “You can fit all of the black women who work on this campus—administration, faculty, and staff—into the president’s quite small conference room.”

Moreover, it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that the Stevens family not only owned slaves but also was actively involved in the slave trade. There is every reason to believe that wealth and profit won from this exploitation was rolled into the founding of the university. When Shaun Harper gave his talk on campus, he noted that minority students at colleges wanted the names of slaveholders removed from buildings and organizations. This task would be tough for Stevens because it would have to change its very name. But other prominent universities—including nearby Rutgers—have begun major research projects examining the role of slavery in their histories and reflecting on what that history and current inequalities mean for their present. Faculty members, including me, have suggested such a research project at public gatherings, which members of Farvardin’s administration attended. But they have done nothing about it. Instead, the president, other campus leaders, and the university’s website continue to peddle a Disneyfied version of Steven’s history, which focuses on the family paterfamilias, Col. John Stevens, his two sons, Robert and Edwin, and how they made nifty inventions together—true innovators all, no doubt. Never mind that more of the family’s wealth may have been won from real estate and exploiting enslaved black humans than ever came from technological entrepreneurship. Farvardin hasn’t even expressed curiosity about the slavery research, let alone taken action on it.

It’s this inability or unwillingness to move beyond empty rhetoric about diversity that raises the most serious questions about Farvardin’s email. In my view, there are four basic problems with it.

First, the president’s email was targeted. It was sent to select individuals and groups, apparently including those people who signed the petition. So far, the president has avoided making any broader statement of principles. This is the kind of thing I’m gesturing towards when I describe Farvardin’s habitual failure to act in the name of diversity and other sensitive issues: he demurs from taking a stand before the entire campus community, let alone the broader public. For instance, there are alumni who for a variety of reasons didn’t feel they could sign the Gianforte petition but who are quite concerned about this issue, and they have heard nothing from Farvardin. The president’s narrow communication to a few people instead of all can look like an attempt to cool discussion and prove it unnecessary rather than open it up. The president should take a stand, and while he’s at it, he should make a moral argument for why the first new major building at an institute of science and technology should be named after man who attacks gay rights, who denies scientific truth, and who funds groups that try to shut down academic freedom. If the president’s argument is solely, “Because $$$$,” he will have made a kind of argument but a feeble one. 

This brings us to the second problem with Farvardin’s email: it does not address any of the concerns raised about the symbolic and long-term risks of naming a building after someone like Gianforte. This is particularly true given that this new building has traditionally been referred to as the “Academic Gateway” and has been intended to be a new public face and welcoming point for the university.

No one, it seems, would doubt that there should be some limits on who universities should take money from and name buildings and centers after. If Vladimir Putin gave $500 million to Stevens and asked the school to create the “Putin Freedom of Speech Center,” community members would be seriously concerned. Stevens administration has chosen to publicly celebrate and name its new building after a man who has worked hard to oppress the rights of fellow human beings, or at least that is how a significant portion of the population may see it, including potential donors and potential future students, especially LGBTQ ones. The administration has chosen to enshrine the name of an individual whose values are directly antithetical to inclusion, academic freedom, and true scientific inquiry.

Here, I have encouraged colleagues to take the long view: fifty and sixty years ago, many people in this nation were advocating racial segregation and miscegenation. We now see the actions of such individuals—like Strom Thurmond—as morally reprehensible. There has been a major shift in thinking about gay rights, including marriage rights, over the past decade. The highest court in our land has asserted that marriage is a right for all. Young people accept gay marriage in a way that their parents and grandparents did not. We have every reason to believe that this trend will continue and grow stronger.

What will a Gianforte building look like in 25 or 50 years? What kind of Academic Gateway will it be? What will it symbolize? The Strom Thurmond Gateway Greeting Center? We welcome you.

Business professor George Calhoun asserts that holding controversial views is the only thing Gianforte is ‘”guilty’ of.” But I think this statement assumes an extreme form of moral relativism that most people don’t actually buy into. By logical implication, the only sin of defenders of slavery, like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh, or proponents of segregation and miscegenation, like Thurmond, is that they had “controversial views.” Few outside white nationalist circles believe this.

Moreover, Mr. Gianforte is not merely a private citizen who holds certain views. He is a politician who has pushed vigorously for certain causes, including by marshaling his significant wealth. If Gianforte is elected to the US Congress, Stevens may very likely be in the awkward position of being an institute of science and technology with a building named after a Congressman who is actively attacking science and engineering funding and policy, who is working to rollback the rights of its students, and who is walling out the foreign, immigrant students on which the school's business model completely depends.

The third problem with Farvardin’s email is that it does not address any positive steps the university can take to strengthen campus diversity in the context of taking money from someone like Gianforte. Here, more than more hot air is needed. Hotter air is not enough. In their petition, the students demanded that Stevens administration “reaffirm their commitment, in actions and not just words, to be an inclusive campus regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.” (emphasis added) Community members have put forward a number of ways the university could do this, including by working to hire more LGBTQ faculty and starting a new queer studies program. The option that has been mentioned most often is to open a new LGBTQ and diversity center and place it prominently, front-and-center in the new building. (Putting a statue of Charles Darwin in the building’s lobby would also be a nice touch.)

Finally, the fourth problem is really a kind of meta-issue: there are deep and troubling questions about how the administration reached the decision to name the building after Gianforte without, it seems, consulting anyone in the wider campus community. The students raise this issue in their petition when they request “the administration publicly explain their reasoning behind accepting the donation and honoring Greg Gianforte in light of what he stands for.” (emphasis added) The Stevens Faculty Senate also raised concerns about the decision-making process in its December 15, 2016 meeting, which took place two days after Farvardin announced the building’s name. As meeting minutes note, “The Senate expresses deep concerns about naming the new building the Gianforte Academic Center without consulting with the Senate first (shared governance). The Senate is afraid that this [naming decision] may deter future donors or students from attending Stevens. The Senate is also concerned that this may negatively impact the academic freedom and the work environment of our faculty.”

The Senate further noted that the Stevens administration consulted the Senate when choosing commencement speakers and awarding honorary degrees but not when naming this building. The way this decision was handled reflects a wider pattern with Farvardin, who has to be reminded again and again to include faculty in committees and decision-making processes. This closed-door decision process is good example of the top-down mode of corporate governance that Farvardin prefers, a mode that abhors democratic participation and honest intellectual engagement, a mode that sees no need for light because it fears light.

This autocratic style and lack of open discussion evokes darker days. Stevens’ last president, Hal Raveche, stepped down and left the university under a shadow of financial scandal and corruption. Farvardin’s entrance supposedly ushered in a new age of modernization and openness. The decision-making process for naming the Gianforte building clearly violates the spirit of transparency that was meant to mark the Farvardin era.

I am not pretending that this issue is simple or even clear. There are reasonable people with coherent arguments on every side of it. At the extreme ends, some individuals believe that Stevens should return Gianforte’s money, while others think that the naming is a non-issue not even worth talking about. They point, for instance, to famous cultural institutions that have taken money from and named themselves after the controversial Koch Brothers seemingly without problem. In middle positions, some believe that the school should keep the money and the naming but change the process by which such naming occurs. Others agree with this position but add the argument that the school must now take the kinds of proactive steps listed above (new LGBTQ center, new faculty, new programs, etc.). As one of my colleagues put it, “Every dollar this guy pours into putting brick and mortar on college campuses is a dollar he can’t spend trying to oppress other human beings.” Still others argue that Stevens accepted Gianforte’s money without strings attached, that it is under no contractual agreement to name the building after him, and that Farvardin has decided to do so purely by fiat.

All of these positions and more are worth considering and listening to. What is wrong, however, is not having the discussion in the first place. What is wrong is avoiding debate. As Kyle Gonzalez, one of the authors of the petition, wrote in a later email to faculty, “What concerns me most is the silence and absence of information surrounding all of this.” Likely our leaders have avoided such conversations because they do not want to offend their patrons, hoping instead that no one would notice—or at least dare to mention— the nature of the deal going down. If this is right, Farvardin and his people have too deeply bowed before external powers. They should get off their knees.

The students who created the petition would like to see President Farvardin and his administration publicly explain their reasoning for naming the building and reaffirm their commitment to diversity, academic freedom, and scientific truth. They would like the school to take proactive measures to bolster its diversity activities, in actions and not just words. They would also like the school to hold a public forum where people can raise questions, express opinions, and engage in real discussion. These do not seem like unreasonable demands.

When the dust settles from this moment, some serious questions and reasons for reflection will remain:

First, the Gianforte controversy has brought to light that the Stevens campus has a pervasive culture of fear—especially a fear of reprisal and retaliation. Teaching professors and tenure-track assistant professors have asked colleagues whether they could sign the petition only to be told that doing so would threaten their livelihoods. Other untenured professors have declared that they would not take a public position on the matter because they are too afraid and vulnerable. Obviously, taking money from a man who funds attacks on college campuses and professor watch lists does not help this situation. If Stevens would like to go from being a polytechnic to a full-fledged, robust university, it will have to start acting like one, including by fostering the right to dissent, to raise tough criticisms, and to engage the administration in vigorous debate.

Second, the way this situation has played out raises real questions about the university's leadership. Universities around the country are involved in intense debates about the value and meaning of diversity and about what role donor money should play in shaping their campuses. Characters like George Calhoun lump all of these discussions under the term "political correctness," but that is only because they lack subtler concepts in their intellectual toolsheds. There's more going on than any simple label can cover. Our culture is involved in a deep conversation about what it can and should be for all of its members. Stevens administrators have squandered an opportunity to join that conversation meaningfully. In this larger context, the clumsy way Farvardin and other leaders have handled this situation—the fact that they have failed to actually lead—truly beggars belief. Sadly, in this case, the administrators of an institution that has trademarked the name "The Innovation University" are well behind the times.