When I spoke to the Princeton University legal scholar and political philosopher Robert P. George in August, he offered a vivid zoological metaphor to describe what happens when outrage mobs attack academics. When hunted by lions, herds of zebras “fly off in a million directions, and the targeted member is easily taken down and destroyed and eaten.” A herd of elephants, by contrast, will “circle around the vulnerable elephant.”
“Academics behave like zebras,” George said. “And so people get isolated, they get targeted, they get destroyed, they get forgotten. Why don’t we act like elephants? Why don’t we circle around the victim?”
George was then recruiting the founding members of an organization designed to fix the collective-action problem that causes academics to scatter like zebras. What had begun as a group of 20 Princeton professors organized to defend academic freedom at one college was rapidly scaling up its ambitions and capacity: It would become a nationwide organization. George had already hired an executive director and secured millions in funding.
In the summer, George emphasized that the organization must be a cross-ideological coalition of conservatives, liberals, and progressives who would be willing to exert themselves on behalf of controversial speakers no matter which constituency they had offended. Though the funding for the organization came from a primary conservative donor, and many of those who feel most besieged in today’s academic environment are on the right, the threats to academic freedom were myriad — and did not threaten only those on the right. A principled defense of core values would require scrupulous neutrality in application and significant participation from across the ideological spectrum. “If we were asked to defend Amy Wax, we would,” he said. “If we were asked to defend Marc Lamont Hill, we would.”
Today, that organization, the Academic Freedom Alliance, formally issued a manifesto declaring that “an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on academic freedom everywhere,” and committing its nearly 200 members to providing aid and support in defense of “freedom of thought and expression in their work as researchers and writers or in their lives as citizens,” “freedom to design courses and conduct classes using reasonable pedagogical judgment,” and “freedom from ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths.”