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College alumni groups spread nationally to counter ‘cancel culture’

More than a dozen groups have joined the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a group announced last fall. The alliance includes graduates from Harvard, Bucknell, Yale and Cornell universities. The groups' founders argue that only alumni have the numbers and clout to lead the fight for free speech at universities. Some alumni groups were sparked by flash points on campus, such as speakers or professors generating backlash for their views. Critics say some of the groups do not speak for most on campus and are using the issue of free speech to hold back change that is long overdue, especially on issues of race and identity. At U-Va., the president of such an alumni group, the Jefferson Council, was recently appointed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to join the university's board of visitors.

National free-speech advocacy groups offer advice, support, coordination and some individual programs. Some groups point to surveys of students and faculty indicating self-censorship. MIT Free Speech Alliance formed after Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago was disinvited from giving a prestigious public talk amid the backlash over an opinion piece he co-authored in Newsweek about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on university campuses. The group recently received a grant of $500,000 from the Stanton Foundation and is hiring an executive director, hoping to work with student groups and bring in speakers. It is too early to know how effective those efforts will be, but many alumni groups have just been taking the initial steps to form nonprofits in recent months.

Alumni groups say they have been working to ensure they are open to all and to diversify their ranks. They see a growing number of people across the spectrum upset by what they see as an entrenched intellectual conformity and intolerance. At some schools, officials have been privately dismissive of the groups, saying the older alumni are out of touch. While these issues spark tensions everywhere, they are particularly fraught at U-Va. in the years since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought torch-bearing extremists onto campus. Some alumni are talking about academic freedom, free speech, free inquiry and free expression, but some of their fights feel pretty far from that, an associate professor of English at U.Va. says. The Jefferson Council president said he was shocked by a sign cursing the University of Virginia

Ellis said the Jefferson Council needs to “get bigger and bigger, be vocal ourselves” The council is using some donated funds to bring speakers to campus. U-Va. has about 250,000 living alumni.