Earlier this year, the University of South Dakota School of Law forced a group of students to change the name of its “Hawaiian Day” social to “Beach Day,” citing a complaint about cultural insensitivity. Shortly after, the state passed a new free speech bill — the first of its kind in the nation — that requires annual reporting of university attempts to impede free speech.
Involved in the crafting of the bill was Hillsdale College’s own Classics Professor Emeritus Michael Poliakoff, who reinstated Hillsdale’s Classics department and taught at the college between 1987 and 1991. Poliakoff assisted lawmakers with the legislation through his work with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability within American colleges and universities, where he currently serves as president.
Not only does the new law forbid free speech zones on state university campuses, but it also requires the state Board of Regents to submit an annual report to the Governor and legislature each year describing every circumstance in which a university has worked to either promote or hinder free speech. The latter provision, Poliakoff emphasized, is the most “powerful” with regard to the fight for increased intellectual diversity.
“Of all institutions of civilization, the academy is the place that pre-eminently must be open to the exchange of free ideas,” Poliakoff said. “For the legislature to encourage making that transparent — that is absolutely appropriate.”
Poliakoff contrasted his legislation with “inappropriate” free speech legislation proposed in various other state legislatures. Whereas the South Dakota law leaves universities room for administrative judgment, other states have proposed setting particular thresholds for litigation.
“It is inappropriate for government, through legislation, to be telling campus what sorts of procedures to establish,” he said. “We’ve seen a fair number of these, and they really do open up the possibility for another administration to use these things to weaponize the free exchange of ideas.”
Poliakoff had originally hoped the bill would include a provision, which was later removed, to require students to pass a civics course in which students would study their federal and state constitutions as well as the context of those documents. Other states, including Georgia, Texas, and Nevada, have implemented similar provisions, which Poliakoff says are effective because they avoid too much overreach. Selecting a particular set of secondary sources for a civics course, for example, would be taking a step too far.
The South Dakota bill had actually failed to pass a senate committee, prior to its being resurrected earlier this year after the “Hawaiian Day” debacle, in which the USD School of Law both ordered students to change the name of their event and also prevented them from handing out lei, traditional Hawaiian flower gardens, at the gathering.
Poliakoff also said that President Donald Trump’s executive order, which instructs that research and education grants be we withheld from colleges and universities that fail to uphold the First Amendment, had no connection to the South Dakota bill, which passed the day before.
Hillsdale was in part what launched Poliakoff into his many years of public policy influence. He said he loved living among a community of students who show deep interest both in what they read and in “the affairs of the nation.”
“They breathe these things — not just in the CCAs but in the dining hall as well,” Poliakoff said.
It was this very energy, he said, that propelled him from the classroom into policy. He began reading more deeply into national events and feeling a sense of obligation to do what he was doing in the classroom on a wider scale.
“There’s always that tension between sanctuary and the obligation that one feels,” he said. “I don’t mean to be pretentious, but isn’t that what Plato is telling us, that every once in a while we’ve got to go back into the cave and try to get people to see what the truth is?”
Professor of Politics Mickey Craig, who was also at Hillsdale during Poliakoff’s time, said he appreciated Poliakoff’s love for everything classical — from Greek wrestling to how classical learning could be combined with contemporary civic education.
“Things like how do you perpetuate a free republic type of thing,” he said. “He obviously continued in that — he’s bounded all over the country since Hillsdale.”
Craig even participated in a Greek reading group with Poliakoff along with several other professors.
“He saw how what he did with his classical studies could somehow become part of what he was trying do in education and education reform — to bring back the classics and the study of great books,” Craig said. “Through what he’s doing at ACTA — you know, with an English department that might not even study Shakespeare — he’s making people aware of the strange multiplicity of specialties at universities.”
Professor of History Paul Rahe, who overlapped with Poliakoff at both Yale and Oxford, said some of Poliakoff’s other work at ACTA with regard to tracking university mismanagement could end up being “explosive.”
“It’s allowing trustees at the University of Michigan and other places to actually see where the money goes, and it might bring pressure on the government because of grants,” Rahe said.
He added that universities across the country “are almost always badly administered,” noting that during financial decline, many tend to slim down faculty numbers while holding onto burgeoning and unnecessary staff positions.
“There’s a crunch coming, and Michael is preparing the ground for revolution I think,” Rahe said.
Before ACTA, Poliakoff served as Pennsylvania deputy secretary for postsecondary and higher education, director of education programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and vice president for academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado. Now, as ACTA’s president, Poliakoff continues to further his stance against what he sees as the erosion of the First Amendment.
“One of our dear friends at ACTA says, ‘What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens at the university doesn’t stay at the university,’” he said. “When we accustom students to expect bias-response teams and free speech zones and safe spaces then they will carry that over into the workplace and civil society. I’d venture to say much of the polarization in this nation — the inability to debate in a civil and respectful manner is an outgrowth of that toxic environment on so many campuses.”
Poliakoff added it’s not surprising that many legislatures around the country are working to protect free speech, given the many recent incidents of hostility toward conservative campus speakers, including scholars Charles Murray and Christina Hoff Sommers, and political commentators Heather McDonald and Ben Shapiro.
“Intellectual diversity commands us to challenge our own beliefs,” Poliakoff said. “A good method is what scientists do: an ethical scientist will do everything he can to prove his hypothesis wrong. Since we are all imperfect creatures, we need intellectual diversity to help us stumble toward a better understanding of the truth.”