Former Classics pro­fessor Michael Poli­akoff cur­rently serves as Pres­ident of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA | Courtesy

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.”