This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education‘s (FIRE) annual summer Campus Freedom Network conference. I had a fantastic time! Saturday, in particular, was a long day, but they did manage to pack quite a bit into our weekend experience. They covered a number of topics, from the genesis of FIRE, to some of the latest cases and the Office of Civil Right’s (OCR) settlement with the University of Montana. The letter detailing the settlement agreement between the University of Montana and OCR will be a source of even greater concern for first amendment and due process rights in the very near future.
My weekend was very enjoyable. I had a chance to meet fellow students from many different colleges and universities. I did indeed get a chance to finally put faces and voices to many of the people whose work I have been following for years. There was a great deal of enthusiasm and camaraderie. As a non-traditional student (read: old guy), I often feel a little out of place, but that did nothing to diminish opportunities for conversation. It’s possible that I am much more aware of it than anyone else is. That said, I did get the “so what do you teach” question at least once. It is usually worth a chuckle. It was largely a very supportive and outgoing group of seemingly above average students.
Though it had nothing specifically to do with the conference, my favorite moment actually came during a meal on Saturday. It was a conversation that I think began with a discussion of various schools. I think it was prompted by my mentioning UVA, which I followed by noting my fondness for Jefferson and his accomplishments, despite some of his seemingly inexplicable foibles. This then led to a young woman on my left to decry Jefferson in favor of John Adams. This, in turn, led a gentleman on my right to take up verbal arms in defense of Jefferson… The fight was on! It was a spirited debate. I was grinning from ear to ear. As the battle ranged back and forth across the plain (well, our table), I could not help but be distracted by how profoundly amused I was at that moment. I has been a terribly long time since I have had a chance to participate in such a somewhat scholarly debate.
There are so many subjects that I enjoy, many of which seem to hold very little interest for most people. History happens to be one of those many subjects. Here I was, actually debating the merits of Jefferson versus Adams, with multiple people no less! It may sound silly, but this is one of the things I hope to get out of college life when I transfer to a four-year institution. I fondly hope to enjoy an environment where these sorts of debates break out on a semi-regular basis. I so enjoy these kinds of discussions and invariably learn something new from every one of them. There are few purely intellectual exercises that I enjoy more. If studying is the hockey equivalent of practice, these kinds of debates are live games. Practice would be nothing if you never had the chance to play in a real game. In my own strange way, for my own personal reasons, it was the absolute highlight of my weekend!
This is not to say that the rest of the weekend was any less enjoyable, of course. Listening to Juan Williams (currently on the Fox News Network) speak about his experiences, and being fired by NPR, was more engaging than expected. I was not sure what to expect, but Mr. Williams spoke from a more personal perspective than I might have thought. Perhaps I expected a somewhat more formal speech of some kind, but he was quite personal and engaging.
Another of the three featured speakers was Megan McArdle. While I did not know of her prior to this weekend, she was highly entertaining and engaging as well. My impression of her was one of a person with a rare talent for distilling difficult issues into relate-able points than can move a difficult discussion forward. An author and journalist, it is entirely possible that I have read some of her work without realizing it.
Admittedly, the featured speaker I looked forward to hearing from the most was Robert Corn-Revere. I have found the court case of Barnes v. Zaccari fascinating, if for no other reason than the plaintiff’s team managed to have Zaccari (a university president) stripped of his qualified immunity, which just never happens. Qualified immunity is what prevents you from personally suing a government official for actions taken in the course of their duties. You may get to sue their department or office, but not the actual official in question. Except in special circumstances, being stripped of qualified immunity just never happens. Given some of the egregious things that some government officials do, it can be frustrating, but there you are. That the legal team pulled it off in this case is a testament to the amazingly poor judgement of Zaccari and the efforts of the plaintiff’s attorneys.
As you might have guessed by now, Mr. Corn-Revere is the lead council on that legal team. This may not be the most poetic way to put it, but it was just cool as hell to listen to him describe some of the nuts and bolts of how they have handled the case and a number of details that you would not get from the news. Unfortunately he was not able to stay the entire day. He was someone I really wanted to corner and have a discussion with later on. On the positive side, I did get to ask him a few questions during his time in front of us. I’m not sure what he meant by it, but after one of my questions he asked if I was a law student. Perhaps my question just sounded like one a law student might ask, I don’t know. It did make me chuckle internally though. Sometimes folks don’t really believe that you have such a great depth of interest in so many subjects. I can’t help it, I just do. Yes, science is my passion, but that takes nothing away from the passion I have for history, or law, or any number of crazy subjects. If the manner or content of my questions caused him to think I was a law student, I’ll take that as a compliment… Without spending a moment of thought on what he may actually think about law students… I’ll just assume it is a compliment and run with it…
I leaned a lot about the staff and interns at FIRE. They really come across as a group of passionate and personable folks. Aside from the work that FIRE does, one of the things I most respect about them is the fact that I perceive them as the most non-partisan advocacy group I can think of. I saw nothing this weekend that changed that perception in any way. Regardless of what I could gather of their personal politics, they seem truly bound by their shared passion for a principle, a principle more important than any individual politics. When I finally took an opportunity to speak with Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, one interesting reaction caught my attention. I’m sure he gets many compliments, but when I mentioned how much I respected the idea that I though they were so non-partisan, that’s the compliment that seemed to make his eyes light up and elicited a little additional enthusiasm. That seemed to be something that he is very proud of. Not only was my perception validated, at least to my mind, but I also got to meet the very real people who make FIRE possible. Fact is, I really enjoyed just about every interaction and conversation, be it with FIRE staff, interns, teachers, or fellow students. It really was a worthwhile weekend.
Not only was the weekend worthwhile, but it was well organized and we were well taken care of. They housed us and held all the events on the grounds of Bryn Mawr College. As long as you understand you will be staying in the dorms, that is to say that the bathrooms are not co-located with your bedroom, things were very nice and otherwise convenient. I would not have cried had we a mini-fridge in our rooms, but I’m not going to complain. All meals were taken care of and reasonably nice. The staff at the college were helpful and treated us well. The only real downside for me was that few of the sessions were interactive. That I bring this up is partially my fault. I did not sleep much. It was such a blast to get out and interact, that it was difficult to want to sleep. With little sleep, an entire day largely composed of sitting in one place and listening to someone talk, even if you are very interested in what they have to say, can make your eyelids sag. I felt bad that I was occasionally having a problem. I hope it was not too obvious that I was exhausted. Any signs that I was were certainly not a reflection of my interest and enthusiasm for each of the seminars. I just really need to get out more! In contrast, on Sunday the interns led a session of FIRE’s version of Jeopardy. As you might guess, the trivia questions and categories revolved around FIRE and first amendment issues. It was quite entertaining! I have to tell you, there were a lot of sharp people in the room. We were split up into something like 10 teams for the game and, with maybe one exception, the spread on the final scores was very small. Aside from all that, I would have been interested in a little more material dedicated to activism on campus, more ideas on how to be more effective at advocating for rights on campus.
At the end of the weekend, my opinion of FIRE had only been enhanced. You can read the news and follow the cases, but nothing is more compelling than to look into the eyes of the FIRE staff and hear how they speak about what they do. If I had a free summer and was in Philly, I would sign up as an intern in a heartbeat. Hopefully, my major would as irrelevant to them as it is to me in regards to my own passion for this subject. In fact, I actually expected most of the attendees to be majors in pre-law, journalism, education, etc.. I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a number of fellow hard science majors who obviously had an interest in the subject beyond any major related interest. That is not to say that a pre-law student would only be there because the law was involved… Well, obviously it was just a silly thought on my part.
I hope that no part of the transfer process interferes with next summer’s schedule. Assuming I can, I will very happily return and attend the conference again. It was a great experience that I would love to be able to repeat! For the more easily amused among you, here are some photos from the conference.