St. Olaf's Nobel Peacenik Prize · 25 February 2004

By Katherine, 02/26/04

Too often, today's college students believe they are helpless in the face of the entrenched power of university faculty and administrators. e-Pluribus, the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment's new outreach to college students, takes a different view. Launched in late 2003, e-Pluribus has had remarkable success in our first attempt to help students shine the light on bias in higher education. We've demonstrated the power students have when they link up with trustees, alumni, donors and the media to demand accountability from college decision-makers who aren't accustomed to it.

e-Pluribus' first campaign focused on the 16th annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which took place on Feb. 20-21 at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. The Forum-entitled "Striving for Peace, Roots of Change"-was co-sponsored by four other Midwestern colleges. It featured over 50 speakers and "peace skills workshops," and was key-noted by former president Jimmy Carter, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Many St. Olaf professors required or urged their students to attend.

FrontPage Magazine has already run two stories about the forum's pacifist workshops and seminars, which cried out to be lampooned. There was "Being Peace," a dance workshop where participants "worked with the movement principle of 'yield,'" so helpful in interactions with terrorists. There was "Peace and Change through Public Art," which promoted the novel strategy of peace through apologies to Native Peoples. There were "Peacemaking and Eco-Justice," "Free Trade Coffee and You," and dozens of similar fuzzy-minded exercises. The St. Olaf food service's contribution to the forum was an "all-vegetarian menu." How meatless dining might stop Osama bin Laden was never explained.

But the most troubling aspect of the Nobel Forum was not its ideological bias or its New Age anti-intellectualism. These, sadly, have become fixtures at events on college campuses across the country. The forum's most disturbing feature was its role as a recruitment vehicle for activist left-wing pacifist groups. The forum presented views from the far-Left of the political spectrum, excluded dissenting perspectives, and then issued repeated "calls to action" to students, many of whom presumably knew little about international affairs but what they'd heard at the conference.

The typical Nobel seminar purported to train students "how to organize an effective advocacy campaign on your campus," "how to educate our communities to change [their] attitudes," or how to "find our place in the struggle for social justice." The St. Olaf website linked to "action steps" which read as follows: "What can you, one individual, do today to take steps toward peace? Watch this page for a collection of ideas from forum speakers and workshop leaders; meanwhile, students should contact the peace-and-justice organizations on their campuses."

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum posed a daunting challenge to St. Olaf students who believe that partisan recruiting events have no place at an institution of higher learning. After consulting with e-Pluribus, these students devised a plan to "leapfrog" over campus intellectual gatekeepers and appeal-if need be-to the court of public opinion. The plan, which can be replicated at other campuses, had both an intellectual and an activist component.

From the beginning, the students' goal was to make the case that a liberal education requires giving students "both sides of the story." The students were determined to communicate their views to college authorities in a respectful but resolute manner. They began their campaign in October 2003, when they encouraged Scott Johnson, a Minneapolis attorney and adjunct professor of law, to apply to present a seminar at the forum on the dangers of appeasement. (Johnson's story about his speech on Winston Churchill, "Facts Are Better than Dreams," recently appeared on FrontPage.) When the Program Committee rejected Johnson's proposal, 40 students signed a letter of protest.

After this rebuff, the students approached the St. Olaf administration. They wrote a carefully reasoned letter to the college president, Christopher Thomforde, and copied other college officials, the school's over 30 regents, and the presidents of the co-sponsoring colleges. They also sent the letter to alumni who they believed would support them, and urged these individuals to communicate their concerns to Pres. Thomforde. (e-Pluribus is building lists of such alumni for a number of Minnesota colleges.)

In his response, Pres. Thomforde declined to address the students' objections directly, and urged them to attend the forum. The students then formed a committee called St. Olaf Students for Intellectual Diversity, and appealed directly to the college regents.

In their letter to the regents, the students detailed the Nobel forum's ideological bias. In addition, they explained how the forum violated both St. Olaf's policy on academic freedom and the principles of academic freedom set forth by the American Association of University Professors. The students supplemented their letter with a 25-page appendix documenting the bias that they believe pervades the campus. Exhibits included partisan e-mails that students had received from a professor, ideologically skewed questions distributed in a sociology class, and a list of the political books featured at the St. Olaf bookstore. (All were opposed to President George Bush.) The students presented the letter and its appendix at a regents meeting that was scheduled in conjunction with the Nobel Forum.

St. Olaf Students for Intellectual Diversity supplemented their intellectual efforts with an activist campaign designed to raise campus awareness of the Nobel Forum's partisan nature. They persuaded Scott Johnson to give his speech on appeasement at a "teach-in" during the forum, and billed him as "the man they didn't want you to hear." (The event drew a full house, and was attended by the Dean of Students and other college officials.) They also made table displays for the cafeteria that exposed the highly ideological nature of the Nobel Peace Prize itself. (The displays featured mug shots of Nobel laureates Yasser Arafat ("saddened by the capture of Saddam Hussein"), Rigoberta Menchu ("The New York Times revealed that much of her autobiography about racism and exploitation was a fabrication"), and Le Duc Tho ("Oversaw the invasion of South Vietnam," with "as many as 2.5 million people murdered in the 3 years that followed.") Before Pres. Carter's keynote speech, the students distributed flyers that dubbed his award the "Appease Prize," and described in detail how Carter's actions had actually endangered peace. Most importantly, the students alerted the news media to their activities and generated extensive coverage.

The immediate result of the students' campaign for intellectual diversity exceeded their wildest expectations. The regents listened with sympathy and concern, and many expressed strong support. Important college donors registered their irritation and disapproval, and President. Thomforde reported that he had received many critical letters and e-mails. A number of professors thanked the students for raising the issue of bias in such a compelling way.

Since the regents' departure from campus, however, there have been troubling signs of a backlash against student organizers. Some administrators have adopted a siege mentality, and President Thomforde has accused a student leader of launching a "campaign against the college." A few professors have singled out conservative students for criticism in class. The student body president and the chair of the student regents' committee have called in one organizer and reprimanded her severely for her activities.

Clearly, if students, regents and alumni want to see long-term change at St. Olaf, they will have to keep up the pressure. But if they are successful, the college's ability to carry out its mission of truly liberal education will be greatly enhanced.