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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome everybody to the "Freemind Podcast", where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And I'm joined today by Bob Pasnau who was director of that Center from 2011 to 2019, and is currently Professor of Distinction in the Department of Philosophy. Today, we discuss how our unlikely Center got started, and how its mission to foster free inquiry and heterodox ideas and diverse political perspectives has affected academic life at CU and across the nation. Bob, welcome. Thanks for being here with us. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the history of the Benson Center. Its genesis, how it began and your role. So can you give us an account of just, how did this very odd center in higher education, how did this get off the ground? How did this thing start at CU?
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, it's a complicated history. It goes back to 2006 when something began that at that time was called the Center for Western Civilization, which was originally directed by a classist here by the name of Christian Cough. Now my involvement starts up in 2011, at which point Todd Gleason, who was then the Dean of Arts and Sciences, called me into his office and he said, "Bob, how'd you like to run this thing, "this Center for Western Civ?" I hadn't actually even heard of it back then. I didn't know what it was. It didn't have a lot of money. It wasn't much involved in anything I was interested in, but I have, my whole life I've been trying to promote Western civilization, I suppose, in every sense of the expression. And I thought, well, why not? It's got a little bit of money, which is more money than I had to my name as a scholar, and I thought maybe I can do some good with that. And so I took this thing over. Our budget the first year was around $46,000, which I thought was a lot of money and we had some speakers in and we funded some students doing work in the Western Civ tradition. It wasn't particularly political at that point. That wasn't really my vision or my mission. I just thought I believe in Western Civ and there's some funding behind this and I'll try to make the most of it. And things went along in that way for a few years and it wasn't a tremendous amount of work and I think it did some good for some people. And then things started to change about five years later. I think this was in 2016 when I sat down with Patty Limerick, who's the director of the Center of the American West, and Bruce Benson, who was the president of the university at that time. And they said, "You know Bob we've got this other program that we run. "The Conservative Thought and Policy Program." And I of course knew about this program, this program was quite famous on campus. I almost said notorious, it depends on who you talk to, whether it was famous or notorious. This was a program that had started in 2013 that brought in a visiting scholar for the year under the headings, "Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy". And a series of impressive folk had come in year after year to do this. And it had only been for a few years at this point. And Bruce Benson's idea that, I think he had in fact gotten from Patty Limerick, was why not take this Center for Western Civ Program, and put it together with the Conservative Thought and Policy program, and make it really have a center. And so Bruce spelled out this vision for me and I kind of gulped a few times and thought, yeah, that might work. And so beginning in 2016, we had this much, much larger and broader based enterprise going, this project to both promote the study of Western civilization, but also to promote some broader sort of intellectual diversity on campus that involved bringing conservatives to campus to express viewpoints that weren't otherwise being heard from. And at this point, the Center really started to grow because there was a lot of enthusiasm among alumni, among the larger community, for the Conservative Scholars Program. People also liked the idea of focusing this around the Western Civ tradition. And so from that point forward, our budget has just grown by leaps and bounds year after year. And now it's become a multi-million dollar annual budget.
SHILO BROOKS: That's a very atypical story. It seems to me of a center like this in higher ed. It starts out so small and then now it's so gigantic and never has its mission been more relevant. And in some of the earlier episodes of the podcast, we've talked about the mission of the Center. And you mentioned that you had taken over the Center in 2011. Was the mission of the Center in 2011 what it is now? That is to say, in 2011 was there concern with representation of diverse viewpoints on campus, which is now kind of been yoked to the Center's perhaps original mission of just simply the study of the Western intellectual tradition. And how did it come about that the Center began to sort of be interested not just in the study of say, Socrates up through Heidegger, or something like this, the kind of Western Canon, but how did it also become the sort of institution which tries to represent diverse speech and viewpoints on campus?
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, I think these were initially conceived as separate enterprises. The Western Civ initiative came with worries about folks that that aspect of our intellectual heritage wasn't being taken seriously enough on campus. And that by the way, I think in a way that was never really the case, I think it can look to an outsider as if the University of Colorado has gotten so swept up into more fashionable global issues, that it doesn't even pay attention to the Western Civ tradition anymore. But really if you look, if you go department by department and you look at the faculty, you'll find the vast majority of folk on the History faculty, on the English faculty, on all of the Literature faculties, in the Philosophy faculty, the vast majority of people are working in some aspect of the Western Civ tradition. So I just always conceived of my mission as Director of the Center for Western Civ is just be to try to kind of pull those people together and give them a kind of voice and give them some support so that they could just do better the things that they wanted to do anyway. But that was sort of one side to this, and then there was this other side that was the Conservative Thought and Policy Program. And I think that program, part of what made it controversial was it looked very, very narrow. It looked as if all it wanted to do was bring a token Conservative to campus for the year. And I mean, that enabled us to bring some really interesting people to campus, but those people they would come to campus and they'd just be completely isolated. They'd have an office somewhere and they'd teach a couple of classes, but they didn't really have any connection to any sort of broader institution. And so it made the program have this sort of funny, kind of ad hoc feel to it. And I think the really clever idea of joining the two was to see that these, although they needn't be joined, there's a lot of synergy that comes from thinking of promoting the Western Intellectual tradition as allied with this idea of promoting intellectual diversity. And so pulling them together, it created a lot of possibilities for doing much more. And we've been, I think, trying to take advantage of that ever since.
SHILO BROOKS: So it makes sense that a Center which is devoted to the study of the Western philosophic tradition, especially in so far as that tradition features the groundwork of liberalism. It makes sense that a center interested in that would also be interested in the pursuit of truth, no matter where it leads us. And so in that sense, free speech, free inquiry, liberal education, and the things required to pursue truth. Those in some way, seem to me to walk hand in hand with certain high points of the Western intellectual tradition.
Yeah, I think that's right. And that's an argument that I think has been effective around here in as much as, as I was saying, a lot of the faculty work in precisely that Western intellectual tradition. And so when you invoke somebody like John Locke to them and talk about Locke's conceptions of freedom, it makes a lot of sense to them really that a center devoted to those ideals should also care about open inquiry and free speech and should have the sort of mission we do. In practice, they don't always like it, but in principle, I think they see that the argument's compelling.
SHILO BROOKS: That makes sense to me. And it makes sense, I would suspect in 2016, which seems to me to be the sort of lightning strike year for the Center. It's the year when the study of the Western intellectual tradition collides with the need for, or at least the opportunity, to champion free speech and free inquiry on campus. That collision happens, as you said, in the large part as a consequence of the Center taking on programming for the visiting conservative scholar and some of the events that are attached to that. So that genesis, and the kind of wedding of these two issues makes a lot of sense. Was it difficult for you to sell this change in the Center to particularly the administration, faculty and folks right there?
ROBERT PASNAU: Well, the administration has always been completely behind this. Of course it helped a great deal that for President Benson, this was one of the central focuses of his interactions with the Boulder campus. It was one of his central goals to get this Center really on a solid foundation. And of course, we also had a lot of support from the Law of the Regents. And so given that support from the top, it was easy for administrators to get behind it. But I also think, I mean, beyond just wanting to follow the chain of command, I think people like Philip DiStefano, the chancellor, they really sort of saw the good of this. They really believe in it and they've always been completely supportive. So that's been great. The faculty have at least always been very nice about it. To me at least, nobody sends me hate mail. I keep waiting to get hate mail. Nobody ever sends me hate mail. Nobody, if they're giving me dirty looks, I guess I'm oblivious to them. And I think a lot of the faculty not just are not hostile, but they actually do see that it's a valuable thing. Of course, the faculty here is overwhelmingly liberal, not exclusively, but largely liberal, but even so those folks kind of get the idea that a university, particularly the State University of Colorado, can't just make one side of the argument. It's not good for the students, it's not good for the institution, it's not good for the faculty in as much as they wanna engage in lively intellectual inquiry. And so I think people really do get that it's for the common good that we're bringing in the kind of people we're bringing in to express these other sorts of viewpoints.
SHILO BROOKS: That's good to hear. And I would certainly say now more than ever, the mission of the Center as it was conceived in 2016 is important and it seems to me to be of enduring importance. I assume that in 2011, when you came onboard and the Center was still small, and you mentioned a small budget and these kinds of things, I'm assuming it's a large number of students involved. How did you develop student programming over the years? And in what way have you reached out to undergraduates, and what is their response? We know the administration was for it, the faculty, perhaps is cautiously optimistic about it. What do the students think?
ROBERT PASNAU: Right, that's really been one of the challenges. Of course, in the end that's what it's all about, is connecting with students. That's what the university's here for. That's what the Center is trying to do. But in a lot of ways, kind of ironically, that's the hardest group to reach because faculty are kind of attuned to these sorts of things and they're used to going to talks and being engaged in this sort of way. And we've also had a great response from the community. We get so many people from the community coming to our events and such enthusiasm, but students can be a bit hard to reach because they're in class all day long, and so when you propose some sort of extracurricular activity to them, it can be something of a hard sell. I mean, for a lot of them the last thing they wanna do is go sit in the classroom for another hour or two after they've had classes all day. And so, we've done a lot of different things to try to engage students. The most obvious thing we do is that we're simply getting our people into the classroom, and every year as the Center has grown, we've been able to offer more and more classes, the Visiting Scholars all teach for us. We've got various postdocs who now are joining the Center, who teach for us. So in any given year, we might be offering a dozen or so classes. That's just a drop in the bucket in terms of the size of the university, but I think it makes a real difference. It sends out the signal that these issues are being taken seriously. And by offering classes like that, what you find is that there are students out there, lots and lots of students out there, that are really very, very eager to hear these kinds of debates and discussions happen. The faculty tilts to the left, the student body a little bit tilts to the left, but there are lots and lots of conservative students at the University of Colorado, and they're even more students who don't know what they are. They may have come from a conservative or liberal family, but they themselves haven't made up their mind and they really want to hear both sides of these issues. And I hear all the time the complaint that they're not getting both sides of the issues in their classes. This is the thing I say that my colleagues on the faculty get maddest with me about 'cause they all say, "No, no, no, that's not right. "We teach both sides of the issue." And a lot of them do, I don't mean to pass judgment on all of them. I would even go so far as to say most of them really try hard to do that, but there's a significant number that just do not try, or if they're trying, they're failing, and the students notice, they don't like it, they feel the way in which it constrains what they as students are able to say in the classroom, and so when they find out about our classes, they get excited and our classes have great enrollments because of that. And they're fun classes to teach because you get these people in the classes that are really thoughtful and want this kind of discussion. Interestingly, our classes are not filled with conservative students. There are conservative students, but there's students of all kinds in our classes, who are just there because of the intellectual challenge and because of the excitement of actually getting to press on these issues in an open-minded way.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's my impression as well. I actually spoke the other day to a young woman who had been a fellow at the Center, and she said exactly what you said. She said that she came to Boulder thinking one thing, and then she took some classes through the Center and realized she didn't quite know what she thought. And so it can work a number of ways. Students who think one thing might realize they don't know what they actually think. Students who really have no view might begin to then adopt a view. They may switch views. It seems to me to be a good thing for the university. And one thing you and I have talked about before is that in order to really teach the other side of any given issue, to do it as effectively as possible at any rate, well, that requires somebody who believes that that is true. In other words, I know when I teach I happen not to be a Marxist, I'm comfortable confessing that to the world right now. And so it's hard for me sometimes when I teach Marxism to really get behind Marxism. Now I try and I enjoy being a good actor and I took some acting classes when I was young and so I try, but it's not the same as hearing it from someone who really believes it, whether it's a religious position on pro-life or pro-choice, whether it's a political position, whether it's a philosopher one particularly loves, or maybe even one one particularly despises, students should be exposed to people who really believe the thing that they're saying, at least once in their academic career.
ROBERT PASNAU: Absolutely. I mean by the end of a class, you get a sense of where your professor's coming from, as hard as they might try to kind of cover their tracks in that regard and yeah, that can't help but carry weight. They're not going to make the case on the other side in the way that somebody would, who really finds those arguments persuasive. I remember one student telling me, he said something like, "You know my teacher he always sorta discusses both sides "and let students talk about both sides, "but every single time the discussion has to end up "with his side being right." And that's the sort of thing, it's pretty obvious when you're sitting there as a student, it's pretty obvious what's going on.
SHILO BROOKS: That seems to me to be a great thing for the students. I mean, speaking of this, I suspect the students have learned a lot from you and you're in a unique position. I've heard you, various lecturers that have come through and discussions that we've had at the Center, you always graciously introduce yourself as this typical Boulder liberal or a standard issue Boulder liberal. And so I'm interested to hear from you, how has the Center, it's diversity of thought, conservative scholars who come through, certainly your exposure to these things, as you say, a standard issue Boulder liberal, how has that shaped your manner of thought and on the other end, how do people respond to you who may come to the Center thinking the Center is one thing, I think if you see Western civilization on the label of something you usually think, well, I know who these folks are, and then they come and they meet Bob Pasnau and he's not quite that person. So I'm interested both in how you've been affected by being exposed to the wide range of ideas and how your atypical, perhaps political views for a Center called the Center for Western Civilization has allowed you to maneuver and maybe in ways that other folks couldn't, and has maybe helped the reception of the Center itself?
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, it's a really complicated question. Definitely in terms of the response I got from the people who are the supporters of the Center for Western Civ and the Conservative Thought and Policy program, there was a bit of apprehension about me at first, which was entirely understandable because what they would have expected, and I think what they would have wanted, is somebody who was much more ideologically attuned to what they were doing. And I wasn't that, I am just a typical leftist faculty member. And so of course they kind of thought, what if this guy just kind of take our money and run? They've gotten over that suspicion. I've been doing this since 2011 and a lot of trust has built up over the years. They may still be a bit puzzled about why I do it, but I'm the sort of liberal that takes the classical liberal tradition seriously. That's to say, I take very seriously the value of open discourse. And this is the sorts of freedoms that allow people to speak their mind and I've got a kind of a trust that maybe some people would regard as naive, but I think it's sort of the only game in town. The trust that the way forward is to openly debate the issues and let the most powerful arguments win. And that's really the way in which this has most influenced me, as you can tell from the way I'm talking, perhaps as a disappointment to some listeners of this podcast, my views haven't dramatically changed. I'm still a Boulder liberal, but I understand the issues so much better than I did when I started doing this. I feel so lucky I've been exposed to just a master class year after year of the best American Conservative Political Thought. And when I started doing this, I really did not understand where conservatives were coming from. And I'm sure most of my colleagues on the faculty still don't understand where conservatives are coming from. I mean, I know that because I'll have conversations with people and they'll give some sort of caricature of the conservative position on some issue and if I have the energy, I'll try to explain to them that no, you're not understanding where they're coming from. And so I sort of talk through, in fact, what's motivating views in a certain area and they'll say, "Oh, really? "Is that... no, that's not what they think." And I'll say, "Yeah, that's really what they think." So I've learned a lot, I've learned a tremendous amount and it sort of reinforced what I felt all along, the importance of exposing students to both sides of these issues. It's made me in a way even angrier about the nature of so much contemporary political discourse and how one sided it is on both sides. It just feels as if people are not even trying very hard to understand where the other side is coming from. And I feel more and more as if this country, it can't afford to be so lazy about this stuff. We've gotta get much more serious about understanding where our fellow citizens are coming from.
SHILO BROOKS: This is good because this leads me to another question, which is, that I've been around CU since 2016 and have come to the Centers' events, and have affiliated with the Center. In 2017, 2018, I was thinking to myself, there's been a lot of progress at this university, not only at this university but nationally. It seems to me that there's just a lot of heterodox media, whether that's Heterodox Academy and its establishment, or the work that John Hyde has done, who we had on campus last year, that there's been a lot of attention and light shined on this problem of diversity of thought in the Academy and that real progress is being made. And so I was convinced of that during the first three years of my time at CU and I thought the Center's mission is being carried out successfully, we're doing our part on this campus, and other folks on other campuses are doing their part. And we've got some people who are really speaking up like Hyde and whatnot. And then this summer, the summer we're having this conversation, the summer of 2020 came. And I became concerned all over again and worried that the progress may have taken a few steps back or been erased altogether. And so I'm interested to hear from your point of view, whether over the course of the Center's lifespan, has it made progress? Has there been a tolerance of thought that's been cultivated by some of the Center's actions, but more than that, is there a growing intolerance of diversity of thought, and is the Center now more important than it's ever been? Is its goal still a worthwhile goal, an achievable goal?
ROBERT PASNAU: Well, for sure, there's powerful headwinds right now against us. We're talking in the summer of 2020, and the climate is just brutal out there right now in terms of trying to promote open inquiry. I think the pressures against it are coming from all sides. So given that climate nationally and maybe even across the planet, it's no wonder if it feels like at the Center in particular, it's a tough time to be doing what we're doing. I do think you can see signs that we've had an influence on campus so far. It's an important fact about the Boulder campus that although we keep inviting controversial speakers, all kinds of controversial speakers, we haven't had any of the ugly incidents that other campuses had in terms of people being shut down and being unable to speak. We have never had that sort of thing at one of our events. I guess I should knock on wood at this point, but I think it's not just a fluke. It's not just a matter of being lucky. I think we've really laid the groundwork for our kind of tolerance that other campuses don't yet have. There may be other factors at work beyond our Center, but I think the Center has played an important role in that because we're the ones who keep bringing people in. And I think we've created a kind of expectation that this is how this university works. This is what we do at this university. It's really become part of the identity of the University of Colorado, that we have this Center, that we hold events like this, that we bring in scholars the way we do. We've developed a national reputation for it. It's become a kind of model for other schools trying to do something similar. And I think people just know that about this university and it's created a climate here for the good, that's kind of it's been internalized by the students and other faculty, that's at least my hope, and it feels like so far that's been born out.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that seems true to me. And one of the things that strikes me about CU, struck me when I first got here was that the administration, I assume this could be at the initiative of Bruce Benson, but there's a very strong free speech policy at CU, and it's published and it's talked about. For example, when I first got here, I remember in 2016, 2017 when this thing was being hammered out, I would get emails about this free speech, academic freedom, for both students and faculty policy at the Regent level and how it was being created and what it would contain. And this strikes me as similar in some ways. I was just visiting at Princeton University and they're a university known for their commitment to free speech. And I was there with some other fellows and many of them sort of marveled at Princeton's commitment to free speech, which has recently been tested, but as far as I could tell has been upheld and CU, I agree with what you say that CU does seem to... There haven't been the protests at the talks knock on wood, and that there is effort by the administration to write what the university thinks about free speech into its Regent Law. That's so odd. and so it strikes me as a great home for a Center, like the Center for Western Civ for that reason.
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, I think that's right. We're kind of lucky that things have come together in the way they have, and a large part of that is due to Bruce Benson, who really has exercised such leadership on this. And there was just no doubt that when he retired, the Center would be named after him because he's really the person who made it happen. I and other people who have been hands-on, running the thing, have been working hard to make it happen, but none of that would've been possible if he hadn't taken the lead.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. What do you think is in store for the future of the Center? We talked, I mentioned a moment ago that the summer of 2020 has caused a lot of people in a lot of different institutions, higher ed and others to reconsider freedom of inquiry, its contours and how it works. There's a lot of controversy, at least right now, while we're having this talk surrounding this issue, what do you think is in the Center's future? What can the Center do under its new leadership to continue doing what it's done in the past, which is to make a home at CU for free inquiry? What do you think the future of the Center holds and how should it position itself going forward?
ROBERT PASNAU: Well, I'm real excited to find out. I'm stepping down as director after 10 years or so, and Dan Jacobson is taking over and you're taking over as associate director, and I think I have got every expectation it's going to just keep growing and getting better. I think it's an exciting time for a number of reasons. For one thing is, as you've been stressing, this is a time at which these values really need defense. And it's not clear who out there is up for defending the values of free inquiry. And so it creates an enormous opportunity for the Center to take that on and to champion those courses. It's also a time at which it's kind of up for grabs what it means to be a conservative or at any rate in the American context, for sure, up for grabs what it means to be a Republican. The upcoming election is going to be very interesting in terms of what it means for the future of the Republican Party. And we'll know a lot more about that in November and December as the dust settles from the election, but this could be a time ahead of us at which American conservatives really are faced with rethinking what the Republican party looks like. And in as much as the Benson Center has one of its missions to try to think about conservative intellectual traditions, that's a task that this Center can take part in. And I think that's tremendously exciting.
SHILO BROOKS: Let me ask you, I'd like to hear whether there's something that you've worked on in your own intellectual life that made you, I know you study of course medieval philosophy. Is there something that you've thought about or some author to whom you've been exposed that has in some way influenced you and your views of the mission of the Center and why a center like the Center for Western Civ is important?
ROBERT PASNAU: I don't think there's a particular author, but I do think the... When I first started college, I thought I was going to be a history major. And then I kind of got sucked into philosophy. Well, first I got sucked into intellectual history, and then I got sucked into philosophy. And what I realized I really love is the ongoing connection of ideas through the centuries and these grand debates that happen over time in the history of philosophy. And I love the kind of the free flow of ideas in the arguments and that's what the whole history of philosophy is all about. And that's kind of my ideal of intellectual inquiry, that you make the argument, and then the other side makes it's arguments and you respond to the arguments and... I've never been, I'm kind of the farthest thing possible from a student of rhetoric. I'm not interested in rhetoric. I get completely bored by political speeches that are just exercises and rhetoric. I care about people making reasoned arguments and following those arguments and seeing which side seems more compelling. That's the thing I find exciting about philosophy. And so when I see that not happening in the context of a university, when it looks like one side is not even able to air their arguments, when it looks like there's some kind of dogma that's emerged that just holds fixed certain principles and isn't even able to consider the other side, that really bothers me. I find that seriously alarming. And so I think that's why it's such a natural thing for me to play this sort of role. Not as someone who wants... I'm not myself out there making the case for conservative ideals, but I'm just kind of out there giving people a platform to make those arguments. And then I very much hope the other side comes back and pushes back. My ideal of a perfect event would be an event at which the audience is split 50 50, in favor of against the speaker. The speaker makes a passioned case for his or her position. And then you get all of these people in the audience pushing back and pushing back hard. I mean really arguing respectfully, but really forcefully stating their view back. And so everybody leaves feeling like, wow, all right. I really understand this debate. And whether or not anybody's mind was changed, it can take a long time to change people's minds. But that's what I really hope for, is an atmosphere in which people can really hear the reasons on both sides of an argument.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, it occurs to me, I mean, this is interesting what you say, because you say that well, I got interested in the importance of making the arguments, allowing each side to have their say by way of the study of the history of philosophy and listening to great minds do that back and forth through the ages as it were. And this occurs to me as something that's worth pointing out as important because it provides a defense of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry that's not simply liberal in character because the possibility of philosophy or the genesis of philosophy is much older than liberalism and its genesis. We can go all the way back to the Academy of Ancient Greece. And so it seems to me that what you see here, what's at stake is not just liberalism. In that defense of the Center's mission doesn't have to be made merely within the contours or restrictions of say Lockean liberalism or Mill "On Liberty" or something like that, that what's at stake here is really what Aristotle was doing, what Socrates was doing with the Sophists, that this is a much older enterprise and it's hitched inextricably to the Academy in so far as the Academy is itself Greek. It's not merely liberal, although it is part and parcel of liberalism, friendly to liberalism, and at the heart of liberalism.
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, that's right. And you can see the demise of this sort of program in places where you see hostility to philosophy. In the Islamic tradition, there's a grand philosophical tradition in Islam that takes Greek antiquity as its foundation and for centuries did wonderful work in philosophy. And then the religious pressures from Islam started to shut that down. And at a certain point Islamic philosophy doesn't develop in the impressive way it does in the European tradition. You can see in other places as well, for instance in the Soviet Union, you can see philosophies simply did not flourish. There wasn't space there for that sort of inquiry. And I think there's a real, where you see philosophy flourishing is a place where you see the kind of free exploration of ideas happening, and that's as healthy a sign as there can be for our institutions.
SHILO BROOKS: Is there an event that the Center has hosted in your tenure as its director, that you were nervous about, or that it turned out maybe you shouldn't have been nervous about but you were, or that you should have been nervous about but you weren't. In other words, this is a rocky road and we've said already that the faculty and administration have been largely supportive, but certainly that's not always the case. If it was always the case, I think we wouldn't be doing our job. So I think it's in a way good to rock the boat a bit. And I'm just curious if in your institutional memory, if there's any period at which the boat was rocked and you didn't expect it, or that you thought it might be rocked and it wasn't.
ROBERT PASNAU: Yeah, that's a great question. Part of what makes it a great question is that I think the Center really, it's the place where the Center is most at danger because it's the particular events we run, the particular people that we invite to campus and that are speaking in the forums we create, where we're most vulnerable to criticism, because you put somebody up on stage and there's no controlling what they might say, what might happen, what kind of question might get asked, how they might answer that question, and if they say something outrageous or something that strikes people as outrageous, it could be a huge traumatic event for the Center. We haven't had anything terrible so far. We haven't had an event that's created headline controversy. And I hope we don't, that sort of thing, I guess there are people out there that like that kind of controversy but as far as the Center goes, I don't think that does us any sort of good. A couple of events that come to mind is a student group a few years back invited Milo Yiannopoulos to campus, who was at that time this notorious provocateur. And we were in touch with the student group and they sort of said, "Hey, you want to co-sponsor that with us?" At the time I had never heard of this guy. And all I really knew was, oh well, student group wants to invite somebody to campus? Yeah, maybe we should join in with that. But it took about 15 seconds of research, we just looked the guy up on the internet, and it took about 15 seconds to see no, this is not somebody that we want to be associated with because it was just immediately obvious that he's somebody who's making the rounds just to create publicity for himself and just to create controversy for the sake of controversy. And so we said, no, thank you, we don't wanna do that. And that was a fairly ugly event. There were protesters, and it was all just a show. There was no serious intellectual conversation happening there. So we felt very lucky to have dodged that bullet.
Someone we did sponsor and that we did bring to campus who was controversial was Heather McDonald. We brought her out a couple of years ago. She's been a very outspoken critic of diversity on college campuses. And she thinks that the kind of the drive to diversify campuses in terms of race, in terms of gender, is really destructive for the university mission. And we looked at her work and we thought, yeah, this is an argument we'd like to hear. People just in this context, in a university context, people take for granted these ideals as if they're just simply can't even be argued. We thought, let's hear the argument, let's talk about it. And so we brought her out. It was very controversial. A lot of the faculty were extremely unhappy about it. And even when she came and spoke, people were still unhappy about it. They didn't like her speech. I myself had reservations about it. I wouldn't describe it as one of our more successful events. And part of what made it frustrating is when you bring somebody out, as I was saying before, what I want is I want to have an engaged, serious debate over the person's message. But what tends to happen is you bring somebody out who holds a certain position, and the people who come to hear the talk, all agree with the speaker and all hold the same position. And so whether it's on the left or the right, it turns into a kind of love fest, and that's what happened in this case for the most part. And Heather McDonald wasn't really pressed very hard on what she was saying, and I think everybody just felt a bit dissatisfied by it. One of the lessons I took from that experience is how important it is to try to hold events that represent a range of points of views, and not just to have a single speaker representing a single point of view, but to invite out some people who come from different perspectives. It's more complicated to organize events like that, but I think it's completely worth it. You get better audiences and you get a better exchange of ideas when you do it that way.
SHILO BROOKS: It's also difficult. I mean, you say that, well, there were a lot of faculty who took issue with Heather McDonald's talk, but then you mentioned at the same time that she wasn't pressed and it's unclear to me why, if there were issues at the talk and whatnot, why wasn't she pressed publicly? Did people attend? You see what I mean, did those people who had a problem with it go? And if they went were they just silent out of politeness? Or how do you get people, somebody who might look her up and say, "Oh no", who might be critical of her, not to say, "Well, I'm just not gonna go to that "because this person is not somebody I want to hear". But rather to say, "No, this person is somebody "I deeply disagree with. "I can't wait to go and press them in the Q and A." Is there a secret?
ROBERT PASNAU: I would like to know. It's a real problem. It's part of the same problem that leads conservatives to exclusively watch Fox News and liberals to exclusively watch CNN. And so people kind of get in their own kind of thought bubbles and don't go out of their way to be exposed to other points of view. And so I think a lot of people just thought, "Heather McDonald? No, I completely disagree with this. "I'm not going to that talk." When instead, what I wished they'd do is say, "I don't agree with this at all. "I have to go and I have to explain to her why I disagree and why I think she's wrong" And it was like nobody there took responsibility for doing that. I shouldn't say nobody. There were a few pointed exchanges that I thought were very valuable and I was grateful for, but for the most part, there was very little resistance to her, even though she was coming to speak on a campus where the vast majority, at least among faculty and administrators, the vast majority disagreed with what she was saying, but they just, they did not turn up.
SHILO BROOKS: Let me ask you this question, in closing Bob. We wanna keep you involved with the Center however we can. You've done such a terrific job over these past years. You're the reason I'm here. You're the reason Dan's here. Your fingerprints are on every initiative and every person that occupies the Center right now. So how do you see yourself playing a role in the Center for the rest of your career at CU? What kinds of things would you like to do? We don't want to give you too much, I think you have a well-deserved break, but on the other hand, I think it would be a shame for us not to make use of your expertise. So what do you see your contributions being going forward?
ROBERT PASNAU: Well, I'm glad to hear you wanna keep me around because from my perspective, the hardest thing is going to be letting go at all because it's been so rewarding to be involved and so fun to watch grow, that I'm not sure I could walk away even if I wanted to. The thing I really want to do is I want to stay involved intellectually. I want to go to talks, I want to be involved in reading groups with students, I want to go to the various seminars that we run. I mean, that's the really fun part. It may be that you can talk me into some sort of administrative capacity in one way or another, but that stuff I'll duck as much as I can and hope you'll just let me stay involved in the part that's really great, it's the exchange of ideas that is constantly happening at the Center. It's gonna be, we're still in the COVID era. And so this fall, we're not going to be able to do all the things we'd like to do, but I'm looking ahead to the time when every week, we'll be running one or more events. And so it's just going to be this constant glorious opportunity to engage in these conversations. And you'll certainly see me at a lot of events.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, I'm glad to hear that and I frankly can't wait to see you and engage in intellectual discourse with you. And I just want to thank you for your work at the Center, for creating such a wonderful place, for doing such a favor not just to the Center, but to CU and really to higher education more broadly, to create a center that can serve as a model for so many other institutions. So Bob Pasnau, thank you very much.
SHILO BROOKS: The "Freemind Podcast" is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the university of Colorado, Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson. [upbeat music]