Yesterday, Chapman University President Jim Doti stepped down from his position after an extraordinary 25-year career. Under him, the school grew from a tiny college into a private-institution powerhouse, with everything from a law school to a film school (from which I graduated in 2001) to the most famous Undie Run west of the Sequatchie River. I talked about Doti's legacy earlier this week on my KCRW-FM 89.9 "Orange County Line" commentary, even comparing him to Pope Benedict XVI. Seriously: the guy deserves every accolade thrown his way.
But I bitterly laughed when I read Doti's farewell letter to the Chapman community, sent yesterday. Doti not only took the time to thank everyone for all his years of service, he warned, Eisenhower-on-military-industrial-complex-like (no seriously: Doti mentioned that Ike moment), about the thought police invading and suppressing speakers in academia.
"An ever-present danger to Chapman’s flourishing intellectual life is any compromise to our belief in the underlying value of freedom of speech," Doti wrote. "While we should always respect the feelings of others, we must never let that respect interfere or impede one’s right to speak or write freely and openly without fear of retribution." He then mocked the scholastic trend of trigger warnings and the like by writing, "I particularly caution against the conformity of thought which is the natural outcome of silencing voices in service of creating safe spaces [Weekly emphasis] of ideas. No idea should be safe from evaluation at a great university."
We're with Doti 100 percent on this—hey, that's why we put Donald Trump in a donkey show on our cover, you know? But where we break with him is in the following passage:
I feel a sense of pride that our university has never disinvited a speaker from being on our campus out of fear of what that speaker may say. Our willingness to hear views that may be objectionable and perhaps even hurtful is a testament to the underlying intellectual strength of our learning community.
Doti's kinda truthy here, fam. And the Weekly knows this personally: because I was booted from a Chapman press conference in 2004 because of my objectionable, hurtful views while writing freely and openly.
Let's hop onto the Wayback Machine for a bit to March 2004. Spain had just suffered a horrific bombing that left hundreds dead. I quickly penned a cover story blaming the tragedy not on the terrorists but George Argyros, the OC billionaire who had parlayed his GOP influence into a cushy position as the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra. Argyros also happens to be one of the most influential donors in Chapman history, with his last name everywhere from buildings to a chair on the Board of Trustees. My argument: Argyros helped to convince the Spanish prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, to join Dubya's dubious Coalition of the Willing. It was that participation that led to Spain getting targeted by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Not only that, Argyros was wildly unpopular in Spain for his boorish, chickenhawk ways—hence, putting the blame on him.
The article published, and that was that—or so we thought. Flash-forward to May, when Aznar and Argyros appeared at Chapman so the former could accept an award and the latter could exult in the praise of sycophants. After a student presentation on Aznar's career, Chapman held a press conference open to all reporters—except me. Then-spokesperson Ruth Wardwell—who'd go on to be named one of our Scariest People and who had a memorable exchange with our former editor-in-chief about said placement—didn't give me an exact excuse at the time, but I'd find out through sources that university bigwigs were furious about my trashing of Argyros and were not going to allow me to further embarrass them by asking pointed questions to him and Aznar. I wasn't going to be a speaker, but Chapman sure as hell didn't want my voice heard that day.
My banning made the journalism press rounds at the time, and I didn't step foot on campus for a good five years after that. I don't know what, if any role, Doti had in my banishment from the Argyros/Aznar press conference, although Chapman reporters told me Doti wasn't happy with what I had written. I do know that a couple of years ago, Doti personally reached out to me so the school and I could make peace, which we definitely have—I've taught at Chapman since, and give workshops at an annual reporter's summit held by the school's journalism department. And Chapman's current spokesperson, Mary Platt, is a pro at all times.
I wish Doti well and congratulate him on one hell of a career. But don't try to erase the past, Jim, especially on a subject so near and dear to both of our hearts: free speech. Man, I'm glad I've bequeathed my estate of $38.29 to my other, better alma mater, Orange Coast College…