Interview: Greg Lukianoff of FIRE on Unlearning Liberty
MR. DRISCOLL: What is a typical process for a student to come to FIRE, and how do they find out about the foundation's existence?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Well, there's only one constituency in the whole country where most people know who or what FIRE is, and that's campus administrators. And that's because we're their watchdogs. So they don't necessarily like us very much, but they know who we are.
And what's interesting about that is sometimes even though there are administrators who can't -- don't like the fact that we're watching what they do, other administrators will actually send students who have been wronged our way. They'll do it, sometimes, a little bit covertly but say, there is this group that can really help you out, and they're extremely successful every time they fight a case, so submit a case to FIRE. And then there -- in other cases, we go and look through the student media -- through student newspapers and find out about stories of students having their rights abused -- or professors, for that matter -- and then we reach out to the students ourselves.
MR. DRISCOLL: And how do the officials respond when they get contacted?
MR. LUKIANOFF: It's a mixed bag. It really is funny because we -- I feel like ultimately, we're pretty nice about it, in the sense that we give universities a chance to back down first. We send a letter to the university. It's on their -- it's their choice whether or not they want to respond to it or fix the problem. We give them a little preview of how this is going to look in a press release. And universities sometimes back down after they get that letter.
Amazingly, though, so many other universities choose to wait till FIRE does a press release, and they have to back down publicly before doing the right thing by their students and faculty.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, what have been some of the toughest battles that FIRE has fought?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Oh, wow, we've had so many of them. I definitely think that the -- one battle that I remember, that I talk about in the book, was a case at the University of Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin was trying to tell a Christian student, who was also a resident assistant -- a dorm official -- that he couldn't have Bible study meetings in his own room, on his own time. And when they were asked to defend this and to explain it, the rationale that they came back with was, essentially, that we have some students on the floor who might not be comfortable talking to you if they knew you're an evangelical Christian.
And I'm not religious, but I went to University of Wisconsin and just had to explain to them, can you imagine saying that to any other student? Can you imagine saying -- it's like, you know, I know you're Jewish, but we have some anti-Semites on the floor, so it's great that you're Jewish, just be Jewish off campus. They would never do something like that. But for some reason, when dealing with an evangelical, they felt it was perfectly acceptable to say be religious off campus.
And believe it or not, that fight took months and months and threatened litigation from the Alliance Defense Fund, letter after letter by FIRE. The university did not want to back down in that case.
MR. DRISCOLL: How did it resolve itself?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Oh, finally they did exactly what we told them to do. And what we told them to do from the very beginning was saying, listen, if what you're concerned about is that someone's going to use inappropriate pressure to try to encourage students to convert to a religion in an unprofessional way, then by all means, you have the power to police that. But just assuming that an evangelical Christian cannot be, essentially, trusted to deal with -- to have interactions with all students is just outrageous and unacceptable. So they basically did what we told them to do from the very beginning. And they could have saved themselves a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of bad press.