EP’s spring speaker and the cross-section of protest and free speech on campus

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After two weeks of controversy and deliberation, Joe Lonsdale, founder of Palantir Technologies, Addepar, 8VC, and Brown Entrepreneurship Program’s spring speaker, addressed students in MacMillan Hall on Thursday, April 21st. Valentina Cano ’18, EP’s Director of Special Events, provided a casual introduction. She pointed out the fire exits and that a representative from SHARE – Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education – would be outside if anyone “felt like they needed someone to talk to.” Lonsdale grinned. No one else said a word.

A couple hundred feet away in the CIT Library,  around 30 students gathered to attend “Healthy Relationships in Your Workplace,” a safe space discussion hosted by the Women in Computer Science student group. This event was the response to the two-week back and forth between concerned members of WiCS and members of Brown EP regarding Lonsdale’s past as a once alleged perpetrator of sexual assault.

The full story began in 2012, when Joe Lonsdale, a Stanford alum, was assigned as Ellie Clougherty’s mentor for an engineering course at Stanford called Technology Entrepreneurship. The two began dating shortly after meeting, and became involved in an intense relationship that ended in 2013. On January 27, 2015, Clougherty, Stanford Class of 2013, filed a lawsuit against Lonsdale, accusing him of gender violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in addition to other charges. Lonsdale responded with charges of defamation against Clougherty.

Since, both cases have been dropped. In June 2014, Stanford banned Lonsdale from entering campus for 10 years. The ban was lifted in November 2015 after the charges against him were dropped. Consensual relationships between professors or mentees and students were prohibited at Stanford, which was noted on Stanford’s website, but not in Lonsdale’s mentor handbook for E145, the class he was mentoring. According to the Stanford Daily, Lonsdale is still not permitted to teach or mentor on campus, though he has no other restrictions.

It’s not clear what actually happened between Lonsdale and Clougherty, as noted by Emily Bazelon in her lengthy, in-depth pieces about the case for New York Times Magazine, for which she interviewed both Lonsdale and Clougherty.

On Monday, April 11th, a concerned member of WiCS wrote to Brown EP’s group email address, “Given that Lonsdale committed these violent acts against a student he met on a college campus through a career mentorship program not unlike EP, I feel that it is in extraordinarily bad taste for Brown EP to host him.”

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The group responded, “We completely understand where you come from, and we considered not bring[sic] him to campus, but the case was resolved and he was never banned from Stanford’s campus… Accusations cannot be equated with guilt.” They closed the email with, “Our intentions are never to offend anyone. Let us know if you’d like to talk more.”

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“We immediately started to consider whether we wanted to go through with the event and whether we were prepared to go through with the event,” said Ali Paul ’18, co-President of Brown EP. So, Paul and her co-President, Valentin Perez ’18, set up a series of meetings the next morning that led to a five-day dialogue – across multiple mediums – between a group of concerned students and members of EP.

On Tuesday, EP met with Alan Harlam, the Director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service, who suggested they reach out to Amanda Walsh, Brown’s Title IX officer. Later that day, they met with Walsh, who told them that the event was not considered hostile by Title IX regulation, but the Title IX office would help EP create a safe environment for the event.

“Saying that Title IX officers are going to be there so that it’s a safe environment indicates that there’s a problem there to begin with,” said a concerned WiCS member.

Walsh moved forward by connecting the EP co-Presidents to the Office of University Communications, which “helps Brown develop and implement a clear, effective, and engaging University communications strategy that supports and advances the institution’s goals and priorities,” according to the Office’s website.

According to EP, Brian Clark, Director of News and Editorial Development at University Communications, and Russell Carey ’91 MA ’06, Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy, agreed the event was not a threat to safety and, therefore, the University would support EP in continuing with the event.

That evening, however, a member of WiCS spoke on the phone with a president emeritus of EP. According to the WiCS member, the president emeritus ensured that they would be canceling the event. Later that night, the same WiCS member had a phone conversation with a current EP President, who also indicated that the event would be canceled after EP discussed how to respectfully do so, “keeping in mind Lonsdale and the alumni who helped arrange the event.”

According to a Brown Daily Herald article, Lonsdale’s chief of staff said in an email to EP, “It would be an act of discrimination to disinvite [Lonsdale] since all legal charges have been dropped through both Stanford’s Title IX committee as well as the U.S. Civil Court,” and that cancelling the event “would result in bad publicity for Brown.”

According to conversations with Paul and Perez, co-Presidents of EP, EP’s board of alumni trustees had virtually nothing to do with the organization of the event. The role of the trustees is “mostly for institutional memory,” Paul said. They help fund the club, raising around $200,000/year. Most of the funding pays for a section of ENGN1010 in addition to the salaries of Liz Malone, the Entrepreneurship Coordinator at the Swearer Center, and Danny Warshay, EP’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, as well as the Brown Venture Fellowship grants. The budget for student-run events is around $7,000/semester. The club has three calls per year with the alumni board, and one call per month with the board’s operating committee.

Thus, the process of bringing Lonsdale to campus – and the process of allowing him to speak after receiving negative feedback – does not appear to be one directly influenced by alumni. The process of selecting a speaker is student led, and EP casts a wide net. Every year the club sends email invitations to a list of accomplished entrepreneurs, and makes its choice out of the few who respond. Lonsdale was among the speakers on this year’s list, and the club initially asked him if he would be interested in speaking at Brown, specifically the week before spring break, March 6-12th.

Lonsdale’s chief of staff replied to the inquiry, informing EP that Lonsdale would not be able to speak the week EP had originally requested, but would be on the East Coast in April and would be able to speak at Brown on the 21st.

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Last Tuesday night, after a WiCS member received confirmation via phone call that the event would be canceled, Cano emailed another concerned WiCS member after meeting in person. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” she wrote, “and listen[sic] to our point of view in terms of our club’s objectives. We are currently contacting Joe’s assistants to address this topic and truly appreciate keeping this matter quiet until we talk to his team. I will let you know once we cancel the event.”

According to the co-Presidents of EP, they met with Walsh again at 9am Wednesday morning, who “encouraged [the students] to move forward with the event.”

Yet at 9:35am, a co-President of EP emailed one of the concerned WiCS members, informing her, “We’ve been in contact with Joe’s assistants and have already made it official by cancelling the Facebook event. :)” The event was cancelled the night prior.

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The event was cancelled on Facebook for less than 24 hours. Within a day, it was back up and running – this time, with a small note in the event description apologizing for the temporary shut down, and, not to fear, attendee’s questions that had been submitted through the Google form were saved.

Perez and Paul considered making the event private, or invite-only, after speaking to Lonsdale’s chief of staff about student concerns. Consequently, the co-Presidents spoke with Mary Grace Almandrez, the Assistant Vice President of Student Life and ex-Director of the Brown Center for Students of Color who encouraged the presence of deans and SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education) advocates at the event, not unlike Walsh from Title IX.

At 11:45pm on Wednesday, a WiCS coordinator received an email saying, “Thank you for reaching out to us to show your concern regarding EP’s Joe Lonsdale event next week. After careful consideration, several meetings with Brown’s Title IX coordinators, the Swearer Center, and members of Brown’s administration, we have decided to continue with the event.”

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When asked why they didn’t follow through with cancelling the event if it seemed like, from the email exchanges, they were relatively agreeable about it, Perez and Paul said in the interview, “No matter what we did, there would be compromises.”

“From talking more with Brown’s administration, Joe’s chief of staff, alumni chairs, Title IX at Brown, Russell Carey, the Sweater Center, and then with the team itself, we decided that we would try to do everything we could to make it a safe space… and make sure that we support all these issues. And we’re always more than willing to attend talks regarding this and we support it… We never felt forced from our alumni to do something. All we received that [encouraged us to move forward] was advice from all those different sources.”

This left Brown EP in a strange position – after Ray Kelly’s infamous lecture (or lack thereof) in October 2013, President Christina Paxson wrote in an email to the Brown community, “our University is – above all else – about the free exchange of ideas. Nothing is more antithetical to that value than preventing someone from speaking and other members of the community from hearing that speech.”

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President Paxson expressed similar disappointment after Janet Mock canceled her planned talk last month. “I respect her decision to avoid having her talk be overshadowed by an issue unrelated to her work. However, I am disappointed that a valuable learning opportunity was lost. Brown University’s Statement on Academic Freedom for Faculty and Students affirms that faculty members and students have the right to invite speakers of their choice to campus.”

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The Lonsdale case is hard to compare to the Ray Kelly or Janet Mock lecture situations – they all tug heavy subjects along with them, and though all are of equal weight and importance to discuss (sexual assault, police brutality/racism, trans activism), they are simultaneously incomparable. There is a myriad of differences that alter how these events might be processed: Ray Kelly was going to explicitly speak about the issue for which he was controversial; Janet Mock’s lecture’s point of contention was not the lecture itself but the student group through which she was able to speak; Lonsdale faced potential legal repercussions, though they were dropped. The only way we can directly unite them all is in terms of free speech on a college campus. A pretty liberal college campus.

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On the way out of MacMillan after Lonsdale’s talk, a SHARE representative stood by a small table holding two thick stacks of fliers. She was delighted at the opportunity to hand them out – actually beaming. The rep went on to inform students of the “healing spaces” offered throughout the month of April and a safe space discussion that would be held later that night.

“There is a safe place for you,” the fliers read in large white font. In smaller font, in the lower left corner, a footnote reads, “This is a non-reporting space. NO Title IX reports will be generated from this event.”

Lonsdale’s talk was fascinating. It was clear that Mr. Lonsdale was incredibly well-spoken – he had thorough answers to every question, and often went on multi-minute tangents to ensure his entire audience was provided the complete context of whatever economic trend, entrepreneurial term, or wave of Silicon Valley he was speaking about (there are six). Occasionally he would stutter, but he was so evidently brilliant that no one seemed to notice at all. He’s accomplished a lot from an early age. He also mentioned the conservative libertarian paper he edited at Stanford, which, he noted, “would not be allowed in safe spaces.” His first concern in entering the entrepreneurial tech industry was how “the government was violating civil liberties left and right.”

He also mentioned that his technologies have helped to eradicate slave labor around the world. “I think students underestimate how they can reach out to people and the community and benefit from that,” he advised. He also explained how his philanthropic ventures stemmed from the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, healing the world.

“What would you have done?” a member of EP asked me at the end of the interview. “Would you have cancelled it?” he clarified. “Would you?”

Images via Brown Daily Herald and Mandi Cai ’18. 

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