On a late winter day in 1992, UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio. The subject was a campus student speech code that had been struck down by a federal court. A revised version would soon be voted on by the faculty senate.
Downs had voted for the first code — commonly described as an attempt to end “hate speech” on campus — but his views were evolving. He surprised the radio host by saying he now opposed the code. The right to freedom of expression, especially on a college campus, was more important.
The show took a phone call from a listener, identified as “Richard,” who said, “You have left something out. There is a worse code that you have not mentioned.”
Downs said, “What do you mean?”
“There is a faculty code,” the caller said. “I ought to know. I was investigated under it.”
Downs’ appearance on the radio show, and his subsequent discussions with the caller, who was a UW-Madison art professor named Richard Long, eventually led to the formation of a campus group, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights. Stanley Payne was the first president. Downs was secretary, and later president. Their efforts to overturn the speech code for UW-Madison professors resulted in it coming before the faculty senate for a vote in March 1999. It was a big moment. The academic world, even the world at large, was watching.
On Monday, Downs, 65, will be one of four UW-Madison professors honored at a meeting of that same faculty senate. He and the others will receive the Hilldale Award, given in recognition of contributions to teaching, research and service on campus.
In Downs’ case, it’s significant in part because it shows the willingness of UW-Madison to salute the contribution of a faculty member who has at times had, as Downs himself said recently, “an adversarial relationship to the institution.”
It should be noted that much of Downs’ lengthy UW-Madison career — he will retire next spring, after 30 years on campus — has not been adversarial. Indeed, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights has sided with UW-Madison in various disputes. Downs has won numerous teaching awards and the devotion of students from both ends of the political spectrum.
Still, his name is inevitably linked with the free speech on campus issue. He published a book about it, titled “Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus,” in 2005.
Downs’ own campus journey began as an undergraduate at Cornell. He grew up in Geneva, Ill., outside Chicago, and attended high school at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, where he played varsity basketball.
Downs played a year of basketball at Cornell, too, but the other issues percolating on campus — it was the late 1960s — soon got his attention.
“Cornell changed my life,” Downs said. “It made me a serious student.” He later wrote a book titled, “Cornell ‘69.”
In spring 1969, some 20 members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society, armed with guns, took over the campus student center demanding the establishment of a radical black studies program on campus and amnesty for society members who had earlier violated university rules. The administration more or less capitulated.
By surrendering authority, Downs wrote later, “Cornell leaders failed to defend the core principles that define liberal education, and which make enlightened citizenship and politics possible. Social justice unaccompanied by respect for basic order, freedom of thought, intellectual honesty, and the rights of all individuals is a recipe for tyranny of the majority (or the activists), not justice.”
This is not to say that Downs’ freedom of expression views were solidified during his Cornell days; as mentioned, he voted in favor of the first student speech code at UW-Madison in 1988. Downs also published a book in 1986 called “Nazis in Skokie,” in which he argued against the right of American Nazis to march in that Illinois city, home to many Holocaust survivors.
Over time, his thinking changed, and certainly the Richard Long case at UW-Madison — the art professor who made the surprise call to Wisconsin Public Radio in 1992 when Downs was a guest — played a part in that. There was a controversy in the art department about an effort to set standards for the evaluation of student projects. Some viewed it as a chance to discriminate based on race, religion or gender, and Long — who didn’t support the standards but was seen as conservative — wound up the target of a discrimination probe based on comments he made to a couple of graduate students. At a hearing in 1991, UW law professor and free speech advocate Gordon Baldwin stood up for Long. The U.S. Constitution was in effect across the entire country, Baldwin said, even on the UW-Madison campus. The matter was dropped, though Long still felt his reputation had been tarnished.
In March 1999, due in part to the effort of Downs’ Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate struck down the faculty speech code. The vote made national headlines.
These years later, preparing to accept his award, Downs values the passion he’s seen in three decades on campus.
“This university is a special place,” he said, “with a distinguished and sometimes controversial history. It’s one reason I always wanted to be here. It’s alive.”