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Skidmore’s Young Republican Assembly in April sponsored a campus speech by former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, a key champion of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 terrorism attacks. In the run-up to the speech, local and regional media outlets reported on its financial arrangements and its reception by campus
liberals with objections to Ashcroft’s strongly conservative policies.
Tom Qualtere ’08, co-president of SYRA, told the Skidmore News, “John Ashcroft is somebody our club admires… We believe his policies have kept us safe since 9/11. He is a national hero.” Citing Ashcroft’s “contributions to recent history,” Qualtere told the Glens-Falls Post-Star, “He has a great story to tell, and this visit gives us an opportunity to hear…from the history-maker himself.” The bulk of Ashcroft’s honorarium was paid by the national Young America’s Foundation, with the rest covered by student-activity funds and college offices.
Apart from one incident of vandalism—a swastika drawn on a poster promoting the event—the previsit debate was limited to some e-mail exchanges among the faculty, student Facebook postings pro and con, and plenty of conversations around campus. Some argued that Ashcroft’s policies were unconstitutional and discriminatory and therefore Skidmore shouldn’t give him a platform to spread his views; others sided with Ben Yelin ’11, president of the Skidmore Democrats, who called it “a good learning opportunity… We want to hear from all sides.”
About 600 students, faculty members, and local residents attended the talk, which overflowed Gannett Auditorium and was simulcast in Davis Auditorium, the Dana Science Center lobby, the Spa snack shop, and student rooms via SkidTV. Ashcroft said, “It is in the collision of ideas and arguments that the truth emerges,” and added, “I like to go to institutions that are reputed to be opinion leaders and intellect leaders, and everybody knows about Skidmore.” His talk, called “Leadership in Challenging Times,” focused on the preservation of freedom amid the danger of terrorism. He praised former President Ronald Reagan’s vision of a “Star Wars” missile-defense system, and he endorsed the domestic surveillance and other measures of the Patriot Act. Then the audience questioned him about issues ranging from abortion rights and gay marriage to torture and the Iraq war.
Students interviewed afterward weren’t always satisfied with Ashcroft’s answers, but several echoed Yelin’s remark on Capital News 9 TV: “Absolutely thought-provoking. I will go home and talk about it with my friends."
The event capped SYRA’s fourth annual Conservative Challenge Week, and was countered the next week by the Skidmore Democrats, who sponsored a speech by Ken Hurley of the American Civil Liberties Union. —SR