If you’re a regular reader of Blog for Arizona, you’re probably familiar with the “freedom centers.” These are the schools within a school that have been established at ASU and UA by Koch Brothers money and sustained by their own special line items in the legislature’s higher education appropriations with the intent of injecting the Kochs’ culturally conservative, radically libertarian ideology into our public universities. As documented in Nancy MacLean’s essential book Democracy in Chains, they are part of a multi-decade assault on higher education by the Kochs and other wealthy conservatives to warp universities in their own image.
But as the spring semester is set to get underway, ASU’s freedom center is wading into a conversation that does matter, that of the #MeToo movement, and it’s brought in a right-wing political loser to address it.
A lucrative grift
ASU’s freedom school, which goes by the unwieldy name of School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL), has used its significant financial resources to make splashy rare books purchases for the ASU library and bring in big-name speakers like Jonah Goldberg and Steven Pinker to talk about the fictional “free speech crisis” on college campuses. Folks like Goldberg and Pinker run a lucrative grift in charging extensive speaking fees to go to college campuses as conservative white men and complain about how college campuses don’t let conservative white men talk.
As a college faculty member, this aggrieved white man lecture circuit which SCETL supports is annoying but largely meaningless, as they are taking part in a conversation that no one outside the New York Times opinion page cares much that about.
On January 14, SCETL will host a lecture titled “Leading Strong in a #MeToo Culture” at the Tempe campus. Now, as someone who believes academia should work harder to engage the world around it, I think it’s a good thing that ASU is hosting a conversation on #MeToo. But forgive me if I’m skeptical about having the freedom center be the one to do it.
As mentioned, one of SCETL’s few redeeming virtues is its deep pockets. So if they wanted to tackle #MeToo, they could have put those deep pockets to use and brought in any of the national figures who have been at the forefront of the movement. Folks like Tarana Burke, the activist who first coined the phrase Me Too as a way of normalizing discussions of sexual harassment and assault a decade ago. Or actor/activist Alyssa Milano, who popularized the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Or any of the leaders of Time’s Up, the legal defense fund established by a group of heavy-hitting female celebrities and activists to fight workplace harassment across all industries. Hell, with a reported close to $5 million cash on hand sitting in the bank, SCETL might have been able to get Oprah if they really wanted to.
Anti-immigrant, anti-choice hardliner
So who will be delivering the lecture on this important and vital topic?
You’re probably asking, “who?” Even the hardcore Arizona political junkies who read this blog can be forgiven for not remembering Jones, a footnote to a footnote in recent Arizona political history. Her two most notable accomplishments are losing the Republican primary for governor to Doug Ducey in 2014 and then narrowly losing the Republican primary for the open seat in the 5th Congressional District to Andy Biggs in 2016 in the second luckiest win of Biggs’ career.
So what are Jones’ qualifications to talk about #MeToo? Jones is an anti-immigrant, anti-choice hardliner off the Arizona Republican assembly line who has cozied up to purveyors of hate like Joe Arpaio. Given the #MeToo movement’s founding by a black woman and commitment to intersectionality, that alone is enough to disqualify her in my eyes. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
According to the very selectively edited bio on the ASU event page, which makes only brief mention of her political “career,” Jones’ main qualification is her time spent as General Counsel and Executive Vice President for a prominent Phoenix-based tech company.
Yep, that one.
GoDaddy became notorious in the mid-00s with its series of sexist advertisements (one of which featured Jones) intended to quite literally “sex up” the exceedingly boring business of web hosting. The sexist, bro-tastic culture also apparently carried over to the workplace, as outlined by the New York Times:
The offensive advertising, however, was demoralizing to GoDaddy’s staff, employees from that period say, and the salaciousness, at times, spilled into the workplace. Staff members describe a hard-charging culture where people drank in the office and participated in and gossiped about interoffice affairs. There was a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2009, later dismissed, and websites like NoDaddy.com, where employees described misbehavior.
(A side note on that drinking in the office thing: Jones, perhaps coincidentally, got a DUI in 2004.)
Ironically, as outlined in that same Times article, GoDaddy has actually become a model for combatting tech industry sexism since Jones, founder Bob Parsons (who funded both of Jones’ political campaigns), and their cohort left the company in the early teens (Jones left in 2012). The company stopped the sexist ads and has worked to overhaul its office culture as well. Leaders like recently-departed CEO Blake Irving and vice president for engagement and inclusion Katee Van Horn have been recognized for their efforts and looked to as role models in the #MeToo era. But Irving and Van Horn developed this reputation specifically by dismantling the corporate culture Jones and her colleagues built. And now Jones is going to be talking about leadership “in a #MeToo Culture”?
Which brings us back to the question: why in the hell this person, on this topic? It’s hard to say. Advertising for the event is scant on details of her actual talk. The official ASU page has only a one sentence description of the actual talke (“Join Christine Jones as she leads a candid discussion on how to be a woman, a strong leader, and an advocate for others, all at the same time.”) followed by that lengthy but carefully edited bio of Jones.
The only conclusion I can come to is that Jones is speaking and taking a presumably substantial fee for her trouble for the same reason that Goldberg and Pinker and the rest did it. Because the freedom center does not care about actually engaging in either political or academic debates but only in acting as a slush fund to keep the wheels of the conservative pundit and political operative machine greased. It’s all a grift. The grift is distasteful when it is dealing with made-up problems like the “suicide of the west.” But it’s dangerous when it co-opts real issues and movements like #MeToo.
ASU, my employer and alma mater, is a great school which has faculty and students working to engage the problems #MeToo has brought to the surface. Giving the university’s blessing to such a crass and offensive cash grab is an insult to all of them.