Megadonor pulls $400k annual gift after witnessing 'radical' faculty response to conservative speaker event

Megadonor Tom Lewis pulled his $400k annual donation over 'left-wing hostility.'

“The university is just intolerable of the voice from the right, and we learned that in spades when we put on this event with Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager, and it just drove them crazy,” he said.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article and headline has been updated to clarify the conflicting narratives of the university, and Lewis and Atkinson, as well as to include post-publication comments from the university surrounding its asserted sequence of events. The University of Arizona maintains that it was in fact Lewis’ choice to pull his donation that resulted in Atkinson’s dismissal.

In June, Campus Reform reported that Ann Atkinson, a faculty member at Arizona State University was dismissed after controversy surrounding an event with conservative speakers. Now a major university donor is siding with the former staff member. 

Atkinson was the director of ASU’s T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development, until soon after she helped facilitate an event through the center that included speakers such as Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager. 

The event was met with outrage from faculty; and ultimately, the university made the decision to terminate the T.W. Lewis Center, as well as Atkinson’s position. 

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Tom Lewis, the millionaire Arizona real estate developer and philanthropist after whom the T.W. Lewis Center was named, went on Fox News’  “The Ingraham Angle” on July 19 and announced that he would be pulling his donation from ASU, which is about $400,000 per year. 

In a statement to Campus Reform, ASU Media Relations & Strategic Communication Associate Vice President Jay Thorne stated that it was Lewis’ pulling of his donation that resulted in Atikinson’s dismissal.

”When the donor pulled his funding, which was his right, the funding for the Center in his name went away and along with it, the executive director position that paid $300,000 in salary and benefits – a position created by his donation,” said Thorne. “This dependent relationship between the funding source and the position was clearly outlined in Ms. Atinkison’s job offer letter of June 1, 2021.”

Ahead of the event, 39 of Arizona State’s 47 Honors College faculty members signed a letter to the dean condemning the event, referring to Kirk and Prager as “white nationalist provocateurs,” Atkinson wrote. 

When the event took place, Atkinson characterized it as a widely-attended “resounding success.”

While the university denies any censorship and affirms its commitment to free speech, Atkinson has asserted that ahead of the event in question, the school told her it would not be in the Lewis Center’s “best interest,” if the speakers were to make any political statements, which she “interpreted as a threat.”

”The event did happen, was supported and promoted by the university – and, yes, there was outrage from some faculty, which is their First Amendment right,” Thorne told Campus Reform, reiterating the university’s decision that the “center and executive director role went away when the donor’s money went away.”

Lewis explained on “The Ingraham Angle” that his reasoning behind the decision to pull his funds comes from what he perceives as blatant censorship from the university.

Lewis said that while he “had a great experience myself in college back in the early ‘70s,” he “finally just kind of had enough.”

“The university is just intolerable of the voice from the right, and we learned that in spades when we put on this event with Charlie Kirk and Dennis Prager, and it just drove them crazy,” he said. “Number one, they don’t want donors to meddle with the classroom, and they don’t want conservative speakers to speak on campus.” 

[RELATED: ASU professors awarded grant to study transgender athletes]

Lewis also spoke about “radical” faculty at colleges and universities, saying that a large number of them “don’t really want to teach.” 

Lewis also said that ASU faculty and administrators have redefined academic freedom from “faculty’s right to pursue truth in their discipline without opposition” to “do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want.”

Campus Reform contacted the media relations team at Arizona State University, as well as Tom Lewis. When originally contacted for comment, ASU media relations responded with a link to the school’s free speech webpage, which fills in the details from their perspective and highlights a commitment to free speech.

Mr. Lewis decided to discontinue funding that paid for more than $300,000 per year in salary and benefits costs for the executive director of the now-dissolved center,” reads the statement. “But the speaker series and classes that were created by the center will continue at ASU, and the faculty who delivered that content through the center will continue to do so.”

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