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Niall Ferguson wanted opposition research on a student.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Campus arguments over diversity and free speech are causing some distinguished academics to do extremely strange things. Ferguson, a historian affiliated with both Oxford and Stanford University and much celebrated for his books on the topics like the First World War and the British Empire, is a prime example. At Stanford, Ferguson had been a member of the Cardinal Conversations program which brought in guest speakers to the university. In that capacity, Ferguson was anxious about student criticism of some speakers such as Charles Murray, the social scientist notorious for his views on race and IQ who spoke at Stanford in February. 

As The Stanford Daily reported on Thursday, newly public emails show that Ferguson’s eagerness to fight off what he saw as encroaching political correctness led the historian to some bizarre extracurricular activity. Ferguson teamed up with a group of student Republicans, led by John Rice-Cameron, to wage a covert political battle against Michael Ocon, a  student they viewed as excessively left-wing. In the e-mails they refer to Ocon as “Mr. O” and talk about ways to discredit him. “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” Ferguson wrote. Ferguson’s research assistant Max Minshull was tasked with the job of collecting the dirt on Ocon. 

“Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” Ferguson wrote in another email. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Rice-Cameron, the son of Barack Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, was equally grandiose. “Slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure,” Rice-Cameron crowed in an email, showing he has a great future ahead of him doing Darth Vader cosplay. 

When the emails were revealed to Stanford officials, Ferguson resigned from his position on the Cardinal Conversations program. “It seemed to me that the Cardinal Conversations student steering committee was in danger of being taken over by elements that were fundamentally hostile to free speech,” Ferguson explained to The Stanford Daily. “It was, however, rash of me to seek to involve the Stanford Republicans, and reckless to use such inflammatory language.” 

Ferguson was more than just “rash.” It invites the question: Why does the defense of free speech require a scholar to engage in political dirty tricks?