An ASU investigation found no evidence that Barrett faculty nor the University attempted to stop the "Health, Wealth & Happiness" event organized by the now-defunct T.W. Lewis Center or that former T.W. Lewis Center executive director Ann Atkinson was terminated for her support of the event.
The two-month investigation was done at the request of the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities after an op-ed released in the Wall Street Journal by Atkinson accused the University of terminating her contract because of her support for the event. According to the legislative report from the University, Atkinson's job was terminated when funding was pulled from the T.W. Lewis Center in March 2023.
The report also laid out the University's planning of the event, which took place in February 2023. The speaker list was confirmed mid-June 2022, with author Robert Kiyosaki and Tom Lewis, the founder of the T.W. Lewis Center. Atkinson also verified the appearance of controversial conservative figures Dennis Prager and Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk, which immediately turned heads. Dr. Radha Gopalan was not confirmed until November 2022, according to the report.
At the beginning of the planning process, an email obtained by the University showed that Atkinson expressed concern over Kirk's inclusion, as he was about to launch a book titled “The College Scam: How America’s Universities are Bankrupting and Brainwashing Away the Future of America’s Youth.” Her email, included in the report, said they should "seriously consider whether he would distract from the message of Tom, Dennis & Robert."
After the event was marketed in early February to the University, the event immediately drew the attention of Barrett professors and faculty. More than 30 members of Barrett faculty signed a letter to Barrett Dean Tara Williams which condemned the event and expressed a vote of no confidence in the Lewis Center, then a part of Barrett.
"We do not take this position lightly, as all of us believe Barrett should be a place where our students encounter a broad diversity of voices and viewpoints," the letter reads. "This event marks the culmination of a long history of choices made by the leadership of the Lewis Center, the sum of which demonstrate a vision for the center that runs contrary to the core values of the Barrett community."
Following the letter's release, some Barrett faculty were placed on a "Professor Watchlist" on Turning Point USA's website, which led to some faculty members being harassed and threatened, according to the legislative report.
Despite the Barrett faculty coalition's condemnation, the event still went on as planned. Even with some protestors outside, the event was safe and happened in full. According to the report, Kirk even thanked the University for allowing the seminar to continue at the event.
In March 2023, Lewis wrote a letter to the University informing it of his intention to terminate his funding to the T.W. Lewis Center. Lewis, the founder and main donor to the Center, cited "hostility from the Barrett faculty" over the February event as the reason for the termination.
The report said Atkinson could not find enough financial backing to keep the center open, and instead proposed Barrett increase its institutional investment into the program so she could continue fundraising to keep it afloat. Williams rejected the proposal and terminated Atkinson's contract based on the lack of funding in the center, but kept her in good standing with the University and even offered a positive reference in the future.
Atkinson's signed offer letter in 2021 said her position, which paid $230,000 per year, was supported by outside funding and not state-backed funding, and that her position would be terminated if that funding disappeared.
In the report, ASU said it will take multiple actions to "enhance free speech" on campus. The University will increase free speech awareness and training for faculty and students, as well as make the process for reserving spaces for student organizations for events easier and more robust. It also will introduce a program titled "The Barrett Conversation on Free Speech," which will "invite to campus community leaders, scholars and commentators for conversations about free speech, which will be conducted in a manner reflective of the principles of free speech to which ASU has already committed."
ASU reaffirmed its commitment to free speech on campus in the report, saying it "fosters an environment in which all members of the University community are able to fully participate in an open and vigorous exchange of ideas."
Alysa Horton contributed to this reporting.
This story is developing and may be updated.
Edited by Alysa Horton, Sadie Buggle and Angelina Steel.
Shane Brennan is the Editor-in-Chief at The State Press. He was a sports and politics reporter, before becoming the editor of the politics desk. He has covered local and state politics for the Arizona Capitol Times and Cronkite News.