Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Monsters With Constituencies"

by J J Cohen

As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester I regularly attended an Outside Speaker Series. This attendance was in part a survival mechanism (the other option was to watch the lake effect snow accumulate, a spectator sport that becomes rather dull after inch five).

As a freshman I went to a talk by Abbie Hoffman one week (charming and hilarious: he taught me a great deal about a timer period about which I knew little, a time period that in the mid 1980s was being ritually repudiated). The following week I saw G. Gordon Liddy. My own politics are shallow, so it will surprise no one that I found the man immediately loathsome. At the time Liddy was the star of a shock jock radio show, the kind that would become tediously frequent in years to come. During the Q&A someone who'd been inspried by Hoffman asked a question about protest, and Liddly answered back "If you don't like the country, LEAVE IT." The audience applauded. I got up and left. I thought that in a democracry if you don't like the way the country is headed, you should change it.

Anyway, I learned a great deal about how crowds work from that experience.

Freedom of campus speech has been much in the news of late, with speakers finding their invitations revoked and XXX movies becoming fodder for reducing state education budgets. This piece by Cary Nelson, at Indside HigherEd, is timely -- so I thought I'd share it.

The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia's president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.

But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge -- students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target. Once Hamilton College canceled Churchill and the University of Nebraska canceled Ayers, the playing field was open to all comers. Then state legislators could pressure the University of Oklahoma to cancel a talk by biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because the man treats evolution as an established fact. Oklahoma stood its ground, perhaps realizing it would be shamed for generations had it canceled the talk.

The most unwelcome trigger may be a donor¹s threat to withdraw a gift. No administrator likes to knuckle under to extortion. But that is not the most efficient way to get a speech canceled in any case. The new weapon of choice is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking "security" concerns, as Boston College did in canceling an Ayers talk. It is the ultimate heckler's veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.

We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains in America. Boston College tried lamely to say the decision was purely an internal matter, but press coverage appropriately turns each of these incidents into a national test of an institution's values and commitments. Each institution's decision about whether to show courage or cowardice helps set a pattern, strengthening or weakening academic freedom everywhere. Thus we all benefited when Pennsylvania's Millersville University resisted legislative pressure and held an Ayers lecture as planned.

And we are all diminished by Boston College's incoherent performance. Because the consequences of these decisions are considerable, the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself -- not the students or faculty who issued the invitation -- cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.

No comments: