Head-Slapping Time

So you spend some time trying to offer a qualified defense of academia, and then you come across something like professors at UC Davis proclaiming that Lawrence Summers is so utterly beyond the pale that he shouldn’t be asked to speak on their campus.

I’m with Eric Rauchway, Margaret Soltan and others who’ve commented on this issue. It’s one thing to quietly, privately question the choice of a colleague to invite a particular speaker after the event. But you accept that choice, like you accept that within a university there are a variety of interests and sensibilities. You accept it because you value decentralized decision making and intellectual autonomy. Because you have some trust in the judgment of colleagues who’ve gone through the same processes of training as yourself, or some trust in the administrators or managers that you work with.

If you don’t have that trust, you had better have a serious reason to feel that way, and it had better be about more than a single invitation to speak. If you’re going to publically raise a stink about the mere presence of an individual on your campus for a single talk, that person had better be wildly unacceptable. I don’t think that the UC Davis professors are questioning the Regents across the board, or claiming this invitation is somehow a very small part of a very large pattern of sustained error. And there’s no way that Lawrence Summers, however much one might disagree with things he’s said in the past, is even mildly unacceptable as a speaker within an academic community. If that’s the standard of anathema, most nights on a college campus, the only speaker should be the chirping of crickets.

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38 Responses to Head-Slapping Time

  1. Prof. AME says:

    The behavior of the feminist faculty at Davis is not only behavior that makes one slap one’s head, but it is being PAIRED on conservative websites with the invitation to Ahmedinejad to speak at Columbia, and you can imagine what they do with the comparison. Coming on top of KC Johnson’s best seller about Duke, which focused so much on the antics of a significant part of the faculty in Humanities and Social Sciences, this has been a bad couple of weeks.

  2. withywindle says:

    I do want to repeat the questions that I buried under too much verbiage in the last comment thread.

    1) Do you have evidence that your preferred softly-softly persuasive rhetoric has yet served to render any left ideologues in academia any less left-ideologish?

    2) If you agreed with the contention that academia was generally taken over by left ideologues, what tactics would you prescribe to reverse that general takeover?

  3. Prof. AME says:

    WW asks two important questions.

    Let me add: Do you think it likely that Columbia University would have invited the President of Apartheid SOUTH AFRICA and given him a prestigious platform from which to speak during the 1980s? The question answers itself. And it suggests that no one in power at Columbia University thinks that Iran is as bad as Apartheid South Africa. That’s a political position, not an issue of freedom of speech.

    And where are the feminists, like those who prevented Lawrence Summers from speaking at Davis because he was “anti-woman”, and whom Tim rightly complains of at Davis, but who so far have not spoken out loudly against the Ahmedinejad visit to Columbia? How come?

  4. Ralph says:

    Prof AME, Just a suggestion: drop the caps in your comments. In the blogosphere, they are read as shouting rather than as emphasis. More substantively, it seems to me that you are acknowledging that there are marginal calls in academic free speech — invitations to outside speakers. But, once an invitation is issued, indicating that there is a constituency on a campus that believes a speaker ought to be heard, shouldn’t the rest of us just defer to that judgment? Lobbying against an invitation that’s already made, accepted, and public — whether it is to David Horowitz or Almedenizhad — seems to me to be a serious mistake.

  5. jd says:

    I agree that objecting to Summers is silly. Lots of people with whom we might want to debate are unattractive in one way or another & I happen to think Summers is (intellectually) unattractive in a number of ways, but one of the ways to make that known would be to invite him to campus.

    This seems quite different, by the way, from objections being raised by faculty at Stanford to Donald Rumsfeld being given a post at the Hoover Institute.

  6. Prof. AME says:

    Ralph, good idea about caps. I’m not shouting, just emphasizing. I’ll drop it. I’m new to the blogosphere, so I’ve made mistakes and given the wrong impression, for sure.

    I also agree that it’s too late to recall the invite to Ahmedinejad, bad policy to do it and bad policy to urge it be done. The question I’ve raised is why the invitation was issued in the first place–what does it tell us about the general atmosphere (and lack of self knowledge) in academia? This is a legitimate question to analyze. Such actions will give the election of 2008 to the Republicans, for one thing. Don’t forget who one of NY’s Senators is, and I could make up an effective propaganda even now, esp. since Hilary C voted not to condemn moveon.org’s advertisement against Gen. Petraeus.

    But that aside, this act can’t be defended on grounds of Columbia being in favor of absolute free speech, because Columbia in the 198-s would never have invited the President of Apartheid South Africa to speak, not under *any* circumstances. Nor do I believe there was a strong constituency for Ahmedinejad on campus, except perhaps in the Middle Eastern Studies Dept. Thus I suggest that a political and moral judgment is being made here: Iran under this anti-American racist madman is not as bad as Apartheid South Africa.

    Moreover, Pres. Bollinger is no First Amendment absolutist. In the 1980s he was a central figure in the development of a speech code at the University of Michigan that was so draconian in design and so oppressive in operation that it was declared unconstltutional in a landmark federal court decision: Doe v. Univ. of Michigan, 1989. And this very week, Columbia *rescinded an offer to speak* in October which had previously made to James Gilchrist, the head of the Minutemen, on grounds that he is too controversial. I have no love for the Minutemen, who I think of as vigilantes, but I also have no love of hypocrisy, which is on display here in the defenders of Columbia declaiming about freedom of speech, which I have seen on TV.

    And speaking of hypocrisy: am I wrong that there has been no important expression of feminist faculty outrage at the invitation to Adhmedinejad? Here’s a guy whose govt in March started operations that ended up (this govt boasts) fining 60,000 Iranian women for being “uncovered”. Or shall we defend this conduct on grounds of multiculturalism? Yet if the Iranian women were “uncovered”, doesn’t it mean that they were fighting against what they saw as oppression here? So again–where are the feminist faculty? Esp. given what feminist faculty pulled off at UC Davis against Lawrence Summers this week, this, too, is a legitimate question.

  7. JonathanGray says:

    AME, don’t take this the wrong way, but first, do you know for sure that no South African head of state visited Columbia in the Apartheid years? Second, the comparison forgets that Columbia is right next to Harlem, meaning I’m sure there would be some *serious* security concerns (rightly or wrongly) with Viljoen’s or Botha’s visits that a visit from Ahmadinejad don’t entail.

  8. Prof. AME says:

    A swift swing through information on the net shows no such visit by a South African P.M. to the university, JG. And the reason wouldn’t have been only its proximity to Harlem. The opposition of the faculty and students to giving a prestigious Columbia University platform to a South African Apartheid P.M. would have been enormous.

    But I don’t want to get away from WW’s interesting questions to Tim:

    1) Do you have evidence that your preferred softly-softly persuasive rhetoric has yet served to render any left ideologues in academia any less left-ideologish?

    2) If you agreed with the contention that academia was generally taken over by left ideologues, what tactics would you prescribe to reverse that general takeover?

  9. jd says:

    Reading these comments, I feel like I’m trying to breathe in a vacuum. I feel as if the specter of “left ideologues” has sucked all the air from the room. Or, to change the metaphor, I feel as if I have fallen down the rabbit hole & everyone is talking utter nonsense. At a time when the United States has in so many ways crossed over into fascism — unitary executive, torture as legitimate, a politicized Justice Department — listening to this debate is like listening to an argument about angels dancing on pins, or whether you can identify a witch by dumping her in the river. I keep hoping that John Cleese will strut out in a military uniform & declare that this is all just too silly.

    But finally the whole discussion makes me feel a little dazed & sick.

  10. If you agreed with the contention that academia was generally taken over by left ideologues . . .

    I’ve got two problems with this wording, “taken over” and “ideologues.” On the second, can’t one be leftist without being an ideologue? I’m quite sure there are leftist ideologues on college and university faculties, but I’m not at all sure what percentage of all academic leftists are ideologues: 90%, 50%, 20%, 5%?

    “Taken over” implies some kind of organized scheme or violence that changes the “natural” order of the academy, whatever that was.

    I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965 and left a teaching post at RPI in 1985. Since then I’ve been on the fringe of the academy, keeping in touch with friends still in faculty posts, publishing as an independent scholar, giving the occasional invited lecture, etc. While things have changed in that interval, lots of things, I don’t see anything that can reasonably called a leftist “takeover.” Were there nation-wide purges of conservative faculty? Were conservative faculty in the majority in, say, 1960, and have become reduced to minority status through forceful means?

    What did happen is that two things coincided in the middle and late 60s: 1) the anti-war movement and “cultural revolution,” and 2) a rapid expansion of the college and university system impelled by a need to keep ahead of the USSR in science and technology. That expansion brought more students into higher education (through federal loans) and larger faculties to teach them. These new faculty got jobs and then tenue, and then federal money began drying up. But tenure made it difficult to shrink the faculty accordingly.

    Maybe that rapid influx was somehow disproportionately leftist and tenure locked them in even as the country drifted right. But that’s not a take over, it’s not even as deliberate as packing the Supreme Court your people as theirs die or retire. It’s just history.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle and AME are proceeding as if a set of priors had been established to which I subscribe in some respect and then asking me questions that follow from that which are a bit of the “have you stopped beating your wife lately?” variety. Honestly, I am starting to find that a bit wearying, because I’m being very clear about where I stand. There are institutional issues in academia that I think have to do with the sociology of disciplinary knowledge which I think are improperly described in conventionally “political” terms. I think there are issues about governance in academia, both in terms of some of the risks of faculty autonomy (which are vastly outweighed, in my view, by the benefits) and in terms of how administrations and faculties interrelate. I think there are issues with intellectual pluralism in academia which are partly a consequence of disciplinarity and specialization, but not wholly so. I think there are deep, complex problems with the status of the humanities in relationship both to the sciences within academia and in relation to public culture as a whole, problems that have to be situated within the history of the humanities in the last fifty years. And so on.

    The upshot of a lot of those views for me is that:

    a) I’m wholly willing to talk about mistakes, errors, problems in academia.
    b) I’d prefer if we could keep a sense of proportion about those problems given that American higher education as it stands is on balance an extraordinary success and vastly superior to any alternative system that I know of
    c) I think many of the more expansive critics of academia either are acting on bad faith premises or have such overwhelmingly negative (and “political”) understandings of what academia now is and what is should become that I do not trust them as dialogic partners in institutional reform.

    So my basic answer to Withywindle’s first question is that I don’t accept his premise on two fronts: that his framing simplifies and mislabels a lot of academic professionals as “left ideologues” (sometimes they’re simply ‘ideologues’, politics immaterial; sometimes they are, as most people are, contradictory in their actions, in any event never so easily reduced). I don’t accept that inasmuch as there are professionals whose mode of professionalism is a problem for me that my rhetoric alone must meet the test of eliminating that problem. My problem is the problem of all professionals who think their profession is of value, but faces challenges: I need to work to convince people to follow “best practices” wherever and whenever I have the opportunity, but also to prevent the profession from suffering permanent harm from malicious or exaggerated criticism. I have a lot of opportunities to persuade people, and this blog is far from the only one of them: we can model “best practices” at conferences, in our scholarship, in peer review, in meetings, in conversation. I think that’s enough. Whatever comes of it, comes of it.

    If I were convinced, per Withywindle’s second question, that things were much more dire, I wouldn’t be looking for men on white horses, magic bullets, or massive, centralized government directives. The best answer, if I thought that there really was “incurable rot”, would be to look for a very different kind of academic institution and put that forth as an alternative–and test it against the general marketplace.

  12. withywindle says:

    1) I carefully phrased my “left ideologue” question to avoid the presumption that left ideologues were pervasive in academia. All you need to do is identify one left ideologue in academia, and give an example of how softly-softly persuaded that one left ideologue to be less left-ideologuish. If you can’t identify even one academic in all the United States as a left ideologue, I am going to say that, in the judgment of most Americans, you will suffer grave problems in credibility as a reliable observer of academia. Furthermore, if you cannot even identify a left ideologue, why should your rhetoric appeal to those of us whose aim is to reduce sharply their influence in academia?

    2) When you say “I don’t accept that inasmuch as there are professionals whose mode of professionalism is a problem for me that my rhetoric alone must meet the test of eliminating that problem.”–well, it rather should meet some test. You have been proposing softly-softly rhetoric as the best solution for leftist excess in academia, and if you are to be at all convincing, you need to make this a falsifiable proposition. Does your rhetoric work? Can you give an example of it working? If you can’t, none of us who perceive a grave problem of left-hegemony in academia have any reason to accede to your proposed solution, or to use anything other than the rhetoric and tactics you abhor. Your condemnation of more extreme rhetoric is only compelling if you can show that moderate rhetoric works.

    3) So, for our thought experiment, you would “look for a very different kind of academic institution and put that forth as an alternative–and test it against the general marketplace.” What kind of rhetoric do you think would be necessary to justify to the general public the creation of this alternative?

  13. Prof. AME says:

    At the risk of incurring Tim’s irritation, I am going to enter a brief and final response on this subject.

    Tim started this topic by complaining *himself*, after all, about the excesses of the feminist faculty at UC Davis. Good for him. But does Tim believe that he is commenting merely on a single isolated incident of leftist faculty misconduct? I myself think it is something else: part of a *pattern* of leftist faculty misbehavior, some of it very destructive of university life.

    Restricting ourselves to recent subjects, this *pattern* includes (1) the behavior of the Duke 88; (2) the Letter of 15 African American Studies faculty to Dean Peter Lynch of Duke, accusing him of racism for urging Professor Houston Baker simply to wait before continuing to publicly declare the Duke lax-students guilty, (3) the letter in the Duke Chronicle from Robyn Wiegman the head of Women’s Studies at Duke, which made a totally false accusation against chemistry professor Steven Baldwin alleging use of racist language when criticized the Duke 88, (4) the essay of Julie Kilmer in ACADEME, advocating in a totally unselfconscious way the classroom repression of “resisters” to feminist indoctrination; (5) the essay of feminist professor Pamela Caughie in ACADEME, declaring in a totally unselfconscious manner that one of her goals in her classes is the production of political imitations of herself.

    Perhaps Tim will argue that all of this constitutes mere isolated incidents of excess with no broader significance. I myself think this would be a position difficult to sustain. And if in fact these are not mere isolated incidents of excess but part of a larger and continuing *pattern* of excess, then WW’s question about the effectiveness of soft-persuasion as a remedy to this pattern of excess seems pertinent.

  14. hestal says:

    (A) First Professor Burke claims to have offered a qualified defense of academia, but then the professors at UC Davis go too far and reject Lawrence Summers.

    (B) In the second paragraph Professor Burke invokes the concepts contained in the Golden Rule of Reciprocity and in the “We hold these rights to be self-evident…” sentence in the Declaration of Independence. These two life-guiding statements are combined into one: “You must love your neighbor as yourself, and to do this you must protect his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I call this “The Golden Declaration.” Professor Burke, for some reason not obvious to me, thinks that quiet (gentlemanly?) questioning of a speaker choice after the speaker has spoken is a good path to follow. The Golden Declaration is not satisfied because speech is preempted.

    (C) Professor Burke goes from the general to the specific and attempts to set standards which can satisfy The Golden Declaration and which can be fairly used to ban a speaker. He establishes the concept of “wildly unacceptable” and then gives some examples that would come under that heading. Professor Burke then invokes The Golden Declaration again by saying that many who speak in the academic community are unacceptable to somebody and yet are allowed to speak. He says that, by extension, if unacceptability to someone were sufficient to ban a speaker then no would-be speaker would ever be allowed to speak.

    (D) Professor Burke does not raise the issue of merely publishing remarks instead of speaking in person. Publication allows everybody to speak and everybody to hear the speaker, should they choose to do so. The Golden Declaration would be satisfied. In other words why shouldn’t Professor Burke invite Lawrence Summers to “speak” on this wonderful blog? Or on some official UC Davis blog? What is the advantage of speaking in person to a live audience? Charisma overriding rationality? Birds of a feather? Preaching to the choir?

  15. hestal says:

    (1) Prof. AME then lambastes liberto-feminists, tyranno-conservatives, liberto?-Columbiaites, tyranno-Dukeites from the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty. It seems that many people, from each side of the tyranno- liberto- divide, are taking advantage of the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The Golden Declaration is satisfied. (A tyranno-argument is one that denies the validity of The Golden Declaration, a liberto-argument supports it.

    (2) withywindle apparently resurrects an earlier(tyranno?) attack on Professor Burke’s (liberto?) politics. Withywindle apparently considers his earlier attack to have been ineffective and narrows his thrust. Clearly, withywindle is not satisfied with whatever responses Professor Burke may have made earlier. Withywindle prefers a more brutish prior restraint on academia’s excesses than does Professor Burke. Withywindle, probably tyranno politically, assaults liberto-leftists and calls for academia to be given over to a ruling junta of tyranno-ideologues. Free speech in action. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (3) Prof. AME, finding an ally in withywindle, is given courage to launch another attack. However he repeats an ancient tyranno-mistake. He says: “That’s a political position, not an issue of freedom of speech.” Tyranno-ideologues have long been searching for a way to use the Bill of Rights to nullify the Bill of Rights. I think that this erroneous approach is certainly from the gut, which of course is a product of Evolution by Natural Selection. The Golden Declaration is not satisfied because free speech (albeit it political speech) is denied.

    (4) Ralph educates Prof. AME, (what else and where else?), and says opposition is fine, but after a while people should be given their right to speak. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (5) jd widens the discussion by raising an example at Stanford which is even worse than the one at UC Davis. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (6) Prof. AME does great work. He brings in several liberto-objects of tyranno-hatred: Hilary C, moveon.org, and moveon.org’s ad against Gen. Petraeus. He then returns to his confusion about politics and freedom of speech. But then attacks Bollinger for being inconsistent in his support of freedom of speech. Finally Prof. AME freely recognizes hypocrisy and denounces it, hypocritically overlooking for the moment his error about political speech and free speech. But he has the right to say all these things so Prof. AME is performing a liberto-act with tyranno-content and The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (7) Jonathan Gray questions the validity of Prof. AME’s assumptions without denying AME’s right to make them. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (8) Prof. AME invokes the authority of the “net” to prove his point, dismisses Jonathan Gray, and returns to his original questions to Professor Burke – but not before reading the minds of the faculty and students of Columbia University. Still, The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (9) Gasping for breath, jd calls up some liberto-targets of hatred: unitary executive, torture as legitimate, a politicized Justice Department – and adds angels and John Cleese to the mix. All of which may make jd retch. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

  16. hestal says:

    (10) William Benzon answers withywindle’s statement about lefty takeovers with a sketch of history and reasoned analysis – all of which puts to the guillotine withywindle’s idea. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (11) Herr Professor Burke responds in some detail, establishing a framework for the nature of the arguments advanced by the tyranni. But Professor Burke has done that several times before on this blog so I do understand that he must be weary. He proposes ways to cast light on the questions at hand, but the subtext is when, if ever, he, or anyone, will be able to dig into them in a constructive way. But he never denies the right of the tyranni to advance their tyranno-arguments and tyranno-hypocrisies. The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    (12) Even though his idea has been decapitated, withywindle makes noise but says nothing. However he honors free speech, even though it is soft speech. The Golden Standard is satisfied.

    (13) Prof. AME piles citation upon citation, apparently feeling that his broad claim of approval by the “net” was not entirely worthy of this forum. He again attacks the usual targets of tyranno-hatred and gives withwindle credit for asking a “pertinent” question. But still, The Golden Declaration is satisfied.

    As for me, I think this thread of comments lives up to the name of this blog, and I once, long ago when I was young, would have said, “if this is what academia does, then it should be abolished.” But today, in my eighth decade, (argument from hoary wisdom), I can truly appreciate the recreational value of the exchanges. More power to you all, but especially to Herr Professor Burke and William Benzon. It is always a delight to visit here.

  17. Prof. AME says:

    Jonathan wondered whether a President of Apartheid South Africa had ever been invited by the President of Columbia University to speak, as the anti-semitic madman Ahmedinejad has been. If this is so, I suggested that it showed how hypocritical President Bollinger’s supporters were to invoke “the Golden Declaration” (to use Hestal’s phrase) in support of inviting Ahmedinejad, when in fact that policy is not universally invoked by the University. I did think that Ahmedinejad shouldn’t have been given this prestigious platform from which to speak; I also stated that now that he’d been invited, it was too late to uninvite him. I could find no evidence after a quick search (Yes, on the net) that a President of Apartheid South Africa was ever so invited to Columbia University. If Jonathan knows different, this would be a good time for him to say so.

    In terms of the hypocrisy of President Bollinger’s supporters, it’s also the case that an invitation to James Gilchrist of the Minutement to speak on the campus in October was *rescinded” by the Columbia administration in the same week that the invitation to Ahmedinejad was announced–on grounds that Gilchrist was too controversial. That I point this out does *not* mean that I’m a supporter of the Minutemen! I’m just pointing out the contradiction in University policy.

  18. One thing that has happened in the last 40 years is that a number of conservative colleges and universities have been founded, many, most, all? on a religious foundation. I’m thinking, for example, of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, founded in 1977. How many of these were founded in the last 40 years and how strictly do they control student and faculty ideas and conduct, what kinds of people do they invite to their campuses?

    Should any “hard” measures against leftist ideologues be run in parallel with “hard” measures against these institutions?

  19. JonathanGray says:

    AME, I *don’t* know if Viljoen or Botha ever spoke, or were invited to speak. I do have a family friend, though, who told us once of a protest against a South African dignitary that happened while he was at Columbia that ended in the dignitary’s car getting surrounded and attacked, with police involvement. I don’t know if this was Viljoen, Botha, an ambassador, or a low-level flunky. I asked the question, though, since I just wanted to be sure that if this comparison was an important one for you, as it seems to be, that *you* know for sure whether such a guest talk happened or not. Not finding it on the net doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Which *isn’t* to say it did happen, but the burden of evidence is on s/he who declares it is evidence. Your point about the ethics of inviting Ahmadinejad don’t need to be tied to this issue, admittedly, but since it alleges a double-standard, the evidence is important.

  20. Prof. AME says:

    “Some S.A. dignitary” is not the same as the President of Apartheid South Africa being given a prestigious platform to speak by special invitation of the President of Columbia University. I have found *no* evidence that such a thing ever happened. I seriously looked. You admit that don’t have any evidence that this happened, either. I’m perfectly willing to be corrected, but at this point the charge of double-standards therefore seems solid.

  21. Jmayhew says:

    He wasn’t going to speak publicly at UCD itself, but at a board meeting of the Regents in Sacramento. At a time when the UC system is looking for a new president, it seemed inappropriate for Summers to be addressing the Regents. (Maybe they thought he would be considered presidential material?) That was the story I got out of the Eric Rauchway article. If what Summers said at Harvard about the scientific abilities of women is not beyond the pale, then why is the petition by faculty at UC Davis “beyond the pale”? They were making a statement about him just as he had made a statement about them. The Regents can do what they want, listen to a faculty petition or just go ahead and ignore it. If their petition was so ridiculous, then the Regents, a fairly conservative group themselves, could have just not caved in.

    It’s all a game of GOTCHA in which the stakes are more symbolic than anything else.

    J. Mayhew, “Leftist Ideologue”

  22. Ralph says:

    It’s fairly simple, J. Mayhew. Summers didn’t attempt to deny academic speech rights to anyone. The petitioners did. It is essentially irrelevant that what Summers had said offended some people. If you’re out to ban all offensive speech, as Tim suggested, we may as well hand the campus over to the crickets.

  23. jd says:

    No rule, however golden, will cover all cases. There are only situations to which we apply collections of rules made of tin or lead or uranium.

  24. Jmayhew says:

    Obviously no one wants to ban all offensive speech. But everyone wants to ban *some* offensive speech (in some institutional contexts). For example, if the Regents had invited Ward Churchill, then a lot of people would have wanted to “deny academic speech rights” to him–the same people who might be outraged at the petition against Summers. This shows that it is indeed the content that is relevant, not the abstract principle of free speech. I took Tim’s argument to be that Summers is not “beyond the pale,” not that “noboby should ever petition to have a speaker banned.”

    So what is offensive? How offensive is offensive? How offended are we to be that somebody else takes offense?

  25. jd says:

    The idea that there are absolute, abstract rights is absurd. Such supposed absolute rights inevitably get turned into cudgels. Tim’s idea that we are capable of negotiating what is merely offensive & what is unacceptably offensive seems to be the key — isn’t that negotiation what academic institutions are all about? For example, I think having Summers come to talk to the UC Regents falls within the limits of the acceptable, whereas I think that giving Donald Rumsfeld a job at Stanford’s Hoover Institute is unacceptable. That view is no doubt subjective, but it is based on the idea that in a democracy we ought to err on the side of freedom rather than restriction, but that freedom is not unrestricted.

  26. Ralph says:

    jd, The notion of absolute, abstract rights is not so absurd as you suggest — at least it wasn’t to an 18th century generation that took “inalienable rights” seriously. The founders thought certain rights were so essential to our humanity that we couldn’t even give them away. Unfortunately, academic communities have done so, with speech codes and more informal arrangements with expansive definitions of certain kinds of ideas as unworthy or unacceptable and, thus, banned; and they approve others as essential. When I taught one year at an African-American institution, I was embarrassed by the fact that *every* outside speaker brought to the campus that year attacked either the state of Israel or American Jews. It wasn’t fair to our students, much less to Israel, American Jews, or my Jewish colleagues. How do our institutions reach a conclusion that Lawrence Summers is an unacceptable speaker at UC, Davis, but that Ahmadinejad is an acceptable speaker at Columbia? On the face of it, the decisions are an absurdity. I’d be much more comfortable with a position that free speech in academic communities is an inalienable right — a right essential to our academic being, such that we can’t betray it even if we would — and that both invitations should have been approved.

  27. JonathanGray says:

    But Ralph, “inalienable rights” are always “alienable” in certain circumstances. Free speech is not at all something we all enjoy all the time in every place in America, nor could any society but an anarchistic one allow such rights. So the language of “inalienable” is very sexy, rousing, and noble (and I don’t mean thay cynically/sarcastically either), but many of our laws effectively alienate certain citizens’ free speech rights in certain places (think libel, intellectual property laws, hate speech, harassment, death threats, incitement to riot, etc.). Thus, if we wanted to support complete and utter freedom of speech on campuses, we’d often be failing to educate. So I think we can only ever evaluate cases individually. It’s why the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (a document that isn’t regarded inside America — and hence, I suspect, by many of Tim’s readership — as anything special, granted, but that has served as the model for several govts since its inception, most notably the post-Apartheid South African one) starts off by saying that it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” thereby reflecting on the degree to which most rights (free speech among them), taken to extremes, harm the prospects for a “free and democratic society.” That’s not to say that anything goes, nor that we can’t define guidelines (as the Charter attempts to), but it is to acknowledge that there will always be the need to evaluate given instances on a one-by-one basis.

  28. Ralph says:

    Of course, but unless we begin and sustain a bias, predisposition, and devotion to free speech, we seem inevitably — or, perhaps, episodically — to end with an agenda of partisan speakers, denials of a Lawrence Summers, attempts to encode speech regulations that are more effectively addressed by good teaching, such as Tim does here, etc. And don’t even get me started on why JMayhew’s Ward Churchill isn’t comparable to Lawrence Summers.

  29. Joey Headset says:

    Ralph: Just a suggestion. If a commenter capitalizes exactly ONE (the preceding word capitalized for emphases) word in an 82 word comment (yeah, I counted), I think you can probably resist the impusle to give that commenter a hard time about it. Honestly, one single word in capital letters isn’t the inter-web version of shouting. ONLY EXTENDED USE OF CAPS IN A COMMENT IS ACTUALLY INTERPRETED AS SHOUTING!1!!!eleven!!11!.

    So, please: save your caps-police vigilantism for people who enter comments entirely in caps. Not for those who capitalize one solitary word, for crying out freaking loud.

    Regarding the post itself… I really wish that all the institutions that are controlled by right-wing ideologues were subject to the same kind of internal hand wringing that academics bring to the issue of lefty dominance of academe. Do left-wing ideologues control academe? Yeah, probably. For those keeping score, that’s institutions controlled by left ideologues: one. Institutions controlled by right wing ideologues; FREAKING LOTS AND LOTS OF THEM. And, BTW, that run of harsh and uncouth capital letters were very much intended to be interpreted as the inter-web version of shouting. Deal with it.

    In conclusion, I would say that academics need not concern themselves with the leftiness of their own instutions until all the right wingers start wringing their hands blue about ALL the insitutions they disproportionately control.

  30. Timothy Burke says:

    I actually think it’s fine to say, after the fact, that it wasn’t the best choice on the part of the Regents given their circumstances. But that’s very different than mobilizing an attempt to block his appearance. That’s both a substantive difference (it goes against academic values) and a symbolic difference (it’s a dumb thing to do in the current context, and is evidence of a kind of narcissism in which people seriously don’t care about the political impact of political actions.)

  31. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a side note, but I think the history of rights, even the original formulation of “natural rights”, is more complex than Ralph’s suggestion indicates. Lynn Hunt’s work is really good on this. The big thing is that I don’t think academic freedom is best conceptualized in rights terms at all, but instead in terms of the productivity of academic communities.

  32. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, I think the feminist faculty who blocked Summers’ appearance *did* care about the poltiical impact of their political actions…on campus. Their success in blocking Summers’ appearance probably increased their collective self-confidence and appreciably increased their collective clout on campus, and any administrative or academic unit will now think twice about inviting anyone to Davis who is likely to arouse their opposition.

    While this increases the self-confidence and the political power of the feminist faculty at Davis, it constitutes a negative intellectual consequence for Davis in the sense that it will likely chill debate and contrary voices on the campus. Time, maybe you think it will instead ignite opposition on the campus to such faculty ideological excess; if so, you could be right, but I think the odds are the other way.

    Where you are really on target about the narcissism involved here, however, is the impact this incident will have *outside* the campus. You are right to call it evidence–and it is evidence of narcissism, yes, but of something darker, a repressive impulse amid certain kinds of faculty in disciplines whose very foundation is overtly ideological. It appears to be the same impulse we see in the awful Kilmer and Caughie essays in Academe. Hence the feminist faculty action at Davis, even if successful long-term in Davis campus politics and culture, will be used politically as a sword outside the university, against the university culture, and against the university itself.

    I suspect that the Davis incident will not be forgotten–instead, it will be paired with Columbia University’s prestigious invitation the same week to the anti-semitic monster Ahmedinejad. But, I could be wrong: maybe it will be forgotten. In which case, the negative impact will be felt only at Davis itself.

    Tim, I would say, finally, that this incident at Davis did not come out of nowhere. It is not isolated, and you should not be so surprised (“Headslapping”) that it occurred. It is part of a *pattern* of excess. The pattern of behavior among certain kinds of faculty–concentrated in the Humanities–seems pretty clear. The Davis case is evidence that will be seen as confirming a main thesis of KC Johnson’s book about Duke, a book which has become a best seller–a thesis to which you have raised objections as being an over-generalization. How can it not be?

  33. A Gold Star of Righteousness for JoeyHeadset, with Tough Love ribbons in red, white, and blue.

  34. Ralph says:

    Dear Joey, You couldn’t be expected to know that Prof AME had been using a lot of caps in comments on another blog and was being mocked, without explanation, for doing so. You could be expected to know that my comment was an aside to him alone. Props, anyway, to your own policing instinct.

  35. paul spencer says:

    The question of what a Columbia University administration or academic community MIGHT have done in the 1980s is a strawman argument. The question of the presence of Ahmedinejad’s visit is all that is pertinent at present.

    Why would one not want to hear and, possibly, question the current President of Iran? Does Withywindle fear the interplay; will AME wilt in the face of the erudition and perspicacious insights of Ahmedinijad’s translator?

    As far as leftist academia, I thought that academe was the coliseum for intellectual battle? The fact that the lions are winning at the moment should mean that the Christians and other barbarians need to improve their tactics. Or perhaps they have already changed their strategy, deciding to take over cable “news” and talk-show radio in lieu of dominance in academia and the internet blogs.

  36. Prof. AME says:

    Dear Paul: it’s not a question of a straw man, it’s a question of double standards. To paraphrase a posting on HNN: Is it really conceivable to you that a Prime Minister of Apartheid South Africa who was an affirmed and open hater of Black Africans and who had openly called for their death and destruction would have been invited to Columbia University by the President of Columbia to speak in a prestigious venue? Do you really believe that the professors and administration at Columbia would have justified this invitation to an outraged public on grounds of the requirement of openness at the university? If so, I’ve got a bridge to Brooklyn to sell you.

    President Bollinger of Columbia refused to allow ROTC back onto the Columbia University campus in 2003, despite a student vote that ran 2-1 in favor of it, on grounds of U.S. armed forces discrimination against gay people (in the form of “don’t ask, don’t tell”); yet he invites to Columbia now a man whose regime is notorious for hanging gay people. Former President of Iran Khatami defended the Iranian death-penalty law for homosexuality last year at Harvard: he met no protest from the assembled academic audience (!); Human Rights Watch was esp. concerned about the hanging of two gay teenagers in Mashnad in 2005. Paul–You don’t see a contradiction or double standard here as well?

    I’m not saying Ahmedinejad should be uninvited: it’s too late for that. But this is another real misstep from a major university.

  37. withywindle says:

    Tim writes, “I don’t think academic freedom is best conceptualized in rights terms at all, but instead in terms of the productivity of academic communities,” which is fascinating. This is susceptible to an Arendtian spin–academic liberty must be achieved by each academic, and not given to each academic as a right. But to give it that spin, you would need to specify “productivity” to have “production of liberty” front and center–otherwise, we have the somewhat Soviet idea that so long as the Stakhanovite production at Monografgorodsk has exceeded the estimate, the loss of personal liberty is of no matter. I think one can endorse the Arendtian idea of academic liberty, and still say that, so long as rights-speak is dominant, one can still complain about unequal enforcement of academic rights by academia’s New Class. And the relation between academic institutions and academic liberty is still at issue, even in your reformulation. I do encourage you to expand on this aside.

  38. Ralph says:

    I agree with withywindle that it would be helpful if Tim would expand on what he means by understanding academic freedom less in terms of rights than “in terms of the productivity of academic communities”.

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