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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Issues on campus

I don't know why discussions about campuses in the media are so popular. Maybe it's our society's obsession with youth. (Witness the popularity of Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons.") Maybe it's a longing by our media's pundits to return to some Golden Age of ivory towers and other college cliches. Maybe it's an interest in places where learning is, theoretically, encouraged and disseminated. I doubt this last one.

Whatever the reason, our national lens has been focused quite strongly on issues on campus these days. Let us consider some of the recent controversies, and mull whether the response has been justified.

The purpose of a university is to benefit its students with an atmosphere conducive to thinking. At no other point in their lives afterward will these young people live under the same conditions. (Well, okay, perhaps if they go on to graduate school.) Enriching the mind will lose precedence to enriching the wallet (and yes, I am aware of the fact that many undergrads are interested less with Montesquieu than with Mammon; I'm trying to be theoretical here). So freedom of speech should be especially encouraged on college campuses. In the cases of Larry Summers, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Elizabeth Hoffman, it is not.

I have already addressed the Summers imbroglio, but let me restate: Summers spoke unwisely, but not unwisely enough to deserve the maelstrom of criticism he has received. Yesterday, I, along with other Harvard alums, received an email from Dean William C. Kirby informing us that "there has been considerable public discussion in recent weeks about gender diversity at Harvard, particularly in the sciences and engineering." (At least some forms of speech remain diplomatic.) Kirby adds that Summers "has announced the formation of two task forces, one focused on women in science and engineering, the other focused on broader issues affecting all women faculty, and has asked that they develop concrete proposals and recommendations that can be acted upon in the coming months."

These are certainly laudable steps, but in another sense, they are unsettling. If the university really wanted to exorcise its demons over the Summers contretemps, it would hold a public debate between its president and any of his accusers. Yet if presented with this opportunity, what would Summers' critics do with it? Would they follow Roberts' Rules, or would they use the approach of St. Bernard of Clairvaux against Peter Abelard at the Council of Sens in 1141? Namely, would they say there is no reason to debate because the point is moot, and then ban Summers from voicing any more opinions, ever?

All right, this is a little facetious. And it is true, distasteful opinions cannot acquire any believability if they are gussied up in scientific-sounding language. Yet from reading Summers' remarks, it doesn't sound like the president meant to offend. However, just how bad is it to be offended? When I heard Chris Rock, in what I felt was a major lapse in his Academy Awards broadcast, say that "Jewish people" were offended by "The Passion of the Christ," I was offended myself -- it wasn't only Jews who were upset by the film, and I'm guessing that not all Jews who saw it were upset by it. But you can't prevent people from voicing opinions. And there's nothing that says you have to agree with everything you hear. In the end, whose faults were greater: Abelard, for expressing unorthodox views, or Bernard, for refusing to even debate them?

Whew! A few brief notes on Pinkett-Smith and Hoffman. On Jada: Her speech at Harvard's Cultural Rhythms event was moving. That anyone could find anything offensive in it stunned me. I'm sorry that she had to undergo this unpleasant postscript to what I hope was an otherwise stellar day in Cambridge.

On Hoffman: What caused her to resign? Was it the unrepentant rantings of Ward Churchill, the professor whose despicable views on 9-11 and the Holocaust can be found online through my previous post on him? Or was it the sickening stories of sexual harassment involving the university's football team last year? It sounds like the former was the main reason. I don't agree with Churchill's views, but I think there is a better litmus test than one of disagreement: Are his teachings deliberately designed to hurt people? Belittling the Holocaust and calling World Trade Center victims "little Eichmanns" both sound like he is trying to provoke people maliciously. Colorado's new president should tell him that if he's going to remain a college professor, he should act like one.


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