Commentary Magazine


Leonard Jeffries

To the Editor:

There was one small but important error of fact in Philip Gourevitch’s otherwise accurate and insightful article on Leonard Jeffries [“The Jeffries Affair,” March] and, secondarily, myself.

Mr. Gourevitch omitted the third and most significant charge I brought against City College, namely, that the president had set up a committee to determine whether my writings might constitute “action unbecoming a professor,” the language in my employment contract which triggers discipline. (These writings, which the president evidently took to constitute prima-facie evidence of incompetence to teach, were a letter to the editor of the New York Times, a letter to the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, and a book review in an Australian magazine of opinion.) Not surprisingly, the court found this committee, which sat for nine months and produced at the end of that time a three-page report, an obvious attempt to silence and intimidate me.

The committee was also nominally constituted to investigate Leonard Jeffries, but since Jeffries has written nothing, there was nothing to investigate. It was clear to all concerned that the committee was formed to put the heat on me, Jeffries’s name being mentioned only for cosmetic reasons and out of a desire not to appear shamelessly inconsistent.

Michael Levin
City College-CUNY
New York City

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To the Editor:

I disagree with Philip Gourevitch when he writes:

It is not through the logic of multiculturalism, or political correctness, or affirmative action that [Leonard] Jeffries holds on at City College. It is through the power of intimidation.

Mike Tyson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Gotti might be better able to intimidate, but they are not tenured professors and chairmen of academic departments. Jeffries has that power, and he has support on campuses throughout the nation. The reason lies in affirmative action and its double standards. How many departments are headed by people who, like Jeffries, have published nothing of academic quality? Just how did Jeffries become a tenured professor and chairman of a department at City College?

The answer is to be found in liberalism. The affirmative-action mentality which demands that black students be admitted to universities even if they are ill-prepared, and that black professors be hired and promoted even if they are professional propagandists rather than professional scholars, has provided Jeffries and his imitators with prestige, tenure protection, and economic privilege. The double-standard Democrats and their liberal Republican allies have allowed many Jeffries-like students and professors to flourish.

The problem is not Jeffries . . . ; the problem is affirmative action, quotas, goals, and timetables. The problem is not a single charlatan, but liberal policies that make charlatanism inevitable.

Hugh Murray
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Philip Gourevitch writes:

Michael Levin is right to draw attention to the third plank of his case against City College, and that key phrase of tenure contracts which cites “action unbecoming a professor” as grounds for dismissal. Mr. Levin’s free-speech fight has tended to obscure the fact that the key complaints against Leonard Jeffries have to do with actions not protected as intellectual discourse. City College President Bernard Harleston viewed Levin’s “racialist” writings as such actions, and Mr. Levin had to sue in order to correct him. In Jeffries’s case, the unbecoming behavior consists of bogus scholarship and shoddy pedagogy—including the teaching of patent lies, ad-hominem racist attacks on fellow professors, the issuing of an alleged death threat, and a rap sheet of slurs and acts of intimidation too lengthy to reiterate here. City College’s refusal to take steps against Jeffries suggests a bizarre concept of what becomes a professor, and indicates a racial double standard that may be maddening to Michael Levin, but should be particularly insulting to blacks.

Hugh Murray seems to suggest that Mike Tyson and John Gotti would not now be behind bars if they had had academic tenure. (As for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not been charged with or convicted of any public wrongdoing that I know of, he could probably land any number of tenured professorships at the flex of a bicep—anti-white-European-conservative-beefcake quotas notwithstanding.) But what really distinguishes Tyson and Gotti from Jeffries is that neither of those tabloid villains was able to awaken the fear of a riot in the hearts of those whose job it is to discipline them. At City College that is precisely what Leonard Jeffries has done, and he has not done it by cogent liberal argument—he himself is not, after all, a liberal—but by bullying and demagoguery.

Mr. Murray’s claim that Jeffries’s outrageous behavior is the logical outcome of liberal social policy overstates the case. As I wrote, such an argument is the rhetorical analogue of dubbing David Duke the true and ultimate expression of today’s Republican party. One need not embrace liberalism or its fallout in our schools to recognize that Jeffries is fundamentally at odds with a liberal agenda. Nor is it negligible that some of the strongest denunciations of Jeffries came from liberals, Democrats, and affirmative-action advocates, from Mario Cuomo to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to Cornel West, a black Marxist professor of philosophy at Princeton.

Mr. Murray’s slaphappy allusion to untold numbers of “Jeffries-like” characters swaggering around the campuses is also inaccurate. There is plenty of mischief afoot on our campuses, but Jeffries is a blessedly unique phenomenon in academia, and City College is run by an uncommonly spineless administration. That is the real problem in this case. Crackpot academics predated liberalism, and firm responses to misconduct have generally continued in the wake of affirmative action. But it was only after narrowly surviving a vote of no-confidence by the decidedly liberal faculty senate at City College in April, that President Bernard Harleston finally made the simple move of asking the trustees not to renew Jeffries’s chairmanship. Sadly, that much-celebrated development achieves little. Jeffries remains in the saddle and has taken to sending out disciples to disrupt black-Jewish gatherings around New York. The ball is still in Harleston’s court. Instead of appealing the Levin ruling, he should set his lawyers the honorable task of stripping Jeffries of the mantle of tenure.

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