Commentary Magazine


Columbia’s Tenured Thugs

We are called upon, ladies and gentlemen, to join the arts and sciences faculty of Columbia University in being aghast at the depredations of Lee Bollinger, who has not sufficiently expressed his intolerance for critics of the arts and sciences faculty, and who forced the entire university into lockstep with the Bush administration by saying mean things to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are truly dark days for the sensitive souls of the sociology department.

More than 100 faculty members issued a declaration yesterday stating that “President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the university is founded, especially academic freedom.” They note in particular that 1) the Bollinger administration has not made “unequivocally clear” that attempts by “outside groups…to vilify members of the faculty and determine how controversial issues are taught” will not be tolerated (whatever that entails). 2) That the faculty has not been sufficiently consulted before making “decisions on key issues.” Point three bears reprinting in full:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.”

And finally, Bollinger “has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East in particular, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area. His conflation of his own political position with that of the University is unacceptable.”

In case you didn’t get the message, Professor Eric Foner told the New York Times, regarding Bollinger’s treatment of Ahmadinejad: “This is the language of warfare at a time when the administration of our country is trying to whip up Iran.” Isn’t it clear to you now that Bollinger is just a Bush stooge? This letter, coming after the ouster of Larry Summers at Harvard largely by the humanities faculty, has caused a stir on campus, and the most eloquent response happily has come from a dissenting group of Columbia professors, from the quantitative fields. Responding to point 1, they write that

When nonacademics and outsiders encounter or hear about what they consider inappropriate forms of teaching, allegations of intimidation or harassment, or the distortion of basic historical or scientific facts, they are justified in expressing, and entitled by the First Amendment to express, their objections. No university administration has the power to prevent such expression.

Isn’t it curious that it has fallen to a group of scientists to explain to the university’s humanities professors what the First Amendment means? The rest of the letter is similarly devastating, as it starkly exposes the mendacity and bad faith of the humanities professors:

That President Bollinger’s introductory remarks to Ahmadinejad “allied the university with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq”: As the publicly available transcript confirms, these remarks addressed sequentially: 1) Holocaust denial; 2) Ahmadinejad’s stated intent to destroy Israel; 3) Iran’s funding of terrorism; 4) Iran’s proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and 5) Iran’s nuclear program. Only the fourth item refers to the war in Iraq, and only in the context of Iran’s role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops.


That “the President has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area”: We follow President Bollinger’s public statements closely. The only one that may be characterized as concerning the politics of the Middle East is his denunciation of the British University and College Union’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics, which he described as “antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.” This statement is actually not about the political problems of the Middle East; it is precisely what President Bollinger is accused of not providing: a vigorous defense of academic freedom, based on his recognition that denying such freedom to any individual or group endangers the entire academic enterprise.

This group of 62 professors should be congratulated for thoroughly humiliating a larger faction of professors who are signatories to a shameful—and actually Orwellian—invocation of free speech and academic freedom for the express purpose of undermining exactly those things. The thugs in Columbia’s humanities departments have made false accusations against the university president; they have demanded exemption from being criticized for their scholarship and campus behavior; they seek political litmus tests for speech; and they have proffered a standard of acceptability to the “university community”—meaning, acceptability to themselves—for speech on the part of the university president. And all of this is put forth explicitly as a requirement of fidelity to open debate, academic freedom, and a salubrious university environment. Cynical doesn’t even begin to describe it.

There is something more to be said about this controversy, because it represents more than just the latest bit of silliness from an American campus. Like Larry Summers’s expulsion from the Harvard presidency before it, the Columbia controversy is exemplary of a new era in campus radicalism in which the radicals who now so thoroughly dominate the academy are engaging in the next act in consolidating their power: the intimidation or expulsion of internal enemies. The lexicon of the previous era continues to be employed, but now its use becomes even more awkward and incongruous than it always was: In demanding control over the content of campus debate, Columbia’s thugs talk about the imperatives of open dialogue and the founding principles of the university.

In 1963, several years after the publication of God and Man at Yale brought him onto the national stage, William F. Buckley wrote another critique of the university entitled “The Aimlessness of American Education,” in which he said that:

Under academic freedom, the modern university is supposed to take a position of “neutrality” as among competing ideas. “A university does not take sides on the questions that are discussed in its halls,” a committee of scholars and alumni of Yale reported in 1952. “In the ideal university all sides of any issue are presented as impartially as possible.” To do otherwise, they are saying, is to violate the neutrality of a teaching institution, to give advantage to one idea over against another, thus prejudicing the race which, if all the contestants were let strictly alone, truth is bound to win…. Academic freedom is conceived as a permanent instrument of doctrinal egalitarianism; it is always there to remind us that we can never know anything for sure: which I view as another way of saying we cannot really know what are the aims of education.

How far down the road have universities such as Columbia traveled since Buckley wrote those words. It is not enough today to allow that Larry Summers deviated from campus orthodoxy, or that Lee Bollinger wasn’t nice enough to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Such acts of dissension strike at the very core of the campus power structure (to appropriate some familiar rhetoric), and to allow them to go unpunished is to deny the incumbency of the radicals and their need to impose intellectual homogeneity. This faction has succeeded in becoming a supermajority in the humanities departments, and now their campaign is hewing to a predictable course: the setting of ideological boundaries by purging and intimidating those who would ignore them. American education is no longer characterized, as in Buckley’s era, by the aimlessness of doctrinal egalitarianism. Today’s campus is characterized by the thuggery of doctrinal totalitarianism.

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