Thursday, September 19, 2002

Time to talk about the University of Chicago, I think.

A new group, Campus Watch, has been formed to "monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance. Campus Watch will critique these specialists, and make available its findings on the internet and in the media." Its "main goals" include the aim to:"Identify key faculty who teach and write about contemporary affairs at university Middle East Studies departments in order to analyze and critique the work of these specialists for errors or biases; Develop a network of concerned students and faculty members interested in promoting American interests on campus; Keep the public apprised of course syllabi, memos, debates over appointments and funding, etc." Its website includes "dossiers" on several professors and on a number of universities, including my own.

Now most professors are instinctively edgy about someone keeping thought-police-sounding "dossiers" on them or their colleagues, and for good reason. But it certainly has from time to time been true that one academic institution or another-- and an "institution" might mean a discipline as well as a university-- swerves ina direction that the putside society has real reason to want to be aware of. The late-80s/ early-90s "political correctness" wave, exemplified in the adoption of speech codes, was a legitimate subject of debate off-campus as well as on. (See my colleague Dan Drezner's take on the continuing cries of conservative victimization.) (That doesn't mean that outsiders get to decide what to do on self-governing private campuses-- and no, don't give me the Rust v Sullivan federal-funding line. That way lies the destruction of our private university system by tempting offer-- and, incidentally, disaster for private schools in general via vouchers.) And the direction of Middle East Studies has been, I think legitimately, a subject for general discussion over the last year. Franklin Foer's coverage of last December's MESA meeting offered a fine example of how to do this well. (And the NYT article I plug below, about the state of area studies in political science, is another good example of the outside coverage of "domestic" academic issues, and how those domestic issues impact society as a whole.) So I don't intend to condemn the Campus Watch program out of hand. Indeed, I think it's pretty important to keep events like those at Concordia University or SFSU on people's minds.

But-- you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?-- one of the dangers of interest groups keeping "dossiers" of this sort is that they encourage every complaint of student with an ax to grind, every friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend story-cum-rumor, and every campus crank's misrepresentation of events to compile stories that will then enter the public record and circulate forever. And the indictment Campus Watch offers of the University of Chicago is of that character.

First I should note what kind of a place this is. Go read our campus statement on civil behavior in a university setting. There aren't a lot of universities that say, in such a setting, that "the ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive." When I was an undergraduate at Brown there was certainly no such commitment, though free speech was widely respected. (The new President of Brown, Ruth Simmons, who came to that campus after the David Horowitz controversy, has made such a commitment with admirable vigor.) But that is the University of Chicago's self-understanding. There's no right not to hear unwelcome ideas.

Now consider Campus Watch's complaints (or, more precisely, the complaints of the couple of people here who were the source for the dossier, whoever they are). Apart from an apparently-irrelevant digression into the events at SFSU (scroll down), presumably narrated because nothing comparable has happened here-- the indictment includes:

*A student joking about Auschwitz. When we were in the depths of the political correctness craze, everybody correctly piled on the University of Connecticut for prohibiting "inappropriate jokes" among students. We don't have a speech code, and so people are going to say inappropriate things for which it would be very strange to hold the instiution accountable.

*An "offensive article" in the campus' little-read left-wing newspaper, and an allegedly-misleading ad printed in that same paper. Some of this ground was covered two years ago with the David Horowitz ad arguing against slavery reparations, wasn't it? In any event, it's certainly true that offensive articles may appear in campus newspapers, or any other newspapers in a free society.

*One-sidedness in a series of panels and lectures on 9/11. I haven't attended any of them, so I can't comment on the truth of the claim. But I can observe that panels, symposia, and lectures on a university campus are routinely organized by those with a viewpoint, and express that viewpoint. The remedy, as that old authoritarian-in-libertarian's-clothing Holmes said, is "more speech." Other panels, symposia, and lectures may be organized as well...

*Scheduling many such panels on Shabbat. This is an old question on campuses. My view is that no mandatory university function, including exams, should be offered on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday if possible, and that any such functions that must be so scheduled also must have alternate times available. But no such standard makes sense as applied to extracurricular activities, visiting lectures, one-time panels and symposia not required for a class, and so on.

*An allegedly anti-Semitic movie (I haven't seen it, but wouldn't be surprised if the charge were true) shown at the Palestinian Film Festival. All together now: "we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive."

*An anti-Zionist talk was given by a professor from Columbia. Now I have no doubt that anti-Semitism often poses as more-respectable anti-Zionism, though that doesn't turn all anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. And, for all I know, this talk was genuinely anti-Semitic. But, again, a university appropriately gives very wide leeway to academic and political speech. Our policy is that speech will only be prevented if it consists of threats of violence against particular persons. The university insists on question-and-answer time after visiting lectures, but cannot and does not force speakers to be responsive to questions. (How could it?) Some students complained about that fact of life during the David Horowitz lecture here last year, and some are now complaining about it with respect to this talk. If a speaker refuses to squarely address a legitimate question, that should cost him or her credibility in the eyes of the audience. That's all that's needed. For a student questioner to hector the speaker by shouting "Answer the question!" (as a dear friend of mine at Brown did to Antonin Scalia) is rude and unnecessary.

*A Hezbollah flier was one item in a library collection of representative Middle East materials brought back by our scholars travelling abroad. This is a campus controversy I-- probably unwisely-- got myself involved with last year, but I'll say again what I said then. Those who study the world routinely bring back, and display, dreadful materials from the places they study. Many were the offices of a Soviet specialists decorated with the symbols of Stalinism-- because such materials were fascinating and telling. I'd probably be more sympathetic to Arab students complaining that posting the Hezbollah flier encouraged the knee-jerk equation of "Arab Middle East" with "terrorism." Instead we had Jewish students claiming that the existence of this piece in the library made them feel unsafe and personally targeted on campus. What I said about this at the time still seems right to me: this is alarmist and absurd. (See my letter on the subject from last fall here. UPDATE: My colleague Charles Lipson wrote a response to that letter-- one that it turns out he showed to a reporter for the Chicago Jewish News, who quotes from it in this article. As long as he's made his response public, I might as well point toward it.)

*There's more: shouted anti-Semitic comments both on and off-campus, with no indication that the shouter was affiliated with the University (my office is, after all, less than ten blocks from Louis Farrakhan's house; and one of the shouters was apparently a child at a local Catholic school); complaints about the content of professors' lectures and syllabi; and the defacing and tearing down of fliers. That last category is a real abuse, all-too common on most university campuses and on all sides of most controversial issues.

*The remaining category, the content of classroom activity, is the hard one. On one hand, members of faculty do and ought to have the right to govern their own academic affairs. The University does not claim the right to approve or disapprove syllabi or lectures. On the other hand, we do have obligations of professional ethics: to be balanced and judicious, to encourage informed debate and disagreement, to offer students the resources with which to reach their own conclusions. And we have very firm obligation not to, for example, grade students on the basis of their agreement with our own viewpoint, or make bigoted and prejudicial statements in our lectures. Here the complaints are a mixed bag at best. Two are primarily about guest lecturers. One of the pedagogical virtues of guest lecturers is that they can be treated as another primary source, the living, breathing expression of a particular viewpoint. A guest lecturer does not stand in nearky the same position of authoriry over the students that the regular lecturer does. When I've had the resources to invite guest lecturers, I've deliberately sought out scholars who would express a clear viewpoint, one that we could then discuss and debate in subsequent sessions. There are serious pedagogical disagreements about whether students should be able to discern their professors' point of view on controversial political questions; but these don't apply to guest lecturers. One incident labelled as "classroom-related" actually refers to a professor making a false statement in a story in a campus newspaper. (Or, more precisely, to a professor whose words as reported by the student reporter were false. Given that two of my colleagues were quoted by a student reporter as saying that publication isn't really necessary for tenure, I take all such quotations with a grain of salt.)

The remaining complaints are about three professors, two courses. The charge is that the courses were systematically biased and that the professors were hostile to expressed disagreement-- a combination that violates professional ethics. I know none of the three personally, and certainly didn't attend any of the classes. I note here that the literary and artistic humanities often seem to be much more hostile to political-moral disagreement than are political science, philosophy, or law, where such debate is central to our study. But I'm very wary of quotations from lectures taken out of context, or anonymous one-sided reporting on conflicts between students and professors. I've read the student evaluations of these professors' recent courses, and the teachers described in those evaluations bear no resemblance to the ones described on Campus Watch. (And students aren't embarrassed to charge bias in those evaluations; I've sometimes been charged with biases opposite to the ones I actually held.)

But suppose that all three professors were guilty as charged. That, along with the defacement of fliers, does not add up to the headline "Jewish and pro-Israel students at the University of Chicago subject to intimidation and hate." All students, and all professors, at the University of Chicago live with the possibility that they will be disagreed with, and that views will be expressed that they find repellent. So much the better for the University of Chicago.

What I will find especially disturbing is if those on the right who were so vociferous in their support of intellectual freedom and their opposition to the suppression of unpopular views on campus in the David Horowitz case now fall into a political-correctness trap of their own. We do and should condemn those incidents in which unpopular viewpoints are shouted down or threatened with violence, in which newspapers are stolen or information suppressed-- again, Concordia or SFSU. We must not conflate incidents in which our viewpoint is suppressed with those in which the rival viewpoint is expressed. The silliest elements of the left did that ten years ago, when they claimed that allowing speech they disapproved of would amount to "silencing" them. It's silly on the other side as well. The useful purpose that a group like Campus Watch might have served has, I think, already been washed away by the group's inability to draw such distinctions, its reliance on anonymous rumor, and its mixture of the serious with the trivial.

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