Paying for Shabazz

Carnegie Mellon said the university never provided funds for a hateful speaker. But one of its research centers had pledged support. 
February 23, 2005

As anger grew at Carnegie Mellon University over a speech by Malik Shabazz last week, there was a constant refrain from university officials: No university funds were used.

Students report that they were told this again and again. Reporters were told this repeatedly. The university let a student group host the speaker -- who used his appearance to attack Jews -- out of a commitment to free speech, but university officials said it would never have helped bring him to campus.

Except maybe it did.

Students heard rumors that a university research center had paid for part of Shabazz's appearance, and sent an e-mail message to the head of the Center for African-American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) to ask if it had supported the Shabazz visit. Joe Trotter, director of the center and chairman of the history department at Carnegie Mellon, wrote back that CAUSE had "contributed" to the visit, but that the amount was "quite small."

The e-mail message circulated among students who became more angry because they had been assured that no university funds had been used for the talk, and that Carnegie Mellon would not sponsor such a visit. Shabazz's talk at Carnegie Mellon has been controversial not only because of his anti-Jewish message, but because one of his assistants was permitted to carry a nightstick around the hall where the lecture took place (in violation of university rules), because Jewish students were asked to identify themselves during the talk, and because some reporters were removed from the talk at Shabazz's request.

One of the students sent the e-mail message about support for the Shabazz talk to Inside Higher Ed. In an interview, Trotter acknowledged that CAUSE had agreed to provide $300 for the Shabazz talk, but he said that this was a "promise," and that the funds had not yet been paid. Trotter said that at the time CAUSE approved funds for the Shabazz visit, he was aware of Shabazz's "militancy," but not of his reputation for anti-Semitic remarks.

"I would not condone anti-Semitism or any attacks on a racial or ethnic group," Trotter said.

He said he had been trying to contact members of Spirit, the black student group that organized Shabazz's visit, and Carnegie Mellon's president, to figure out how to handle the situation. Shabazz and leaders of Spirit have not returned messages.

Aaron Weil, executive director of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, said he was "shocked and dismayed" that "if this is true, the university would have even indirectly funded a known hate monger," whose talk was "a rampage of hatred and incitement."

Weil said that Jewish students have been told "over and over" that the university would not have provided financial support for the Shabazz visit. "There is a real sense of shock. Students are going to be very hurt again."

Elena Averbakh, a junior at Carnegie Mellon and president of Hillel, said she had also been told by university officials that there was no link between university funds and the Shabazz visit. She said she was more upset now, feeling that she was paying tuition to an institution that was providing Shabazz with funds, and then saying that it would never  have done so.

"I don't want to be paying for someone to be preaching hatred and racism," she said.

Michael C. Murphy, dean of student affairs, said in an interview last night that when he and other officials said that no Carnegie Mellon funds were used for the Shabazz talk, he meant funds from the central administration or student activities fund. He said he had been aware that Spirit was also seeking money from CAUSE, but that the status of that request wasn't clear and that he believed no funds had actually been paid.

He also reiterated that he did not believe students were in any danger during the talk. "Had there been an incitement to violence, that would have been acted on," he said.

Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon, sent a letter Tuesday to all students and faculty members about the controversy. He quoted from the university's policy on controversial speakers: "When so-called controversial speakers are invited to the campus by a recognized campus organization, they speak not because they have a right to be heard but because the students have a right to hear. It is the students' right to hear that the university must defend if it is to serve its high function in society."

Cohon went on to say that even though the university did not want to sponsor Shabazz's appearance "in large part because of the inflammatory nature of the past rhetoric of the speaker," it was appropriate to allow the student group to bring him anyway. "Allowing activity that one has vigorously discouraged may strike some as hypocritical, though it is at the core of the intersection of freedom and responsibility," Cohon wrote.

And while Cohon said the actual speech was "filled with hateful and hurtful rhetoric," he said it "was also not in keeping with the history of the Spirit Organization nor, we firmly believe, of the values of its collective membership, nor its intent in sponsoring the speaker."

In an interview, Murphy said that statement was not intended to clear Spirit of any obligations related to bringing Shabazz to the campus. "We think it's important for members of the campus community to understand that their intent was sincere," Murphy said. "But that doesn't distance them from their responsibility for having brought to campus someone who engaged in such hatred."


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