Speech Hits a Sore Spot at Dartmouth

Trustee charges college leadership with not believing in God, and trashes its late president -- but says some comments were taken out of context.
November 26, 2007

Controversy seems to be clinging to Dartmouth College's Board of Trustees this fall. First was the polarizing battle over the way alumni elect some board members. Now comes a speech given last month -- and posted recently on YouTube -- in which a trustee slams a former college president, says that many academics don't believe in God, and evokes the Spanish Inquisition in a comment about Larry Summers, the former Harvard president.

Todd J. Zywicki, the trustee and a law professor at George Mason University, gave the address at a John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy conference. Zywicki says he regrets the way he phrased some comments but adds that portions of the speech have been taken out of context.

Much of the address is a call to arms for those who think academe is infused with leaders who preach the dogma of "environmentalism and feminism."

Zywicki says the "establishment" at elite colleges is "vicious" and that "if it were the case that there was no morality and no values being taught in the academy, that would be better than what we have." Those who bankroll the institutions blindly embrace multiculturalism as "their way of getting forgiveness, of showing how virtuous they are despite the fact that they have a lot of money," he says.

"Those who control the university today, they don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in country," he continues. "The university is their cathedrals…their entire being. Both those who fund it and those who teach within it are tied up in the university.”

Commenting on campus culture as a whole, Zywicki told the audience, “We have the Spanish Inquisition, and you can ask Larry Summers whether or not the Spanish Inquisition lives on academic campuses today.”

Discussing a late former president of the college, highly regarded by many faculty members for extolling intellectual life, Zywicki said in the speech: “They then brought in this fellow, truly evil man, James Freedman, who basically, simply put, his agenda was to turn Dartmouth into Harvard," he said in the speech, according to a transcript from the IvyGate blog (Zywicki said he didn't question the accuracy of the passage.)

Freedman died last year of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and critics say the comments are in poor taste. Zywicki said he apologizes to anyone who came away with that sense, and that he meant to attribute "truly evil man" to a colleague who had previously used that characterization to describe Freedman.

"That's one of the dangers of speaking from notes rather than from text," Zywicki said in an interview. "I didn't mean many things to be taken literally. Obviously I was speaking in perhaps an inappropriately informal manner. If I had known the remarks would be taken out of context, I would have been more thorough in fleshing out that idea."

Zywicki said he intended to criticize Freedman for what he described as a belief in political correctness at all costs. "Perhaps it was unduly flip, but I have serious concerns about the way he dealt with students while he was president. Someone who bullies and attacks undergraduates in the manner he did is somebody for whom I have absolutely no respect," he said in the interview.

Revisiting the speech, Zywicki said he regrets the "God and country" comment, which he said was unduly casual.

"I'm not trying to imply that liberals do not believe in God and country," he says. "The point I was trying to make is that for many people who control the modern university, that modern orthodoxy which is intolerant of many views has taken the place of religious orthodoxies of the past."

On the Summers comment, Zywicki said that he has consistently expressed concern about any orthodoxies that interfere with free inquiry on college campuses. "That includes incursions from the right and concern about orthodoxy from the left in the form of political correctness and restrain on free speech such as speech codes."

"I was hoping in a brief set of remarks to illustrate why modern orthodoxies are just as dangerous as ancient orthodoxies."


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