Scholars, documentary producers, and genocide survivors have gathered at California State University at Long Beach this week for the President's Forum on International Human Rights, which is focused on modern genocides and society's responsibility to prevent them. Participants report that the sessions have been engaging and intense, and the gathering is being praised for focusing attention on the most vile forms of hate. Some of those who have been participating, however, wonder if the university needs to look a little closer to home.
Also this week, a white supremacist Web site called Vanguard News Network (its motto is "No Jews. Just Right.") drew attention to an article in the Long Beach student paper about how some professors there want more distance between the institution and a psychology professor, Kevin MacDonald, who has applied evolutionary psychology to studying Jews in ways that scholars find offensive and inaccurate.
MacDonald argues -- with backing from Vanguard News Network -- that Jewish people band together, in part to undercut white society in the United States. He says that they do this in part by supporting immigrants, with the idea that letting more Latinos into the United States would advance Jewish interests by weakening the country.
Not surprisingly, Vanguard News Network views with alarm the idea that professors at Long Beach are talking about taking a stand against MacDonald. One commenter wrote (warning: offensive language ahead): "So the Goddam Kikes are getting their way yet again, putting the thumbscrews to a White scholar whose ass they are not worthy to lick…. At least this oppression proves that Prof. MacDonald’s great work is hitting the scum hard. How much more of this humiliation is our race going to take? How long before this motherfucking plague of repulsive, hook-snouted ticks is given a real Zyklon fumigation, as opposed to the fairy tale one?" Other commenters link to the Web sites of some of MacDonald's critics on the Long Beach faculty and/or those with Jewish-sounding names, plus a list of phone numbers of the psychology department.
MacDonald has taught at Long Beach since 1985, and periodically attracts attention (and while he has fans on sites like Vanguard News Network says that he does not back what is said there about him and that those comments don't help his cause). He testified on behalf of David Irving, a Holocaust denier who unsuccessfully sued Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University historian, over her comments that he distorted history in his Holocaust denial. (MacDonald’s testimony and his explanation of why he backed Irving are available on the Web site of the Institute for Historical Review, a Holocaust denying group. MacDonald says he is not a denier, but was helping Irving defend unpopular views.)
For the past 10 days, with Long Beach preparing for a scholarly discussion of genocide and human rights, and with more information circulating about MacDonald's views on Jews, immigrants and others, professors have been engaged in a debate about what -- if anything -- should be said about him.
None of the critics are suggesting that MacDonald's tenure should be revoked, or that he be barred from expressing his views. But many wonder why the university has never publicly as an institution stated that it finds MacDonald's views offensive or at the very least that his views don't represent the university. Further, some wonder why the psychology department's public statement issued the last time the controversy over MacDonald broke makes no mention of him. While the department is considering changing that, there are as of yet no signs that the university will issue a statement. Still others wonder why faculty members granted tenure to MacDonald in the first place.
Professors who are raising the issue now say that they are trying to promote debate about how to combat hate without limiting free speech. "I want to be very clear. I fully embrace Dr. MacDonald's right to free speech and academic freedom. I'm not talking in any way about interfering with his ability to write or speak or teach," said Jeffrey Blutinger, a historian who is co-director of Jewish studies at Long Beach. "But just as he has the right to free speech, we have the right as a faculty and an institution to have our free speech. We have the right to say that it's important that the wider community be aware that MacDonald's work does not enjoy the respect of many of his colleagues."
F. King Alexander, president at Long Beach, said in an interview that he does not personally agree with MacDonald's views, but that he believes the psychology department or other faculty bodies are best positioned to evaluate the situation -- and that presidents and institutions should not speak out about faculty members.
"I do not reprimand people for their beliefs," he said. "We do address behavioral issues, but as a university, we have to respect the vast spectrum of beliefs that exist on our campus, no matter how much I might disagree with them." He added: "The day that we reprimand people, especially in universities, for expressing their beliefs, no matter how abhorrent or distasteful those beliefs may be, is the day that we begin returning back to tyranny itself."
Blutinger noted that while departments and universities don't normally issue statements offering an institutional critique of a professor, there are cases where they do so -- and doing so can represent an important stand. He noted, for example, that Lehigh University's biology department has on its Web site a statement that distances its members from the views of one colleague, Michael Behe, who is a strong supporter of intelligent design. The Lehigh statement is explicit and names Behe.
"The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of 'intelligent design,' " says the statement. "While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific."
In contrast, the statement on Long Beach's psychology department Web site is more opaque -- and someone unaware of the controversy over MacDonald might be confused about why it is there. In between statements of support for diversity and academic freedom, the department offers its views on the "misuse of psychologists' work." The statement says: "The Department of Psychology regards it as deeply unethical that any faculty member knowingly allow his/her work to be used to support groups that disseminate views of racial/ethnic superiority and/or racial/ethnic hatred. Moreover, in accordance with the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, we expect faculty to take all reasonable steps to prevent the misuse or misrepresentation of their work. We are concerned that psychological research has been used in the past in intellectually unjustifiable and socially harmful ways, such as limiting immigration of certain groups or justifying unequal opportunities in education and employment. We wish to make it clear that these uses are distortions of scholarship in the field."
The statement went up in December 2006, as reports were circulating about an in-depth study of MacDonald by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- subsequently released under the title "Promoting Hate." It is widely known at the university that the statement was prompted by MacDonald's views and writing, but his name isn't in the statement at all.
"I think the statement is a little bit too much in code," said Charles Noble, chair of political science and director of international studies at Long Beach. He is among those who have been involved in the e-mail discussions at the university about how to take a stronger stance.
In an e-mail message to his faculty colleagues, Noble questioned the lack of a more explicit, formal response from both the psychology department and the university. "This controversy has been going on for years; surely the time is ripe," Noble wrote.
"No one that I know is asking that MacDonald be denied the opportunity to teach. He is a tenured professor and as such has certain rights that we all benefit from. In a free society, even ideas as noxious as these should be aired. But that doesn't mean that the department cannot officially distance itself from these ideas. Where is the statement that the department rejects any effort to use evolutionary psychology to justify racism in scientific terms? I believe that there is a consensus among evolutionary psychologists that these sorts of accounts do not meet minimal standards of scientific discourse. Does the psychology department agree with that? If so, why not say it prominently on the home page of its Web site."
As to the university's response, Noble wrote that "there doesn't seem to be one." He added: "When I inquire about that, I hear things about legal liability, academic freedom, lawsuits, etc. But no one is asking that MacDonald be silenced. Can the mere threat of a lawsuit paralyze the university into inaction? CSU is a billion-dollar enterprise. Does it not have enough lawyers to defend itself and the faculty from any effort to harass us into silence? I would love to know the reasoning involved here,
but no one has been willing to share it with us, at least publicly."
Blutinger said that the university's silence has an impact. Whenever he speaks to local groups, he said, he is asked about MacDonald, and would love to be able to point to some official statement that makes clear that he "represents only himself." The lack of a clear public statement "damages the reputation of the university," he said.
The psychology department chair, Kenneth Green, did not respond to calls.
MacDonald, who maintains a Web site with detailed explanations of his theories about Jews, said in an interview that he was a victim of "faculty e-mail wars." He said that he has repeatedly "tried to defend myself showing that what I was doing was scientific and rational and reasonable -- and people have not responded."
Any university or department statement against him would violate his academic freedom, MacDonald said, adding that he has not seen any draft of what the department might issue. MacDonald said he was consulting a lawyer about "what to do about this."
Alexander, the president, said that fear of lawsuits was not a factor here. "What we stand for is much broader."
But in terms of the university's role, Alexander said that the conference on genocide represented the appropriate, scholarly role, as would a statement by MacDonald's department. "Our responsibility and part of my responsibility is to educate more people -- so that ideas like this and many others do not take root in a population that might be susceptible to it," he said.
Alexander said that in his remarks at the conference, he encouraged faculty members to "make sure that we are aspiring to promote true scientific progress and to aggressively challenge all individuals inside and outside of the academy that advance agendas that are premised on inequality, separation, human rights denial and abuses." Further, Alexander said that he believed that "we as academics throughout this nation should work to weed out of governmental and educational institutions I would say individuals that advance these types of inequalities and atrocities."
But as to who does such weeding out, Alexander said that was a faculty duty."The psychology department is the best place to determine the validity" of MacDonald's views," Alexander said. "I'm not an evolutionary psychologist and I don't think we have any in the university administration." Alexander said that MacDonald's views didn't represent the university "in any way, shape or form," and that "he has the academic freedom to advance his own beliefs, as any individual does."
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
What Others Are Reading