April 1 is traditionally a time of joke issues of student newspapers or other campus groups, and many years some of the humor is offensive, leading to discussions about sensitivity, free speech and diversity on campuses.
We may be in for similar disputes again this week. But this year, the week before April 1 saw several campuses debating social issues, prompted by statements that many saw as outrageous or worse (but that others defended).
And those who made these statements were serious. At the University of Rochester and Johns Hopkins University, professors who have been controversial in the past set off new debates with comments that were attacked as anti-woman (at Rochester) and anti-gay (at Hopkins). At Princeton, a letter to the editor of the student paper by an alumna arguing that she was sharing hard truths with female undergraduates left many of them (and others) stunned and angry.
Rape and 'Psychic Harm'
At Rochester, the controversy involves the blog of Steven Landsburg, an economics professor who last year attracted attention for defending Rush Limbaugh when Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student a slut. This time around, Landsburg is writing about rape, and in particular the kind of rape in which the victim is unconscious or unaware that the rape is taking place (as was the case in the Steubenville incident that was recently in court).
"Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?" Landsburg asked.
His answer: "As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?"
While many are outraged (and some Rochester students notified websites about Landsburg's statements), he is standing behind them and noting that the rape comments are made in a series of questions of what he sees as "psychic harm," such as when someone is concerned about the use of a piece of land even though that person has no intention of visiting that land.
Via e-mail, Landsburg said that "it's not a blog post about Steubenville; it's a blog post about the question of when (if ever) 'psychic harm' should be given policy weight.... Many people (including me) have pretty strong visceral responses to these issues that suggest that we think psychic harm matters in some cases and not in others. I raised the question of what distinguishes these cases, where we draw the line, and where we *should* draw the line."
He said that some are too quick to justify making rape a crime even if the victim is unaware of it at the time. "I think that a lot of the 'obvious' answers to that question are wrong. For example, 'rape is in a different category because it involves bodily penetration' can't be exactly right, because there are other bodily penetrations that nobody wants to outlaw. It seems to me that it is better to think hard about the basis of public policy than to not think hard about the basis of public policy."
The University of Rochester issued a statement in which it said: "The university is committed to the academic freedom of our faculty and students. Their views are their own; they do not speak for the university. In his personal blog, Professor Landsburg poses some hypothetical questions about an unconscious rape victim. He asks whether such rapes should be illegal. The university’s answer is that rape is abhorrent. It is and should be a crime. Sexual violence is a concern on campuses across the nation. The university works very hard to combat sexual violence and to promote a culture of mutual respect."
Gay Marriage and NAMBLA
At Johns Hopkins, the debate is over Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and humanitarian whose work has won him many honors -- but whose views about evolution (he doesn't believe in it) have made him controversial on some other campuses. Carson has been attracting a following in conservative circles and that led him to be asked by Fox News for his views on gay marriage. His answer: "Marriage is between a man and a woman. No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition."
The comparison of gay people who want to marry to those who favor bestiality or NAMBLA (which advocates for relationships between men and boys) angered many, who saw the comment as an anti-gay slur. The controversy has led to a petition seeking to remove Carson as the graduation speaker at the Hopkins medical school graduation this spring. The petition reads: "At the time of his nomination, Dr. Carson was known to most of us as a world-class neurosurgeon and passionate advocate for education. Many of us had read his books and looked up to him as a role model in our careers. Since then, however, several public events have cast serious doubt on the appropriateness of having Dr. Carson speak at our graduation."
While Carson continues to defend his stance against gay marriage, he is apologizing for his "choice of words" and offering to withdraw as graduation speaker. "This is their graduation, their big day, and if they think me being there is going to be a problem, I am happy to withdraw," he told The Baltimore Sun.
A Call for Mrs. Degrees at Princeton
At Princeton University on Friday, a letter to the editor of the student newspaper prompted an online eruption of anger (while The Daily Princetonian is not indicating whether there is a causal relationship, as the comments started to flood in, the paper's website crashed and as of Sunday it remains down). The letter -- from Susan Patton, a member of the Class of 1977 and mother of two male Princeton students -- urged female students to focus on finding husbands while they were at college.
"For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there," Patton wrote.
"I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians. My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone. My younger son is a junior and the universe of women he can marry is limitless. Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you."
And it's not just that Princeton undergraduate women need to find Tiger husbands, they need to move quickly. Because, Patton explained, even those highly intelligent Princeton men would never consider marrying someone say, a year older. Wrote Patton: "Here is another truth that you know, but nobody is talking about. As freshman women, you have four classes of men to choose from. Every year, you lose the men in the senior class, and you become older than the class of incoming freshman men. So, by the time you are a senior, you basically have only the men in your own class to choose from, and frankly, they now have four classes of women to choose from."
The response has been intense. Among the tweets: "Brutal retrograde picture of marriage market," "Anyone have a calendar handy? I need to check what century it is" and "A stirring call for the genetically gifted to band together and form a master race."
Read more by
Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes
What Others Are Reading