A College Divided Over a Harvard Professor

Concordia U's Liberal Arts College, in Canada, wanted conservative scholar Harvey Mansfield to speak at an alumni gala -- until it didn't. But revoking Mansfield's invite didn't settle an internal debate.

April 19, 2019
 
Harvey Mansfield

Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College asked the conservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield to speak at its 40th anniversary gala, planned for next month. Citing alumni backlash over Mansfield’s past controversial statements on gender and gay marriage, the Canadian college then uninvited him and postponed the event.

Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, recently went public with the incident, via a ticked-off op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. And faculty members within the intimate college remain divided over the decision to rescind Mansfield’s invite.

Frederick Krantz, professor of history and founding principal, or chair, of the college, described it as “a proven, full-time Western civilization degree program based on a multidisciplinary Great Books curriculum,” unique in Canada.

He’s always referred to the program as “a community of scholars, dedicated to objective analysis and free and open discussion and debate.” And for that reason, he’d also always thought that it was “immune to the wave of politically correct ideology sweeping many North American campuses.”

“Sadly, I was wrong,” Krantz said. Alumni and current students still “deserve better,” however, he added, expressing hope that the disinvitation may again be reversed.

Comparing the current climate for conservative professors to McCarthyism, Mansfield wrote in his op-ed, “I little thought that I would now in my old age be qualified for exclusion from Concordia University in our free neighbor to the north, not as the member of a conspiratorial organization serving an enemy power, but simply for holding opinions shared by half the American -- and perhaps the Canadian -- population.”

He added, “My speech was to be on the study of great books to which that college is devoted. The invitation was a surprise, and the rejection less of one, because I am a white male conservative professor. Though I teach at Harvard and lecture elsewhere fairly often, I don’t get invitations for occasions when universities put their principles on display. My last commencement address was for a private high school in rural California.”

An Invitation Revoked

Mark Russell, the college’s current principal, said in a statement that the faculty “acted in good faith when we originally invited Professor Mansfield.” But through “further discussions,” the college later recognized that choosing Mansfield as a speaker “was not the right match for the particular objective of this celebratory public event.”

Russell said that he personally invited Mansfield to give a keynote address on the relevance of great books in higher education, after the college’s entire faculty voted to endorse the idea put forth by a smaller search committee.

Mansfield is a well-known expert on Edmund Burke, Machiavelli and Tocqueville, and he’s put forth theories on executive power. But it’s his nonacademic work that has proved polarizing. He wrote a 2006 book, Manliness, and defended Lawrence Summers’s widely criticized 2005 comments about women's aptitude for quantitative fields.

Mansfield also has criticized affirmative action, linking it to grade inflation, and testified against gay marriage. Being gay doesn’t make for a life of “individual happiness,” for example, he said of anti-gay marriage legislation in Colorado in 1993.

Once the Liberal Arts College at Concordia announced its choice of speaker for the reunion, “a large number” of alumni reached out to faculty members to voice their concerns, Russell said. Many alumni stated that they would not attend the gala “because they objected to the views [Mansfield] has expressed publicly on women and homosexuals,” he added.

Professors within the college discussed the alumni concerns, and a majority ultimately decided that it was “best not to have Prof. Mansfield give the keynote address at the college’s reunion since it is intended to be a time of celebration and unity,” Russell said. Russell notified Mansfield of the change, tell him the initial invite was real but "precipitous."

This keynote was “not intended to be narrowly focused on Prof. Mansfield’s academic expertise on the works of Machiavelli and other political philosophers,” Russell said in his statement. “We would welcome him back for a scholarly discussion on the subjects of his research at any time.”

Russell emphasized that the gala is not canceled, as is rumored. Instead, it’s been postponed until the fall, he said.

Krantz -- one of two faculty members to vote against revoking the invite, of eight total -- said that “postponed” is merely “doublespeak,” and that the event has in fact been canceled.

In a separate statement to college alumni, Krantz -- along with Eric Buzzetti, another former college principal, and the president of program’s student alumni organization -- formally dissociated themselves from the disinvitation and reaffirmed their “commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of thought” at the college.

Saying that they neither endorse nor condemn Mansfield’s “views on aspects of feminism,” Krantz and his co-writers said, “It is wrong to silence a scholar because we happen to dislike, or to disagree with, what he has to say.”

A university “loses its purpose when freedom of speech becomes a dispensable luxury,” they wrote. “With this unfortunate decision, the [college] took a step down a path that has become all too well trodden, and in the process ignored its high heritage.”

Krantz’s statement cites a letter from 12 recent alumni opposing Mansfield. He said Thursday that he’s received feedback from numerous alumni and students, with “10 to one” against disinvitation.

‘Guilty’ of Being Conservative

Mansfield on Thursday “passed” on describing his current views on gender and gay marriage other than to say he’s “guilty” of holding conservative positions.

He discusses gender at some length in his op-ed, however, saying that “When I die I wish it said that I gave my best to my female students.” But the “new doctrine of feminism in which women are essentially the same as men, except that women have all virtues but no characteristic defects and men have no virtues and terrible defects, has little appeal to me either as fact or right.”

Feminism “is not so much an attack on ‘toxic masculinity’ as on feminine modesty, the ‘feminine mystique’ of Betty Friedan’s devising,” he wrote. “To feminists, modesty diminishes women’s power and keeps them dependent on men. Yet it is to be replaced by the notion of a ‘safe space’ that will protect women and liberate them from the need to defend themselves in the hostile environment presupposed by the so-called virtue of modesty.”

A moment’s reflection “suggests a certain resemblance between the old-time feminine modesty and the newfangled safe space,” he added. “In both, women are dependent on men to defend them -- whether they are old-school gentlemen or sensitive men like Mr. Russell.”

Scholars including Martha Nussbaum have previously accused Mansfield of misunderstanding feminism, and his most recent comments probably won’t vindicate him to his critics. But most of all, Mansfield contends the disinvitation is about free speech. The principle is “diminished by the view that seizes on the power of speech to manipulate and denies its power to enlighten,” he wrote.

Mansfield told Inside Higher Ed that the incident “shows a great deal wrong with campus speech, especially with the attitude of the faculty.” Professors are the “keepers as well as the beneficiaries of the freedom of universities, and for the faculty to surrender to the pressure of aggressively intolerant alumni is a disgrace.”

“It’s just as bad, perhaps worse, if the faculty share their intolerance,” he added.

Asked about students at Harvard, Mansfield said some “of course take issue with my conservative views, but so far they haven’t attempted to silence me.”

One student leader in the Occupy Harvard movement once declared that Mansfield should be fired on the grounds that academic freedom is subordinate to social justice, Mansfield said. But “mostly students lack a sense of adventure and just stay away from my courses.”

Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, said that she wouldn’t have personally invited Mansfield to talk, because he is “more like a provocateur than like a serious thinker.” But others “could reasonably disagree, and I can imagine a vigorous debate that could ensue if he did speak.”

As to disinviting him, Nussbaum said didn’t know enough about the initial terms of his visit to comment. On the broader campus speech debate, however, she said that when a person with “objectionable views speaks, unless advocating violence, the person should be heard and not shouted down.” Silent, peaceful protest, such as standing with signs, is always fine, she added, as is “civil counterargument.”

Concordia referred questions to Russell.

Edward King, an associate professor of political science at the university who is not part of the Liberal Arts College, said that disinviting speakers to an institution whose “raison d'être is to offer its students challenging, provocative and disturbing material for consideration in the marketplace of ideas is a chilling and counterproductive action.”

When an institution “like ours allows the student tail to wag the academic dog simply in order not to have their settled presumptions to be challenged,” King added, “our role as a free and open forum for political expression is over and we should turn out the lights and shut the doors.”

Travis Smith, another associate professor of political science at Concordia, said it seemed that liberal arts professors “apparently forgot, temporarily, I’m sure, what it means to be a professor of the liberal arts.” That’s “disappointing and embarrassing,” he said, “but at least this wasn’t one of those cases where an administrator intervened in an illiberal fashion.”

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