Monsters With Constituencies
Recent incidents with controversial campus speakers illustrate exactly why colleges must be open to such voices, writes Cary Nelson.
Over 40 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Antioch College, the student government sent out a large number of letters to controversial or accomplished Americans and invited them to talk on campus. One who accepted was George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell asked if he could bring 20 of his storm troopers with him, but permission was refused. So he asked if he could hold a news conference on campus; that request was turned down as well. He would be picked up at the airport, driven to the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus to give his talk, and returned.
Although Antioch may not be anyone's image of a disciplined campus, the 500 students and faculty in the auditorium that day in 1964 were well disciplined indeed. They sat in absolute silence throughout the talk. When the question period came, no one raised a hand. Instead, everyone rose and exited, again in silence. So Rockwell began to curse us all. Still no one reacted. Eventually he gave up and left.
There was, quite understandably, no anxiety before or afterward that these impressionable college students might be persuaded by the talk. It was a chance to see firsthand a monster with a constituency, albeit a relatively small one. College audiences have special reason to see such people in the flesh, so as to try to understand how they might draw people to their cause. Monsters, as it happens, also have a way of showing their true colors, as Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did at Columbia University. His ludicrous assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran did more to discredit him as a competent leader than almost anything one might say about him.
The notion of a monster with a constituency affords at least some opportunity to avoid emptying all prison systems and hospitals for the criminally insane in search of campus speakers. It suggests instead that students who want to understand their culture might benefit from exposure to both its angels and its devils, along with those not so readily classifiable. What one learns can be surprising. What I learned in 1964 was to value the power of silent, nonviolent witness; that, and the special experience of sharing a moral conviction with hundreds of other people.
Of course some whom the public come to consider monstrous may not be so. The media and political groups can combine forces to create monsters where none are to be found. Then it is best for students and faculty to find out for themselves. High on my list of current faux monsters would be Ward Churchill and William Ayers.
Many faculty and students across the country expect Churchill to be a relentless ideologue. If you spend time with him, as I have, you meet a rather low-key, affable fellow, who wears his trials surprisingly lightly. Ayers, billed as an unrepentant radical, is an accomplished education professor who talks about classrooms and books, not bombs. Yet talks by both have repeatedly been canceled, thereby denying our students the chance to form opinions based on direct experience.
The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia's president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.
But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge -- students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target. Once Hamilton College canceled Churchill and the University of Nebraska canceled Ayers, the playing field was open to all comers. Then state legislators could pressure the University of Oklahoma to cancel a talk by biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because the man treats evolution as an established fact. Oklahoma stood its ground, perhaps realizing it would be shamed for generations had it canceled the talk.
The most unwelcome trigger may be a donor¹s threat to withdraw a gift. No administrator likes to knuckle under to extortion. But that is not the most efficient way to get a speech canceled in any case. The new weapon of choice is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking "security" concerns, as Boston College did in canceling an Ayers talk. It is the ultimate heckler's veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.
We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains in America. Boston College tried lamely to say the decision was purely an internal matter, but press coverage appropriately turns each of these incidents into a national test of an institution's values and commitments. Each institution's decision about whether to show courage or cowardice helps set a pattern, strengthening or weakening academic freedom everywhere. Thus we all benefited when Pennsylvania's Millersville University resisted legislative pressure and held an Ayers lecture as planned.
And we are all diminished by Boston College's incoherent performance. Because the consequences of these decisions are considerable, the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself -- not the students or faculty who issued the invitation -- cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors.
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