Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cowardice in the academy

We are well along in "disinvitation season," during which universities appease protesters by pressuring controversial speakers to withdraw. This year's embarrassments began with Brandeis withdrawing its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Brandeis students and faculty objected to Ms. Ali, who, having been mutilated as a girl by a Muslim in the name of Islam, and repeatedly threatened with death by Muslims in the name of Islam, has been found to have made "statements that are critical of Islam." Then Condoleezza Rice, quite possibly the most historically consequential African-American woman of her generation, if not of all time, declined to speak at Rutgers after its students and faculty accused her of war crimes.

Just when we were about to believe that the pressure groups were focused on women of African descent who are to the right of Jane Fonda, Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, "backed out of speaking at Haverford College’s commencement scheduled for Sunday, following concerns expressed by Haverford students and several professors over his leadership during a 2011 incident when UC police used force on students protesting college costs." Actually, Chancellor Birgeneau's sin was doing his job, which was to prevent the Occupy people from disrupting the actual mission of the university. Hayakawa nods.

Finally, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde is out at Smith College, apparently because students and faculty signed a petition "objecting to the policies of the IMF."

The title of this post is "Cowardice in the academy," which is manifest, but who in these cases are the cowards? The administration of Brandeis, the only one of the universities actually to withdraw its invitation in public, was certainly afraid of something. The question is only whether the object of its fear was the disapproval of politically correct faculty and students, or the prospect of violent retaliation by Islamic terrorists. Both seem plausible, and we suspect both factored in to Brandeis' thinking when Ms. Ali, who is definitely not a coward, refused to let Brandeis off the hook by withdrawing on her own.

In the other cases, the public claim is that Rice, Birgeneau, and Lagarde all withdrew because of protests, not because Rutgers, Haverford, and Smith "disinvited" them. One might conclude that the three speakers are the cowards in the play. After all, it is they who pulled the plug. But more likely these speakers withdrew because they simply do not want to be bothered. Unlike Ali, they are not activists, and are no longer trying to gain publicity for a cause or a policy objective. They are impressively successful people in their own right, and do not need to spend a spring morning getting heckled and accused of criminality, especially by the very people they have been invited to celebrate.

No, the real cowards in these situations are the students and faculty who cannot stand to have their sensibilities ruffled, even on the slight chance that they might benefit from listening to somebody who has accomplished far more than the vast majority of the petitioners and protesters can ever hope to do. They would rather score cheap points and a little publicity in "solidarity" with Berkeley student demonstrators, 2012 edition. (Is there anything more banal than "student demonstrators" at Berkeley? Well, maybe a French general strike, but there you have it.)

Anyway, the question now presents: Who in her right mind would entertain an invitation to speak at the commencement of an elite American university? Only somebody who has never made an actually consequential decision, as Rice, Birgeneau, and Lagarde all have done. That leaves the job of inspiring the future leaders of our country to the most anodyne gum-flappers in the chattering class, a result that elevates professional talkers over the leaders and executives who actually drive change.

How can that possibly be good news for our posterity?


Tubby said...

I would like to see Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Twitter holding one of those banal "get our girls back" sign except hers would read, "Any Questions?"

"The Hammer" said...

These are good examples of Stalinist tactics at work. Disrupt, shout, shut everything down, gum up the works and make everything so chaotic and dysfunctional people will beg for "order". That's why you can't give these people an inch. I am quite sure there are faculty members and students, most likely the majority, who disagree strongly with the cowardice of these decisions but are afraid to speak up. Which brings me to the most important tactic of Stalinists, intimidation.

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