Friday, February 20, 2004

More on the St. Olaf Nobel conference 

Thanks to a reader, we have received a series of letters between the St. Olaf Student Committee for Intellectual Diversity and its administration regarding the Nobel Conference. The students have tried as best they can to get a speaker on the conference schedule that would discuss whether appeasement is always preferable to confrontation in prolonging peace. They first tried to persuade the program committee to change its decision.
In fact, the American electorate has consistently reaffirmed the position of preserving peace through military strength and preparedness throughout the 20th century. Consider our involvement in the Second World War and the Cold War. Every president from FDR to the end of the Cold War has adopted this position, as has our current President and Congress in the war on terror. In sum, it is completely inappropriate to have a conference on peace that includes 40 speakers and yet completely ignores the position that has dominated American foreign policy thinking over the last 60 years. Such a conference cannot really be relevant to student decision-making, because it totally omits a vital - indeed the dominant - perspective.
But the committee was not persuaded.
It would be inappropriate for me to discuss specifically the reasons for accepting or rejecting any particular seminar. But I can tell you more about the review process our selection committee used, and the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize perspective that guided us.

...we sought seminars that focus on contemporary grassroots peacemaking and the underlying social conditions that give rise to conflict in the world today. Each year the Peace Prize Forum also gives preference to proposals from the students, staff and faculty of the five sponsoring colleges, other things being equal...

They then proceed to list Nobel Peace Prize winners. Yasser Arafat was a notable omission. The committee concluded that they had no obligation to invite people from the other side. In a sense that is true: It's their conference, and they can invite who they want. But among people who often call for diversity, we yet again have a case where the very diversity that would invigorate debate is stifled.

Undaunted, the students took their case to the president. The Nobel conference, they argue, is part of a continuing pattern:

In the span of a year, St. Olaf has hosted conferences such as the Globalization and Social Responsibility Conference (February 2003), portions of which many professors required students to attend, and the Knutson Conference on Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Church (April 2003). Both of these conferences like the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, were highly one-sided in nature. As students frustrated with the lack of intellectual dialogue permitted on this campus, we ask the college to cease its sponsorship of such biased forums. We also call upon the college regents to sponsor a special forum to address the critical need for a renewed commitment to intellectual diversity at St. Olaf.
I don't know that they meant to stop sponsorship; I hope not. I would not oppose the statements made by those I disagree with as long as the viewpoints I wish to offer are given equal opportunity to be heard. But I think they are frustrated with the lack of concern for balance in the viewpoints of their speakers. President Thomforde responded with a rather pompous tone (though I envy his ability to work in the word "undergird" twice in the same letter.) He quotes from a speech he gave thus:
St. Olaf College can serve the Church, and through the Church the world, by issuing an invitation to men and women of faith and to men and women who long to believe to come to the campus in order to reflect upon the questions of the day, to speak forthrightly with one another, to listen attentively to each other, and to seek the way of the Spirit together. The point in gathering together will be to reflect, to speak, to listen, and to seek but not to pronounce, to attack, and to discredit.
But, the students may rightly ask, has not the Nobel conference committee pronounced on the content of the views offered by Mr. Johnson? So the question is: Should a campus-wide conference on peace be content-neutral? Not if it can -- we all agree that it violates no law -- but should it? If you think the president of your school has made a mistake answering that question, where else do you go but the Board of Regents? So they did.
We were puzzled that Pres. Thomforde praised the forum on grounds that St. Olaf should be a place for �debate of those subjects that are of greatest concern to our nation and the world.� (The college, Dr. Thomforde said, should offer �a public place� for �informed and purposeful conversation,� where students and faculty can �reflect upon the questions of the day.�) In fact, our letter made clear that we object to the forum precisely because it is not a debate or dialogue...
I don't find myself shocked and outraged by this behavior any more, because it is happening at universities around the country. Again, I respect the right of St. Olaf's administration and faculty to create the programs that best fit its mission. Preaching peace is certainly a mission befitting a Lutheran college. You can even argue that preaching pacifism fits if you wish -- I disagree as a fellow Lutheran, but I can see how one can arrive at that position. What is disturbing is the rather callous manner in which the Committee for Intellectual Diversity has been treated. If one wished to educate why pacifism works, even if you think putting them on the Nobel program diminishes that program's educational mission, then I would think you would create a separate forum for these other views. Instead, alternative views are shoved into a dorm lounge.

UPDATE: I'm told there was a meeting between the students and the Board of Regents. Details to come next week. Drudge-developing...