Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Never wrestle with a pig 

I confess to be a little troubled by the Columbia University invitation to speak extended to Iranian President Ahmadinejad. If you invite an outside speaker to campus it is because there is an educational value for your students provided by the speaker. Columbia could make such a decision, and if so it should stand by it. I waited to speak until now because I wanted to see if Columbia could find a way to show the educational value derived from the invitation. It did not.

The American Association of University Professors has a statement about outside speakers, and this morning its president Cary Nelson sent an email to the membership.

What happens if taxpaying citizens, state politicians, or important donors demand that the president cancel a planned speech? University presidents, who have many constituencies to please, may find this a difficult situation. Matters can become very complicated if different groups make contradictory demands. Satisfying one group may offend another. That difficulty can be avoided if a president does the right thing by defending academic freedom and the university�s unique role as a place for ideas to flourish and to be exchanged. A president is not responsible for defending a speaker who has been properly invited by an authorized student, faculty, or employee group. Authorizing these groups to invite outside speakers that are of interest to them is an important way to sustain a vibrant campus intellectual life. Such a practice can be supported by all campus constituencies.

This reasoning holds true even when virtually everyone disagrees with an invited speaker. Students might at one time have invited an American Nazi Party representative to speak. The invitation might have sought to give the campus direct experience of a position all considered abhorrent. Once again, we should not assume that invitations represent endorsements. We should also give some credit to our student audiences. They do not need to be protected from outlandish ideas. They do not believe everything they hear, and they are on campus to learn to think critically.

Revulsion at ideas or fear of them is understandable, but ideas are best answered with thought and conversation, not with censorship. That is nowhere more true than at a college or university.
What I found very disturbing was Columbia President Bollinger's introduction of Ahmadinejad. This was not thoughtful nor was it conversation. It was moralizing at its most crass; it spoke volumes about Bollinger's conviction of his own decision to invite Ahmadinejad and not a bit about the Iranian president. The braver thing to do would have been to let the Iranian president speak first and then respond, being prepared to counter whatever was said. Had Bollinger any faith in the quality of the education Columbia's students were getting, he could have relied on them to ask good tough questions, and to have a context for real conversation. Alas, there was no conversation and by the liveblog done by the Columbia Spectator, no real engagement. Perhaps he knew the students were not prepared.

Bollinger instead demeaned his own reputation. He stooped to Ahmadinejad's level. He displayed, as Hugh Hewitt said so well yesterday, "cluelessness combined with epic self-importance." He wrestled with a pig, and the dirt on his career will not wash off.

UPDATE: I read Bret Stephens over lunch. I think it arrogant of anyone to think that bringing Ahmadinejad or Hitler or anyone else to campus would be edifying for the tyrant. But that's not the university's goal. Its goal is to educate the student, for the student to look pure evil in the face and recognize the soft words behind which it hides. Chiding or admonishing Ahmadinejad, as Bollinger tried to do, only makes the university appear the fool.