More on Intolerance

March 25, 2011

Yesterday and today we’ve been having a thick discussion on the Faculty listserv around the interruption of Charles Murray’s lecture at Earlham on Wednesday night.  A good deal of the discussion has focused on the question of whether he should have been invited at all.  Earlier this afternoon I contributed the following:

Since I am the person who invited Charles Murray to speak at Earlham, but also (for a few more weeks) the person who is most often asked to justify Earlham to external critics, I want to add a few thoughts on the discussion we are having.  Let me organize these under headings of (a) governance, (b) mission, (c) academic freedom, and (d) money.

Here, by the way, is the invitation I extended to Charles Murray just after the November national election:  “While I leave the choice of a topic to you, I suggest you speak about the matters you addressed in “The Happiness of People,” which I now assign and discuss in the public policy course I teach each fall.  You may also want to touch on the future direction of U.S. domestic policy, especially regarding entitlements, in the wake of this week’s election.”

Governance.  With regard to events, what are the answers to my two favorite questions: whose decision is it to make?  And through what process?  Our Events Policy answers these.  …. The policy makes it clear that we make decisions about speakers in a very decentralized manner.  We don’t have one central process.  Any department or recognized student organization can invite a speaker: they serve as sponsor and as much must provide the funds and see that the event conforms to other college policy and practice.

This allows a wide range of speakers to be invited; we do not need to seek one another’s permission or approval.  Yes, it gives rise to invitations of speakers that some might wish hadn’t been invited.  But I’d rather we erred on the side of bringing too many controversial speakers rather than too few.

Note that normally the College as a whole is not the sponsor of a speaker, and an invitation to speak at Earlham does not bespeak approval by the College of the speaker’s views.  That’s part of the point of having a decentralized process.  We do have an Events Committee that can extend invitations on behalf of the College as a whole.  I have regularly urged them to invite more conservative speakers, but over the past four or five years they have not invited any.  (Ann Coulter was an invitee of the Events Committee, and so was Michelle Easton of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, but those events go back six or seven years.)

No one is compelled to hear any speaker on the campus.  Once some department or group invites a speaker, each of us is free to dissent, to celebrate, to protest.  But we must not have a smidge of doubt that disruption or silencing is ever appropriate.

Mission/Purpose.  The Events Policy says this about the mission-related purpose of having events:  “Events are special opportunities that serve the mission of Earlham College by extending and enriching the opportunities provided by our curriculum and campus-organized activities, generally by inviting visitors to speak or perform on campus.”   Events bring speakers who can add to and complement what already happens on campus.

Academic Freedom. On many occasions (more than most of you may realize) we hear complaints about speakers or other events we (remember, a distributed ‘we’) hold.  Those complaints come from neighbors, from alumni, from interested parties.  I currently have a letter to which I need to respond from the Anti-Defamation League objecting to a future event, about which they may be misinformed.  I’ve defended performance of the Vagina Monologues to many external critics, a performance by sex workers, a speech by the leader of the New Black Panther Party.  Etc.

I am happy to do this.  It is my job to stand up for the college: to justify that we are right in who we do and do not invite, in who we do and do not sponsor.  I stand up for academic freedom, for being open to hear all serious intellectual viewpoints.  Generally, those complaints object that we bring speakers only from the left.  The most pointed and stinging ones come from alumni.

In general, I respond to these by noting that we do indeed invite a range of speakers, from across the political spectrum (even though in truth I know we bring many more from the left side).  And I respond by noting that the College itself invites hardly any speakers, that we have a decentralized process.  I encourage them to suggest speakers.  When time has passed and I note that we have not brought any significant conservative speakers to campus in a long while, I extend an invitation.  Hence Bill Kristol.  Hence Charles Fried.  Hence Juan Williams.  Hence Charles Murray.  These are four speakers I wanted to hear, and speakers whose work I had assigned in my public policy course.

It is more than a little embarrassing to me to have been the only person inviting conservative speakers over the past few years.  And now to be criticized for inviting this one or that one is, frankly, wounding.  Would you rather I hadn’t?  Would you rather have had me write back to the college’s critics (many of them good friends of ours) and tell them that they’re right, that the college is only interested in hearing speakers from the left?  Would you rather we had no defense against the accusation that we fail to have any balance to our campus discussions?  (Recollect here what some of our colleagues are saying to us about students feeling silenced.  I certainly can testify that many students tell me feel that way.)

Another aspect of my justification of the college to its critics is to say, clearly that we do not and will not use political criteria in admitting students or hiring faculty.  That would be a violation of academic freedom.  But once we have a campus community whose views incline significantly to the left (as we do), how do we prevent an unbalanced conversation?  My answer is that we need to supplement the voices on campus with speakers that extend the range of views heard regularly on campus.

Money.  Why should money come into this?  Perhaps governance, mission and academic freedom are all that we should consider.  But it already has come up in the suggestion in this on-line discussion that conservative speakers don’t deserve our stage because they are supported by too much money already, and by the suggestion that such conservative scholars’ work may lack integrity for having been supported by business interests.

I would remind us that we, too, are an institution supported by philanthropic contributions.  Each faculty member who reads this receives some of his/her salary from money contributed to the college.  We cannot claim ourselves to be innocent of money.  Indeed I believe we all wish we had more of it.

Of all the reasons I know why alumni with resources do not make gifts they could to the college, I would say the most common is that they suspect the college of having a standing prejudice against their (conservative) way of thinking.  They believe they came to their ways of thinking through being educated at Earlham, but today (they say) they see a college that does not value their point of view – indeed a college that appears to have contempt for their social and political views.  I try to dissuade them.  I try to persuade them that we are a place of fairness, balance, listening, respect.  Wednesday evening’s actions make persuasion difficult.

I would not for an instant suggest that we should invite speakers just to please donors.  The letters I write back to critics are often to potential donors, and my responses rarely say to them all that they want to hear.  I speak to them of the unfettered pursuit of truth, not of the promotion of this or that view.  The point rather is that we, as Earlham, have to stand in a place of integrity.  We say we are a place prepared to hear all points of view, to listen respectfully.  (I don’t see any asterisks in “Principles and Practices.”)  And yet we (Earlham) invite very, very few conservatives.  And when we do, they are the ones whose speech is disrupted.  (Remember Bill Kristol.)  And they are the ones about whom it is ever said, we shouldn’t have invited him.

Are we standing up for all that we want Earlham to be?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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8 Responses to More on Intolerance

  1. Joe says:

    It saddens me to have heard of this “protest.” But it was undoubtedly perpetrated by idealistic young people who will find more productive ways to channel their emotions as they move into the real world where they have real power. What saddens me more is that any faculty would even consider voicing support for it. I value the education I received at Earlham very much, but the community there is culturally elitist and academically intolerant. That’s a terrible thing for a supposed institution of learning to be.

  2. Pingback: On Academic Freedom — A Response | The Observatory

  3. vanderleun says:

    You start bouncing the morons that do this sort of thing out the door and, if you are consistent and courageous about it, it will — in time — cease. Absent that, get used to thugs running your “life of the mind.”

  4. Luke Lea says:

    What happened was disgraceful, your reaction admirable. I have seen similar things happen on other liberal arts campuses. Might I suggest these issues be addressed during Freshman Orientation.

  5. Bill says:

    Mr. Bennett,

    I despise US higher education, and won’t send my kids to college unless it is necessary for a career for which they have some demonstrated aptitude (e.g. medicine, engineering, law). To be quite honest, I think it is counterproductive to young people’s moral and civic development at this point.

    However, I am touched by your defense of speech, as futile as it may be. If I were you, I’d just give up and let it all go to hell, but perhaps as an older man who personally witnessed better times you still have some hope.

    Best of luck.

    -A Father

  6. Jason says:

    Campuses are tolerating and students are committing censorship plan and simple. It’s very sad. Where are the mandatory “diversity” seminars for this sort of intolerance?

  7. John Wheelock says:

    Mr. Bennet,

    I was very pleased to read your thoughtful post and to see a commitment to academic freedom. Very few colleges take this point of view these days, and I commend you for it. Well done, sir.

    P.S. Charles Murry is a genuine intellectual and a brilliant man. He is extremely considered, knowledgeable, and writes in a style that appeals to intellectually curious people. He is not a partisan or polemecist. Great choice.

  8. Another Professor says:

    Thank your for your defense of meaningful academic freedom. As a professor who also happens to be “conservative,” I can say with all sincerity that conservative intellectuals should be brought into the fold. They have much to offer and may help provide insight and balance to an institution that is in need of correction. We have liberals, progressives, Marxists, feminists, separatists and every other political orientation on campus–but somehow conservatives remain on the outside. Jonathan Haidt’s recent comments concerning the leftist tilt on American campuses was spot on.

    Nonetheless, thank you for standing up for the values that make for a great university.

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