Via Eugene Volokh, I see that 70 professors have written a letter attacking Columbia President Lee Bollinger. They're upset about a number of issues. I don't want to bury the lede hear, so let me start by saying they are full of shit.
Let's see where they start:
We speak for a growing number of faculty members at Columbia University who believe that President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the university is founded, especially academic freedom.
OK. So far so good. Is Bollinger firing you for speaking your mind? Are brave professors being shipped to gulags, metaphorical or otherwise?
Academic freedom lies at the heart of what we do as faculty members: teach, generate new knowledge, and sustain the critical capacities of the society at large.
OK. Getting a little self-important on the last bit — I'm pretty sure I can sustain my critical capacities without a Columbia literature professor arguing how Caliban is a metaphor for pre-industrial harmony — but still with you. Yes, yes, you're very important to society. Very. Please go on.
It encompasses, among other values, the autonomy of the University in the face of outside threats and pressures, a determining role for faculty in the governance of the University and especially in the shaping of its research and teaching programs, the insulation of tenure and promotion decisions from outside interests, and the creation of an environment that enables the fullest and freest exchange of ideas.
In other words, it encompasses pretty much anything you want. It encompasses being able to nail our teaching assistants! It encompasses replacing that musty couch in the feminist studies lounge! It encompasses being strongly for stem cell research! How exactly does academic freedom necessary mean that faculty has a "determining" role in governance?
Now, what are their gripes?
1) In the face of considerable efforts by outside groups over the past few years to vilify members of the faculty and determine how controversial issues are taught on campus, the administration has failed to make unequivocally clear that such interventions will not be tolerated. When outside groups attempted to sway tenure decisions, the President of Barnard issued a forthright statement rejecting such efforts; the President of Columbia has failed to do so.
In other words, "mean bloggers are making fun of us! Halp us Preznident Lee, Halp us!" Oh, for God's sake. Yes, people pissed and moaned at Columbia when it allowed a pack of thugs to rush the stage when that Minuteman spoke, and people pissed and moaned when Ahhmadinejad spoke, and people piss and moan over Columbia's questionable approach to Middle East issues. So? Do you have proof that the University's governing entities have made tenure decisions or governance decisions based on outside criticism? Do you even have examples of what you expect? If not, do us and your image a favor, and walk it the fuck off. Engaging the bloggers and op-ed writers only legitimizes and encourages them . Precisely what benefit do you expect from Lee Bollinger coming out and saying "We strongly condemn the hideous attack on academic freedom from a blog called 'My Pet Jawa'"? And by the way, do you have any idea how inane and hypocritical you sound when your first point in a screed about academic freedom is a petulance that no one defends you when other people exercise freedom of speech to attack you?
Academic freedom does not mean you get to be above criticism and ridicule, even unfair or politically motivated criticism and ridicule. The University is not your bigger, meaner friend on a third grade playground. If Columbia hasn't actually done something to you in response to outside pressure, don't expect any sympathy.
3) The president's address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad's visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president's introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration's war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.
Now, there are plenty of colorable arguments that Bollinger should have introduced Ahmadinejad politely and then sat quietly with his hands folded while Big A explained how there are no gays in Iran. Those are arguments about etiquette. They have nothing to do with academic freedom. In fact, academic freedom is enhanced when a university not only feels free to invite a controversial speaker, but to speak freely about that speaker's views without concern for less important issues like perceived rudeness. Ahmadinejad is a tyrant. The proposition that academic freedom requires one to refrain from denouncing a tyrant, even a tyrant in one's own house, is laughable. Let me make this clear: the only people with whom Columbia University's reputation has been sullied by Bollinger's strong introduction are people like you — people hermetically sealed from anything approaching meaningful debate. And no one outside your echo chamber cares much about it.
And, by the way, can you explain how academic freedom is threatened when someone at the University takes a position that someone else at the University finds to be "anathama?" Can you explain whether you really mean that opposition to Iran's dictator really means support of Bush? If I believe that there might be one or two guys in Iran that secretly like show tunes, does that mean I must be a Bush supporter?
Also, since rudeness to speakers is such a breach of academic freedom, can you please send a copy of your prior denunciations of the student disruption of that Minuteman speech? You did denounce that, right? Right?
4) In the name of the University, the president has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East in particular, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area. His conflation of his own political position with that of the University is unacceptable.
It was at this point that I began to look around suspiciously to determine whether Volokh might be punking me by posting a parody of a letter from Columbia professors. Of all the whines in the letter, "we're subject matter experts and you didn't consult us before discussing a political topic" is the most embarrassing. Really, I expect to hear this sort of thing from my six year old when I choose pizza over Mexican, but not from academics.
Expect an update when they react with teary outrage to the rain of ridicule they will experience.
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