The behavior of Brandeis’ administration in withdrawing its honorary degree invitation from Hirsi Ali has drawn a great many accusations of cowardice. The word “craven” (which I used yesterday) comes to mind, and not just to my mind. Witness Bill Kristol, who has called the action a “craven capitulation” and pointed out that, in the recent past, Brandeis has had no trouble awarding honorary degrees to people such as Tony Kushner who’ve accused Israel of being guilty of ethnic cleansing and of causing “terrible peril in the world.”
Then there’s John Podhoretz, who in his Commentary piece eschews “craven” as a description of Brandeis’ president Fred Lawrence, preferring “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”
But academic cowardice is nothing new in the face of threats from special interest groups the university either wants to placate or is afraid of, or both. Profiles in courage in academia have been few and far between, and principles? They’re malleable, mutable, and flexible enough to fit the practical necessities of pandering to the favored interest group du jour.
Which brings us to a little history lesson from the 60s, the epicenter of much that’s bad in academia, when trends that had been building for decades came to unfortunate fruition.
In previous posts of mine about Allan Bloom’s highly-recommended book The Closing of the American Mind, I’ve mentioned that one of the most riveting parts of the book is when Bloom describes the moral collapse of the faculty and administration of so many universities during the 60s, their abject and craven failure to defend their own principles, and their eager willingness to cave to threats and intimidation. I decided to publish a longish excerpt illustrating all of this, to whet your appetite for the book if you haven’t yet read it.
In the following excerpt Bloom is describing an incident that occurred when he was a faculty member at Cornell during the late 60s, when black militants with guns occupied a campus building and made demands. Bloom had gone to the university provost to speak up for a black student of his (unnamed in the book, but actually Alan Keyes—who happens, in a strange twist of fate, to have been the person Barack Obama soundly defeated in his 2004 US Senate race, when Keyes was put on the Republican ballot as a hasty substitute for Jack Ryan). Keyes had earlier been threatened by a black professor at Cornell for refusing to take part in a demonstration. Here’s what Bloom says transpired [emphasis mine]:
The provost was a former natural scientist, and he greeted me with a mournful countenance. He, of course, fully sympathized with the young man’s [Keyes’] plight. However, things were bad, and there was nothing he could do to stop such behavior in the black student association…He added that no university in the country could expel radical black students, or dismiss the faculty members who incited them, presumably because the students at large would not permit it.
…The provost had a mixture of cowardice and moralism not uncommon at the time. He did not want trouble. His president had frequently cited Clark Kerr’s dismissal at the University of California as the great danger…At the same time the provost thought he was engaged in a great moral work, righting the historic injustice done to blacks. He could justify to himself the humiliation he was undergoing as a necessary sacrifice. The case of this particular black student clearly bothered him. But he was both more frightened of the violence-threatening extremists and also more admiring of them. Obvious questions were no longer obvious. Why could not a black student be expelled as a white student would be if he failed his courses or disobeyed the rules that make university community possible? Why could the president not call the police if order was threatened? Any man of weight would have fired the professor who threatened the life of the student. The issue was not complicated. Only the casuistry of weakness and ideology made it so…No one who knew or cared about what a university is would have acquiesced in this travesty. It was no surprise that a few weeks later—immediately after the faculty had voted overwhelmingly under the gun to capitulate to outrageous demands that it had a few days earlier rejected—the leading members of the administration and many well-known faculty members rushed over to congratulate the gathered students and tried to win their approval. I saw exposed before all the world what had long been known, and it was at last possible without impropriety to tell these pseudo-universitarians precisely what one thought of them.
It was also no surprise that many of those professors who had been most eloquent in their sermons about the sanctity of the university, and who had presented themselves as its consciences, were among those who reacted, if not favorably, at least weakly to what was happening. They had made careers out of saying how badly the German professors [during the Nazi era] had reacted to violations of academic freedom. This was all light talk and mock heroics, because they had not measured the potential threats to the university nor assessed the doubtful grounds of academic freedom. Above all, they did not think that it could be assaulted from the Left or from within the university…These American professors were utterly disarmed, as were many German professors, when the constituency they took for granted, of which they honestly believed they were independent, deserted or turned against them…To fulminate against Bible Belt preachers was one thing. In the world that counted for these professors, this could only bring approval. But to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them. They were not in general strong men, although their easy rhetoric had persuaded them that they were—that they alone manned the walls protecting civilization. Their collapse was merely pitiful, although their feeble attempts at self-justification frequently turned vicious. In Germany the professors who kept quiet had the very good excuse that they could not do otherwise. Speaking up would have meant imprisonment or death. The law not only did not protect them but was their deadly enemy. At Cornell there was no such danger…There was essentially no risk in defending the integrity of the university, because the danger was entirely within it. All that was lacking was a professorial corps aware of the university’s purpose, and dedicated to it. That is what made the surrender so contemptible.
I’ll stop there, somewhat arbitrarily, because I could go on and on. Bloom himself goes on to discuss the curriculum “reforms” that gutted the universities; we all know where they have led.
Bloom resigned from Cornell and went on to teach at various other illustrious universities, ending his career with a lengthy stint at the University of Chicago. We know what happened to Keyes, who also left Cornell at about the same time (and went on to study at Harvard, becoming Bill Kristol’s roommate). And another professor at Cornell at the time, the brilliant Thomas Sowell (who apparently was the only black professor there when he was hired in 1965), has written his own account of the 1969 demonstration, entitled “The Day Cornell Died.”