October 02, 2007

Columbia and "the Vexed Issues of the Day"

by PG

Stanley Fish joins the chorus of those condemning CU president Bollinger's negative introduction of Iranian president Ahmadinejad, though he departs from the usual complaint that Bollinger acted as a bad host in insulting his guest. Instead, Fish argues that Bollinger acted as a bad university president. While I don't know enough about the delineations of roles among various university employees to contest whether Fish is correct to say this, he made two claims with which I do disagree:

1) The Larry Summers comparison. "But a university president doesnít have the luxury of choosing whether to speak as a citizen or as a faculty member or as an administrator. Everything he or she says is received as the utterance of the universityís leader, and can be the basis of disciplinary action on the part of regents or trustees. (Think of Larry Summers, who ran into trouble at Harvard not because of the content of what he said, but because of the controversies his words provoked; itís not part of a university presidentís duties to provoke controversy.)"

The specific problem created by Larry Summers's remarks on women's possibly genetic difficulty with high achievement in math and science was that it was felt by some female faculty and students as demeaning and demoralizing. The very people who worked and learned under Summers's leadership were negatively affected, even though the effect was unintended. Perhaps these women were oversensitive and failed to appreciate the context of Summers's statement, but they nonetheless were a constituency that could and did raise a racket. In contrast, Ahmadinejad's hurt feelings aren't something Bollinger has to care about. Ahmadinejad has no relationship with Columbia University beyond his single visit -- he is not a student, employee, alumnus or donor. If he is made to feel unwelcome at Columbia, that may be bad hosting, but it's not bad university leadership.

2) Relatedly, Fish states, "But Columbia does not, or at least should not, stand anywhere on the vexed issues of the day, and neither should its chief executive, at least publicly." This is both factually and normatively wrong. Columbia does take a stance on controversial issues, perhaps most notably in its refusal to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Admittedly its early position has now been caught up to by bodies that regulate it, such as the ABA's requirement that its law school not discriminate, and New York's state and city anti-discrimination law. But it has gone beyond those requirement to stand against recruiters and employers who discriminate as well. I do not know Columbia's history on disinvestment in South Africa, but my own alma mater removed its endowment funds in order to take a stance against apartheid when that was a vexed issue.

I believe that Columbia should take a stance on certain issues -- not by declaring dissent from the University's position to be forbidden, but having an institutional commitment that nonetheless accommodates debate. For example, though the University has a very broad antidiscrimination policy, it also states, "Nothing in these policies shall abridge academic freedom or the Universityís educational mission. Prohibitions against discrimination and harassment do not extend to statements or written materials that are germane to classroom subject matter." As long as students and faculty do not feel chilled from expressing their disagreement with the University's stances, I see no reason for the University to withdraw itself from issues thate are fundamental to the well-being of its constituents. Discrimination in the employment of their students is one such issue; the imprisonment of their alumni is another.

October 2, 2007 02:22 PM | TrackBack
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