How freely can a diversity of opinion be expressed at American colleges and universities? These questions are being raised again in a number of cases across the nation. Harvard President Laurence Summers is struggling to maintain his authority after suggesting that there may be something in the makeup of women that holds them back in math and science. University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill has been banned from speaking at three colleges after protests about his view that victims at the World Trade Center were Nazi bureaucrats and the terrorists were heroic.
Who decides what people can say?
And at Columbia University in New York, there's an investigation of charges that anti-Israel professors intimidated students who had other points of view. (For background on all three controversies, click here.) Joining the panel for the discussion is Dorothy Rabinowitz, a columnist on cultural issues and a member of THE JOURNAL editorial board.
PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, you've followed these three cases and other similar cases in recent years. What do they tell us about the state of intellectual conformity, debate, diversity on campus?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, they tell us a lot of chickens have come home to roost since the 1960s and the campuses were radicalized, and you saw the beginning of conformity of expression to certain political left ideas. And we have the president of Harvard today saying something that is considered beyond the pale thinking -- thinking that in no other society, I think, or time, would have been that, which is to suggest, merely inquire, as to whether there might be some differences between men and women that caused these differences in their success in math and science. But his greatest problem, and the greatest offense that he gave, was to suggest that it was not discrimination primarily that caused this, that it was these other things. If you say that discrimination is not the key, you have offended a core belief.
PAUL GIGOT: Discrimination is the explanation for women not advancing in the hard sciences as much as men have.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: This, the seminal, key idea that orders everything on faculties. It's all discrimination.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, universities were once places where you were supposed to debate controversial ideas. Do you agree with Dorothy about what's happened?
DAN HENNINGER: I think so. Something split. Before the sixties, most academics thought they were engaged in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and politics and political ideology were taught. They were part of it. They were down here. They were one of the things you learned. In the sixties it flipped, so that one's politics, one's ideology, had to infuse one's academic work, and that has been conveyed in the classroom. So when a Larry Summers raises a kind of politicized issue, you get this huge blowback. I mean, there used to be a saying, "Serious people may disagree." That's dead. Larry Summers is proving that.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, this isn't the first problem Larry Summers had. Remember, he talked about maybe Harvard ought to bring back ROTC in the wake of 9/11. He also suggested that the African Studies professor, Cornel West, who has since fled to Princeton, might spend more time writing books.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: And not rap records.
PAUL GIGOT: That's right. So he has attempted to challenge orthodoxy quite a bit. Why would anybody want to be a college president?
DAN HENNINGER: There is no good reason other than the money and the status, because they have no authority. The loss of their authority is one of the reasons that imbalance has occurred, because they're simply unable to do their job and push back against faculties that have come to believe that they run the universities.
PAUL GIGOT: Bret, does this matter? You're a more recent college graduate than some of us, I regret to have to say. But is this affecting the way students emerge from campus?
BRET STEPHENS: Well look, it matters in the sense that one wishes that we had a serious academic culture of the kind that Larry Summers obviously envisioned. But I was born in 1973. I graduated from college in 1995. This country has only become more conservative as the academic establishment has sort of moved off the cliff and I think that tells you something. For a lot of us who went through college in this kind of atmosphere, it sort of rolled right off our backs. And you know something? We went on to law school, we went to business school. Increasingly, students are going to non-religious schools or other sorts of institutions and it's sort of moot. It's been shoved into a kind of curious corner where the Ward Churchills of the world make their statements, and people look at them and say, "Well, that's interesting, but does it matter for American civilization?"
PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, do you agree that it doesn't really have any consequences?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: This is a kind of -- if I may say so -- happy dreamland. You have divested the whole idea of education. Students are now leaving the university uneducated in the basic history, American history. What they are educated in is what for short-hand we might call "victimization." That's what the department of studies that Ward Churchill headed -- Ethnic Studies -- which is another name for it. So what rolls off their back may be the politicization, but there's nothing to take its place called education. This is the loss of Western culture as a part of teaching, which is now being subsumed in Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Gender Studies.
PAUL GIGOT: Meanwhile we're missing things that we used to feel you had to take on campus. Bret, that was a pretty powerful response.
BRET STEPHENS: Well, it's absolutely true in an academic context. But you know something? People live after the age of 21 or 22 when they graduate from college. They go and there's a huge market for books about American history, books about Western civilization, an enormous amount of interest in Discovery Channel programs.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Your parents spent $35,000 a year so that you could undergo thought reform, and then later, on your dime, you can be educated.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, let's take this issue of Ward Churchill. If we're going to defend Larry Summers' right to bring up a subject like gender differences, Ward Churchill wants to talk about who is to blame for 9/11. Shouldn't his right to say that at Colorado University be protected from, say, the governor of the state, who has said he ought to be fired?
DAN HENNINGER: Well, yes, as a matter of theory, his right to say something should be. But the people running the universities, and I'm including the boards of directors here, I think bear some responsibility for making certain that the institution doesn't become so disrupted by this sort of activity that it begins to siphon attention and energy away.
There's an excellent example going on at Columbia right now, which I think Bret knows a little bit about, in which you have several professors in the Middle Eastern Studies department who have been intimidating Jewish students because they won't share their pro-Palestinian views. It's something that really doesn't seem to have any place in a serious university.
PAUL GIGOT: There's been a reaction against that on the part of students.
BRET STEPHENS: Well that's exactly right. A number of Jewish students on campus got together, shared some experiences, some of them quite astonishing if they are to be believed. They contacted, or were contacted by, a group called the David Project. They put together a documentary. It was a low-budget documentary, but it was obviously very effective. The documentary was shown to a widening circle of influential people. Eventually it got to the attention of the media, and here we are discussing this case at Columbia precisely because a group of students said, "Hey, we don't accept this from the university. We don't accept this from our professors," and it's made people like Lee Bollinger have to think.
PAUL GIGOT: Lee Bollinger, who is the president of Columbia, and a First Amendment scholar. So this is now up at the level where the college is being forced to confront and take it seriously.
Dorothy, what's going to change this attitude, this orthodoxy on campus? Anything? Time? What?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, I think exactly what's going on now. Things are changing. I think the moment we began to notice first, political correctness, what you can and cannot say in courses, like this kind of imbroglio here. The tougher it is -- if you look at a minor celebrity like Ward Churchill -- now, you know his effort was to try to glorify the attackers of the World Trade Center and to diminish the victimization of the victims. What has he accomplished? Has he accomplished making himself loathed? These things have that kind of blow back on them.
The more one confronts the truth of what is going on on campus and, if I may say so, not dismissing it as nothing. It is everything. It is everything. These are the future generations being turned out of the universities. So this is important.
PAUL GIGOT: I tell you what. I think it's going to take time and a changing of the guard. Generational change is the only thing that's going to change it.
Background on Summers, Churchill and Columbia controversies >