EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in theJune 22, 1998, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
James Oliver Freedman, now stepping down after 11 years as president of Dartmouth, possesses great interest–not as a scholar but as a specimen. He has manufactured himself as the distilled essence of contemporary academic liberalism.
Naturally, he proclaims himself a feminist and a multiculturalist, and he is loud in his advocacy of racial preferences and special rights for gays. Whereas the civilized liberalism of Matthew Arnold sought centrality, Mr. Freedman seeks iconic victims” and marginality; whereas Arnold looked to the best that has been thought and said, Mr. Freedman fears that a student required to read a play by Shakespeare would thereby miss out on a gem” like Toni Morrison–correct, if you believe that a student can read only one book.
Mr. Freedman is Jewish, and he makes conspicuous use of that fact when he can exploit it politically, although his relationship to Judaism is tenuous. He himself has defined his Judaism as devotion to idealism” and to scholarship”–which does distinguish not him from a Hindu or Muslim scholar, let alone from Erasmus or Hooker. The Mosaic idea of the Law grounded in the very nature of the Creation, the Law as true” (emeth, Psalm 119), appears nowhere in his very meager published work. The God of Abraham and Moses, of the Covenant, is absent from his entirely secular utterances.
In short, Mr. Freedman is an awesome spectacle: The Liberal in the Age of Bill Clinton.”
In the fall of 1987, conservatives at Dartmouth welcomed the accession of Mr. Freedman. The previous Dartmouth presidency, that of the personally estimable David McLaughlin, had been a disaster. When McLaughlin was first introduced to a meeting of the entire faculty, a professor arose to say, Sir, you don’t belong here.” And things went downhill from there.
Mr. Freedman, in contrast, certainly did belong.” One early sign of his disposition was his repeated advocacy of intellectualism”–not intelligence,” as with John Dewey, but intellectualism.” (The term intellectual” is a social category which refers to a member of the middle class who adopts the stance of rebellion against that class, especially against its decencies.)
Mr. Freedman went on, repeatedly, to illustrate his ideal intellectualist” as a lonely scholar translating Catullus.” The word lonely” here is important, the most leaden of cliches: the man of thought and learning as Outsider. (And Catullus” has some ironic importance here as well. The actual study of the classics has zero place in Mr. Freedman’s academic agenda. He doubtless prefers Toni Morrison. This was beautifully illustrated when a student commencement speaker, referring to Mr. Freedman’s ideal, spoke of Catullus as a Greek poet.”)
Although Mr. Freedman made much of his supposed attachment to the First Amendment, he quickly precipitated a series of sharp collisions with Dartmouth conservatives whose exercise of free speech led them into political incorrectness. One of these confrontations has become known as The Bill Cole Affair.”
One afternoon in the academic year 1988 – 89, Christopher Baldwin, then the editor of The Dartmouth Review, was sitting in the office of the newspaper when a freshman, previously unknown to him, entered and said something like, You are not going to believe what is going on in Professor Cole’s Music 5 class.”
The freshman proceeded to describe lectures” consisting of diatribes against racism, continuous obscenities, imprecations against whites, and frequent nervous trips out of the classroom for unknown reasons. Little was being taught about music. Baldwin told the freshman he must be exaggerating.
A few days later, the freshman turned up again, this time with a tape he had made of a Cole lecture.” The professor’s performance turned out to be even worse than the student had been able to communicate. Baldwin had the tape transcribed and printed the whole thing in the Review.
In that same issue he also printed a detailed report on the malfeasance of a white member of the English Department who, instead of discussing the required reading in a freshman course, was taking the class to the movies and discussing those.
The English Department did its duty and required the professor actually to teach his assigned course. The Music Department, however, did nothing about Professor Cole. He continued to perform as previously in Music 5 and also undertook vituperative exchanges with the students at the Review, sometimes threatening them on the street. The Review reported on all this.
After a few weeks of this, Baldwin and three staffers approached Cole and invited him to defend his conduct in a statement that would be printed, unedited, in the Review. Harsh words were exchanged, and there was some shoving. Cole filed a complaint with the College Committee on Standing and Conduct.
Between the filing of charges and the CCSC hearing a number of astonishing things took place.
President Freedman appeared one afternoon on the steps of the Parkhurst administration building, equipped with amplifiers and surrounded by black undergraduates plus a few bongo drums, and made a passionate speech against racism.” He did not mention Baldwin et al. by name, but of course everyone understood who the racists” were.
Then, also still before the CCSC hearing, there took place a Candlelight Vigil Against Racism. It did not emerge until later that this parade had been organized by the Freedman administration, which even supplied the candles.
The CCSC suspended Baldwin for six terms–a very severe sentence–and the others for somewhat less. They were convicted of vexatious oral exchange,” a heretofore unknown College offense. The defendants raised about $ 300,000 (from foundations and parents’ contributions) and Dartmouth had to put up a comparable sum to defend itself.
The trial, which ran for several days in a New Hampshire state court, was an amazing event. The lawyers for the students produced memos and correspondence among the administration, members of the faculty, and the CCSC of such an incriminating nature that the judge at first was startled and then entertained as the skeletons came jigging out of the closet. One faculty member on the CCSC itself had written to Dean Edward Shanahan that he was going to get” those Review bastards”–and neither he nor Shanahan saw any reason for him to disqualify himself from the Committee. There was the Administration-staged Candlelight Vigil, and much else.
It did not take long for the court to overturn the CCSC verdict and order the students reinstated.
And it was through all this that I first glimpsed the nature of James Oliver Freedman. It was especially striking to hear him tell a meeting of the general faculty that their annual raises would be affected by the legal bills the College had been obliged to pay–these bills, of course, a result of his own behavior.
Possibly even more revealing was the Mein Kampf Affair. In the fall of 1990, someone slipped a quotation from Mein Kampf into a much longer quotation from Theodore Roosevelt that always appears on the Review masthead. The subverted issue of the Review had been only partially distributed on campus when Kevin Pritchett, the editor-in-chief that year, discovered the Hitler quote. He immediately cancelled campus distribution, stopped the mailing to subscribers, had an apology printed and distributed, and had a clean issue of the newspaper run off and distributed. What more he could have done I cannot imagine.
But a day or two later, a wooden platform had been set up in the middle of the Dartmouth campus, complete with amplifying equipment. Hundreds of onlookers were milling around, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with one of those red circles with a line through the word HATE.
At this Rally Against Hate, all sorts of wild things were said by Mr. Freedman, historian Arthur Hertzberg, and many others. Most notable, perhaps, was the following statement by Mr. Freedman, which was later printed and distributed by the College information service, and which he himself often described, I’m not joking, as his Gettysburg Address”: For ten years, The Dartmouth Review has attacked blacks because they are blacks, women because they are women, homosexuals because they are homosexuals, and Jews because they are Jews.”
Every word of this Gettysburg Address” except the first three is false, and can be shown to be so from the text of the newspaper, not to say the composition of its staff. The current editor of the Review, standing by as Mr. Freedman bellowed through his amplifier, was Kevin Pritchett, who is black. Two previous editors-in-chief came from the Indian subcontinent, one of them being Dinesh D’Souza, who now has published two important best-sellers on education and on race. The first president of the Review had been Nathan Levinson, and the Review had had many Jewish staffers and editors. (Indeed, one freshman who listened to the Gettysburg Address” was Andrew Baer, a staffer on the Review who had lost some thirty relatives in the Shoah. One immediate effect of Mr. Freedman’s Rally Against Hate was that young Andrew Baer had swastikas inscribed on his dormitory door, and his frightened parents considered withdrawing him from Dartmouth.)
Is it even remotely possible that Mr. Freedman believed what he shouted from that platform? Did he really believe that the Review looked to Hitler for political guidance? This seems impossible. No one this side of Paraguay looks to Hitler in that way. When Mr. Freedman was asked by the Wall Street Journal how he would feel if, in due course, it were established that a saboteur had inserted the words from Mein Kampf, he replied, I just haven’t thought about that.”
In fact, it was soon established who had inserted the words on the masthead. It was indeed sabotage.
We come now to the zany climax, a collector’s item of Tartuffian chutzpah. Last fall Mr. Freedman chose the opening of the Roth Jewish Center at Dartmouth to deliver himself of some remarks about Dartmouth’s Jewish quotas fifty years ago. On February 11 of this year, Mr. Freedman gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he said: I chose that occasion [the Roth inauguration] to talk about that history. Some of this was related to the fact that, in my time at Dartmouth, we’ve had enough evidence of anti-Semitism from The Review (a conservative off-campus newspaper). [William F.] Buckley wrote a book called In Search of Anti-Semitism where Dartmouth was one of the four case histories he looks at.”
Mr. Buckley did indeed use Dartmouth as one of his case histories, and what he concluded was that, where irresponsible charges of anti-Semitism were concerned, Mr. Freedman was the principal malefactor of the season.”
That Freedman cites Buckley as if in support of his allegations is world-championship chutzpah, absolutely breathtaking. As I said in a letter to the editor:
Mr. Freedman says in the Los Angeles Times that he was “seething” over the fact that Dartmouth was seen as anti-Semitic [because of the Review]. Excuse me. If someone in the general public had the impression that there was anti-Semitism at Dartmouth he undoubtedly gained that impression from Freedman himself, who was loudly and falsely hurling charges about it. People may be forgiven for believing the statements of an Ivy League President. They should get over that, at least in the case of Mr. Freedman.