Reflections of an Ashamed Brandeis Alum

Here at NR, Charles Cooke and Tom Rogan have already written thoughtful pieces on Brandeis University’s shameful disinvitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And many others have editorialized eloquently about the issue. But I’m taking the opportunity to chime in, because this time, it’s personal.

As a proud alumnus of Brandeis University (’13), I was very pleased when I read about the remarkable individuals Brandeis had chosen to honor at this year’s commencement, Ayaan Hirsi Ali among them. Hirsi Ali has overcome almost unimaginable obstacles to become the advocate for women’s’ rights and free speech she is today.

I am aware of Hirsi Ali’s controversial views on Islam; I most certainly don’t share them, and I understand why they deeply offend many. But it spoke well of Brandeis that it did not let these statements undermine the good Hirsi Ali has done. It showed that Brandeis was not afraid to recognize a controversial individual simply because some of her beliefs and values do not align with our own.

Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed when I read that Brandeis’s highly disingenuous statement rescinding its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 

This issue is bigger than one woman and her views. It is about the attitude the academy, ostensibly dedicated to free inquiry, academic freedom, and a fair consideration of all points of view ought to have toward those who express unpopular, even offensive, views.

Over the past few years, college graduations have become what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Greg Lukianoff calls “disinvitation season.” The script is so predictable it’s almost a bore to recite. A university honors an accomplished public figure with an honorary degree or the opportunity to speak at commencement. Due to controversial sentiments the honoree has expressed or policies the honoree supports, students and faculty rally to have any invitations rescinded and any honors revoked, and the person is made persona non grata on campus. This has already happened this year at Rutgers and Harvard, where the selections of Condoleezza Rice and Michael Bloomberg as commencement speakers have occasioned student and faculty backlash.

This disturbing trend narrows the range individuals who are able to participate on campus in public dialogue without fear of retribution. Instead of bravely standing against this trend, Brandeis has acted with cowardice and handed a victory to the hecklers. As Hirsi Ali said in her statement on the matter, it is deplorable that “an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The ’spirit of free expression’ referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled[.]”

Of course, there are some views that cross the line. White supremacy, Holocaust denial, and the extreme homophobia of a group like Westboro Baptist Church come to mind. But the range of such views is, and ought to be, small. We should be very wary of expanding the circle of views and individuals we read out of civilized discourse. This is especially true for an institution like a university, which is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of Truth.

Nearly every belief or opinion has the potential to offend. The wider we draw the circle of those with beliefs we deem completely unacceptable, the smaller our own intellectual world becomes. We run the risk of creating a hermetically sealed university bubble, in which no individual who has any values with which the majority of students disagree can receive an honor from the academy.

I wrote earlier that I am a proud alumnus of Brandeis. Not this week. I am ashamed that Brandeis has caved to a hecklers’ veto, ashamed that Brandeis has shown such intolerance for those with whom it disagrees, ashamed Brandeis has shown such cowardice.

This week, I am ashamed to be an alumnus of Brandeis University.

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