Phi Beta Cons

A’Mad Again: Chairman Campbell, Just What Are Columbia’s Standards?

Abigail L. Rosenthal, a former philosophy professor and Columbia alumna, has communicated to me her following important letter to William V. Campbell, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees. It is important with respect to the standards, or lack thereof, that govern university decisions about granting a podium to campus speakers (bolding mine):

I write as a Columbia alumna, from a family of Columbia alumnae, to protest Columbia’s invitation to Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It seems to me a shocking and disgraceful decision.  I understand that university officials have defended it as an exercise in academic freedom.  I wonder, is there anyone or anything, that could not enjoy the loan of a hall and a podium at Columbia under that head?  Are there any criteria of exclusion at all, any test that one would have to meet before one could enjoy that privilege? 

One assumes that no one could act as a guest of the university for the purpose of committing obscene acts in public.  So one would need to be invited for a speech.  An unknown person would not merit an invitation.  One would need to have achieved some public recognition.  Are there further criteria?  For example, academic criteria?  A reasoned speech would need to be answerable to the relevant evidence on its topic.  Surely a Holocaust Denier has shown that he is not so answerable.   Suppose he threatened mass murder, and was by all accounts working to be in a position to deliver it?  What can an invitation to such a menacer, to speak about his “views” signal except a cultivated misunderstanding of the difference between reasoned speech and brutal menacing?  Suppose the speaker, in his position as head of a despotic state, had purged thousands of professors and students, blacklisted authors, shut down entire campuses, replaced administrators with Revolutionary Guards.  What can honoring such a man mean to persecuted colleagues in Iran except that this university has seen nothing to warrant a boycott of him? 
In honoring such a man, Columbia University has dishonored itself.


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