Jon Wiener's poorly informed historical comparison between the Thernstrom affair at Harvard in 1988 and the on-going problems of Middle East Studies at Columbia is ultimately not very interesting. If the Chronicle of Higher Education runs my letter to the editor then it will be posted above, otherwise I will run it as a blog, bracketed by angry denunciations of my free speech rights being denied by the media. Suffice it to say that he compares apples and celery, reads Lee Bollinger's mind to uncover the hidden real estate angle, invokes the vast right-wing conspiracy (henceforth VRWC), and seems to imply that Dinesh D'Souza was created in a laboratory by the Olin Foundation.
Far smarter, although ultimately unsatisfying, is a piece by the super-clever, super-administrator Stanley Fish in which he deconstructs Ward Churchill and Lawrence Summers, academic free speech, and administrative grounds for kicking butts. No mere mortal can adequately generate a representation of Fish's arguments, so I won't even try. He makes some interesting points about distinguishing speech inside the classroom from outside, and the issue of being a liability to an institution as grounds for dismissal. Part of Fish's argument seems to be that if political speech at a university is phrased as a question rather than a statement, then it is ok. This might be called the Jeopardy Gambit. He also reminds us, with respect to outside speaking engagements, that "there is no First Amendment right to be invited…neither is there a right not to be disinvited,"
As always, Fish's killer administrative instincts are on display. Take for example his comments about "balance." "The idea is to inoculate the institution from criticism by multiplying the points of view represented so that no one of them seems to be endorsed or valued."
Of course he thinks this is bad but his advice speaks for itself. ("I say again that while philosophical and moral questions are often bandied about when these incidents occur, they are almost never what is at stake. What is at stake is a question of administrative judgment, and, as we have seen, the exercise of that judgment is no simple matter.") Academic Machiavellis take note.
But in the end Fish lets poor Larry Summers have it, a bit unfairly for my taste. Summers doesn't need me to defend him (or maybe he does. Note to Larry-call me). But Fish seems a little too anxious to condemn Summers' lack of credentials to speak even off the cuff about gender and the history of science. Apparently the inside the classroom-outside the classroom distinction doesn't apply to university presidents, who must be in the spotlight all the time. Life as one big classroom, or piece of academic theater, doesn't sound appealing, although it sounds like a good reality show in the making. It says something about why so few scholars even aspire to university presidencies anymore, leaving primarily the schemers, apparatchiks and the business types who can survive (or thrive) in the absence of privacy and contemplation.
And so, lest we sign off giving Fish (and Cornell West, who ruefully noted that Summers' problems were "chickens coming home to roost") the last word, let us turn to one of history's greatest college presidents, Quincy Adams Wagstaff:
I don't know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it! / Your proposition may be good / But let's have one thing understood: / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / And even when you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it! / For months before my son was born / I used to yell from night till morn: / Whatever it is, I'm against it! / And I've kept yelling since I've first commenced it, I'm against it.