Every college campus worth its name boasts professors known as much for their fringy ideas as for their prestigeful publications.
That's the whole idea of a university. The John Nash who is taunted for acting bizarrely turns out to win a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory. Or flip it around: The same William Shockley who brings renown to his college by winning a Nobel for helping invent the transistor goes on to hawk wacko ideas about race.
Today, both Nash and Shockley likely would be drummed off many campuses because they espoused views that the speech police would consider "hateful" -- Nash railed against Jews, and Shockley urged the sterilization of blacks. The proliferation of campus speech codes and bans on posting political statements on dorm room doors are, to draw from history's discarded vocabulary, un-American.
But here's a tougher one: What if, unlike Nash and Shockley, whose extreme views were unrelated to their academic work, professors hawk poisonous positions in their own field? That's the question at Georgetown University, where Jewish students and faculty are outraged by the comments of Hisham Sharabi, professor emeritus at the school's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
Speaking in Lebanon, Sharabi accused Jews and Americans of seeking "to subdue us." According to the Daily Star, a Beirut newspaper, he said, "Jews are getting ready to take control of us, and the Americans have entered the region to possess the oil resources and redraw the geopolitical map."
Sharabi is not alone. Halim Barakat, a Georgetown professor of sociology and Arab studies, earlier this year wrote in a London Arabic daily that Zionism is "a wild, destructive beast . . . acting outside the will of man" and that Jews' "humanity has shriveled."
Meanwhile, the university's Young Arab Leadership Association and Arab studies center sponsored a lecture by Norman Finkelstein, a writer celebrated by neo-Nazi groups for his Holocaust revisionism and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany.
All of this, says Daniel Spector, president of Georgetown's Jewish Student Association, amounts to "intimidation and intolerance . . . meant to provoke anti-Semitism."
Another student leader, Julia Segall, last week told a campus rally -- which attracted about 120 of the 400 Jews at the 6,000-undergraduate Jesuit school -- that "We will assert our right to support Israel without the fear that we will be laughed at or jeered."
The school last week issued a statement distancing itself from Sharabi's comments. And the Jewish leaders I spoke with said they face no overt anti-Semitism on campus, that Georgetown works hard to welcome non-Catholics, that it was one of the first schools to hire full-time Jewish and Muslim chaplains and that Jewish and Muslim student groups have co-sponsored successful discussions.
The problem, according to Rabbi Harold S. White, the Jewish chaplain since 1968, is that some professors in the Arab studies and foreign service programs infuse their teaching with anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist remarks. "These academic arms of the university are constantly denigrating Israel and exploiting students and sponsoring programs denigrating to the university," White says.
Colleges shouldn't be in the business of policing their professors' speech. But Georgetown's decision to accept donations for its Arab studies programs from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern donors taints those programs.
Colleges trust scholars to present a worldview while encouraging students to question the instructor's position. If professors present extreme and aggressive views, students have every right to speak out against them, as these Jewish groups have. But there is something deflating and sad about the way too many college students cry "intolerance" these days. Rather than squaring off to debate ideas, they whine about feeling "devalued" or "depersonalized."
Listening to students at the rally, I couldn't help bemoaning their hypersensitivity. But later, I listened as a dozen Jews and Muslims argued under a tree on the campus lawn. They debated into the night about the rationale for Israeli troops arresting Palestinians, about the meaning of objective fact, about the nature of history and reality. No one hit anyone, no one cursed. There were even some laughs. This, whatever the ravings of extremist professors, was a university.