Ever since Harvard president Lawrence Summers opened his mouth at an academic conference in January to suggest that innate differences between men and women may account for the relative dearth of success of women in math and science careers, hardly a day has gone by that Summers's remarks have not been dissected, denounced or expounded upon in the press.
In the New York Times - to cite the most salient example - the paper of record has seen fit to run stories about Harvard's president on the front page, the editorial page, the Op-Ed page, the business pages, the science pages - even the style pages. The Times has covered the story with the kind of scrutiny usually reserved only for presidents of the country.
And even though the Times's staff is filled with Harvard alumni (and many who harbor a more-than-healthy measure of Harvard envy), that alone seems too unlikely a reason for the inordinate degree of attention given the story.
The thing is, it's not just Harvard and it's not just the Times.
From Columbia to the University of Colorado, universities around the country are being placed under the harsh light of media scrutiny, often with unflattering results.
This week, the president of the University of Colorado resigned amid a furor surrounding remarks by a professor who called the World Trade Center victims of 9/11 "little Eichmanns." Columbia has been embroiled in a controversy since last fall over charges by some Jewish students that the school's Middle East studies department is anti-Israel and that its faculty members have harassed and intimidated students who express pro-Israel viewpoints.
In each of these cases, it seems, the issues at stake are the same: the limits of free speech versus academic freedom.
Perhaps this newfound media obsession with universities is symptomatic of the larger questions with which the United States today is struggling, as the nation seeks to balance newfound concerns for security with its longstanding commitment to civil liberties.
But when it comes to universities, which are supposed to be places for people to experiment, make mistakes and examine the world away from the headlines, too much media scrutiny risks threatening the very things for which we hold universities dear: as place for our children to learn, and our scholars to study, where there is room for error.
If we force them to tread too carefully merely to avoid the sort of controversies out of which newspapers love to make headlines, universities will cease to be places of learning and instead become training grounds for political correctness.
Some might argue that this has already happened.
That is not to say that universities should be free from public evaluation, or that moral turpitude should be given a free pass. It just means that we need to have a sense of proportion about these things.
Just because the University of Colorado should be taken to task for enabling a wacko professor to indoctrinate his students with racism and teach them claptrap does not mean that Harvard - or Columbia, for that matter - deserves the same sort of censure.
Columbia is an excellent case in point. Though the issue of bias and intimidation of pro-Israel students there is a serious issue - and media attention has helped force a reticent and unresponsive administration to take the matter seriously - the daily drumbeat of newspaper reports (and their encouragement of outside advocacy groups) has miscast the university as a place rife with anti-Semitism.
The Zionist Organization of America, for example, which co-sponsored a conference this week at Columbia on The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus, says students at Columbia who challenge anti-Israel bias are "regularly demeaned, intimidated or dismissed as pro-Israel extremists," and that this has created an atmosphere of "fear and confusion" among students and promotes "anti-Jewish sentiment" at the university.
This simply is not true.
Even the Columbia students charging the school's Middle East studies department with bias have said that assessments like the ZOA's are at best a distortion and at worst an outright falsehood. Despite Columbia's problems, serious though they may be, Jewish students do not cower in fear at Columbia.
The conflation of the issues of academic bias and anti-Semitism by advocacy groups such as the ZOA, overzealous newspapers and ignorant observers perpetuates misconceptions that risk dominating the debate over the limits of free speech versus academic freedom. And that debate is too important to be swayed by distortions.
There's nothing wrong with sounding the alarm, but if it's ringing constantly, then how will we hear it when there really is an emergency?