By Edward Achorn
It makes me sad, if not anguished, to see liberal values under constant assault on college campuses. Rising totalitarianism, political conformity, and bullying are taking over, with the blessings of administrators who are worried about protecting their own careers. This is occurring, sadly, at our most distinguished institutions.
Administrators and many faculty members are retreating from the thing that once made colleges great: free and fearless intellectual inquiry.
And they are retreating from something else. Common decency.
The new model — which is, in truth, an ancient model — is to shame, harass, frighten, and punish those who diverge from (an ever-changing) orthodoxy. Heretics are not burned at the stake or shipped off to re-education camps, at least not yet, but a clear message is sent to those seeking academic careers: conform to one point of view, or else.
Recent events at Cornell University display this disturbing pattern. There, the crowd has gone after a rare conservative law professor who criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in June 3 and June 4 website posts on the grounds of what he finds to be its anti-Semitism, support for violence and dissemination of inflammatory lies. You can read them for yourself.
Many well-meaning Americans have embraced Black Lives Matter because they agree with its name. Certainly, a free and open discussion about the organization — including its methods and its motives — would serve the public and fall within the realm of safe intellectual inquiry, particularly by professors trained in justice and law.
But, at Cornell, Black Lives Matter supporters — rallying alumni, faculty, and members of the Black Law Students Association — have pressured the school to fire the professor, William Jacobson, for harshly criticizing the political group.
Mr. Jacobson was hauled up to appear before college administrators on June 8. There, law school dean Eduardo Peñalver read alumni letters calling for Mr. Jacobson’s firing.
In a public decree issued after the meeting, Mr. Peñalver asserted that the college supports “job security” for professors, “diversity and inclusion and justice,” and “academic freedom.”
But, seemingly contradicting himself, he also took the occasion to denounce Mr. Jacobson for expressing political views that he, the dean, personally opposed. “In light of this deep and rich tradition of walking the walk of racial justice, in no uncertain terms, recent blog posts of Professor William Jacobson, casting broad and categorical aspersions on the goals of those protesting for justice for Black Americans, do not reflect the values of Cornell Law School as I have articulated them. I found his recent posts to be both offensive and poorly reasoned,” he wrote.
Note that the issue was not whether Mr. Jacobson said anything untrue or did not have a right to pursue the truth under the protections of academic freedom. Rather, he cast “aspersions on the goals of those protesting for justice for Black Americans.” This is about politics.
If one speaks out against what one finds to be the use of false propaganda, anti-Semitism, beating, and looting — which happen to be classic tactics of fascists — does that now violate the values of Cornell Law School? If one believes, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, that the arts of peace — the rule of law, nonviolence and open debate — advance social justice better than mob violence and destruction, does that now violate the values of the Cornell Law School? Are the supposed “goals” of a political group that is favored by the dean all that matter to the Cornell Law School? What if that dean-favored group engages in illegal or immoral activity to advance those goals? If so, what, then, is the point of the law?
It is sad to see such educational bureaucrats drape themselves in supposed moral superiority while behaving in this manner.
For his part, Mr. Jacobson seems crestfallen that longtime colleagues denounced him behind his back rather than discussing the matter with him.
“Not a single coworker, alumni, or student who signed letters to the editor [at the Cornell Daily Sun] contacted me before their publication,” he told the Washington Free Beacon.
He also objected to Mr. Peñalver’s official denunciation because they have different political opinions.
“Deans do not normally take an institutional position on faculty speech, and that’s what I think makes this story truly extraordinary. The dean of the law school has decided to express his personal views as an institutional view,” Jacobson said. “He can state his personal opinion all he wants, but when he’s speaking on behalf of the institution, his personal opinions should not enter into it.”
The professor fears that attempts to silence contrarian views, by threatening those who advance them, simply fuel hatreds rather than breed a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. He sees such trends spreading from academia throughout society.
The beauty of America, of course, is its embrace of free speech and intellectual inquiry. This is a jewel of Western civilization and a rarity in human history. I would argue it the source of this nation’s power and greatness, and its ability to pursue justice.
History shows quite clearly that freedom works much better than totalitarianism. As long as colleges embrace the latter, and promote hatred of individuals and intolerance of differing viewpoints, they will continue to shed their moral authority and lose the support of many (most?) Americans.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)