Topic: A Discussion on Academic Freedom
Speakers: Professors Eric Foner (History), Todd Gitlin (Journalism), and David Eisenbach (History), Ph.D Student Alex Gourevitch (Political Science), moderated by Ph.D Student Ian Zuckerman (Political Theory)
Drinks of Choice: Poland Spring Water (Foner, Gitlin, Eisenbach), Canada Dry Club Soda (Eisenbach), Jana Artesian Water (Gourevitch) Vitamin Shoppe Iceland Spring Water (Zuckerman).
While students arrived for Tuesday’s CPU-sponsored discussion in IAB, the professors stood chatting in the hallway. One look inside the Lindsay Rogers room indicated why: even with a half-dozen tables folded down and laid against the wall, there just isn’t much space. But audience members stood, or sat on the floor, the windowsills, or whatever they could find, and many stayed for the full two hours.
What CPU lacked in room acquisition, they made up for with the actual event, which lived up to its name as a “discussion.” Each participant discussed the multidimensional topic of academic freedom from a different perspective, and opening remarks were fairly short. That left a lot of time and room for audience questions, which were taken three at a time with a short discussion to follow each volley.
Nobody seemed to have told the professors how to format their opening remarks, which made for an interesting event. Eisenbach, founder of the Friendly Fire lecture series, talked mostly about that(He later said he was planning an installment with Jeff Gannon and Matt Sanchez, so stay tuned), and about freedom of speech in academia on a general level. Foner used a more narrow definition, defining academic freedom as professors’ freedom from outside or administrative influences. He followed with a history lesson that went from the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure to the 2001 report by the Lynn-Cheney founded ACTA, which included a list of hundreds of un-American statements made by college professors — sort of like the Horowitz list, but for serious. He also openly criticized Bollinger, saying that he and Ahmadinejad were
“two peas in a pod,” (which promptly became a Spec poll) and that the university lacks “intelligent, courageous, principled leadership.” In response to a later question, he would accuse Bollinger of shilling for the Iraq war during his Ahmadinejad introduction. He also complained about being outranked by Latrell Sprewell in Bernard Goldberg’s book about who’s ruining America.
Gitlin outlined his speech into four points, as follows.
1. Speech is dangerous, and entails discomfort — discomfort should not be sufficient reason to cease an activity.
2. Because speech is dangerous, it should be open: as Mill said, the minority could be right, and if not it discussion would sharpen the dominant view.
3. Free speech is not just for provocateurs (some friendly fire for Eisenbach)
4. Outside influences, such as media influences especially during wartime, can condition our speech even if it’s free from direct censorship (Bollinger).
Finally, Gourevitch, the lone student on a panel with three professors toting wikipedia entries, seemed a bit nervous to start out, but recovered and got his points across. He said that academic freedom had become “ritualized,” saying that it was taken as a token value while contrary views were still not given true respect. He also blamed the left as much as the right for repression of speech, pointing to what he said were overreaching speech codes that assumed people were “fragile” and needed to be protected from hate speech.
With that, the floor was opened, and the questions poured in. As Mill might have predicted, views were sharpened.
None of the panelists thought the teacher’s college noose was protected speech – Gitlin said that he couldn’t tell what the “speech” was, and that the action was the brandishing of a weapon. One student asked about trying to actively cultivate conservative presence on campus — Foner responded by saying that political views should remain irrelevant to academia, and touted the diverse methodological views within the history department.
The President of Iran was more controversial. While Eisenbach viewed the event as a success overall, as Ahmadinejad was exposed and forced to backtrack on some of his views, others thought it allowed him to become a martyr, and a student said the questions chosen by Coatsworth were weak from an Iranian perspective. While the professors seemed to agree that Ahmadinejad should have been treated with more decorum, many students, some of them experts on Iran, seemed appalled that he would be treated with respect. Gitlin said that he was not sure that Columbia should host the World Leader’s Forum, but that if they did it required diplomacy. Eisenbach mentioned that rules of civility were all that prevented him from beating people up every day, prompting the other three panelists to try to top each other’s jokes.
Foner: “The new most dangerous professor.”
Gourevitch: “He’s the greatest guy since Thomas Jefferson.” (Eisenbach mentioned receiving this praise from conservative commentators)
Gitlin: “Some people will do anything to get in Horowitz’s book.”
That’s some of that fine “intellectual humor”
Ultimately, for a two-hour event in a small space during midterms, the discussion was productive. The panelists didn’t seem to be afraid to criticize the university, (or had nothing to fear – Foner said “I have tenure at Columbia, nobody’s going to bother me, I can say what I like, and I feel pretty good about that”), each other’s arguments, or themselves, and there was real back-and-forth. A student, expanding on Gourevitch’s emphasis on having real discourse rather than unproductive “trench warfare,” called out Foner for one of his snappy responses, getting Eric to admit it “was a low level of discourse.” Thankfully, the discussion as a whole wasn’t that way.