A letter from a reader: Testing academic freedom

November 12, 2007:

Academic freedom protects the right of faculty, students and institutions of learning to pursue knowledge, wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference. But all freedoms have self-imposed constraints. For example, it is unlikely any respected university would offer a prestigious podium to a racist hate-monger from the Ku Klux Klan to use to incite others to burn or hang someone because of the color of his skin.

Two recent events test the limits of tolerance on academic freedom. On the East coast, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger offered legitimacy and a prestigious platform to Iran's President Ahmadinejad, an avowed terrorist and a murderous tyrant. He compounded a poor decision when he introduced Iran's president as "a petty and cruel dictator, who was either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated in his denial of the Holocaust." This offended many Muslims, who saw his introduction as impolite, aggressive, and mean-spirited.

  On the West coast, The Wall Street Journal reported that 3,000 pacifist professors, students, and alumni at Stanford signed a petition opposing the appointment of Don Rumsfeld '54 to a fellowship at the Hoover Institute to explore terrorism in the post 9/11 world, defining Mr. Rumsfeld as "fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance and disinterested enquiry." Stanford English professor Robert Polhenus drafted an unofficial platform for the faculty opposition, calling Rumsfeld's appointment "contemptible" and arguing that Rumsfeld lacks "intellectual and academic experience and/or some measure of achievement." So much for Rumsfeld's 40 years of distinguished public service, and so much for those who defend intellectual honesty, open debate, and the free exchange of ideas.

The bottom line is that according to Stanford faculty members, Rumsfeld – twice secretary of defense, distinguished congressman, naval aviator, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a man who devoted a lifetime of service at the highest levels of corporate leadership and public service – deserves a prominent place on the wall of shame. Conversely, one of the world's most dangerous men, a man who plots the downfall of the Western world, who denies the Holocaust, who represses freedom, who seeks to develop nuclear weapons to wipe America and Israel off the map, and who oppresses women, tortures men, and murders opponents, deserves a protected pulpit of fame in the name of academic freedom.

No wonder some of us are so worried about the arrogance and quality of thought on the campuses of some of our best academic institutions.

Montecito, Calif.

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