Expertise, not politics, qualifies Blair for Yale job

An article published in the News last Friday (“Despite politics, Elis recognize Blair’s expertise,” 3/28) cited the following extraordinary reaction of students and professors to the arrival of former British prime minister Tony Blair: “several … questioned whether his support of the Iraq war leaves him qualified to teach at the University.”

The notion that a world leader’s support for the Iraq war renders him unqualified to share the insights he has gleaned over a lengthy public career is profoundly disturbing. The idea that at a liberal university one’s political opinions alone could be considered a disqualification for a teaching appointment is extremely dangerous.

I can already hear the rejoinders. “What about Professors Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Adolf Hitler? Surely all these leaders have much to teach us about statesmanship.” One’s right to free speech does not entail that their right to a Yale professorship — not every opinion deserves an honored platform. But it is only sensible to acknowledge that the moral position from which a potential professor acts and opines is relevant. So what standards — if any — should guide our ability to judge when and how political opinions matter in the classroom?

We should start with the idea that a professor’s political opinions are relevant only insofar as they affect his or her teaching. But professors’ opinions can influence their teaching in a number of different ways. First, let’s look at a professor’s purpose in coming to the university and his or her general attitude towards learning. Yale’s mission is to stimulate thoughtful and informed discourse, not to pack classrooms with propaganda or deliberate manipulation. Of course, professors with strong opinions should not be barred from teaching, but they should be expected to accept thoughtful dissent as a productive part of the learning process and not as a danger to be eliminated. A murderous dictator coming to teach at Yale likely does not fit this profile.

Second, we can gauge the centrality of the potential professor’s message to his or her teaching enterprise. Beliefs that we largely hold to be false or immoral may be tolerable if they do not directly influence the professor’s work. It is troubling if a biology professor’s discourse on evolution is driven by the premise that certain races inherently deserve to live less than others. But it would be less important if a mathematics professor had disconcerting religious beliefs.

When public figures come to teach at Yale, their political opinions are almost always closely tied to their academic work. That’s precisely why we want them. These are the individuals who have had the privilege of living out their beliefs, who have used them directly to affect the world. Learning from them is a unique experience, and by definition political.

A professor’s political opinions need not amount to overt brainwashing to be counterproductive to the academic enterprise. We must judge potential professors not only based on their method of holding and transmitting their opinions, but on the substance of the political opinion in question. Any standards that Yale imposes are going to reflect a certain value judgment by the university. Even a no-standards policy is a moral judgment.

Now universities sometimes are, and ought to be, places where extreme ideas find refuge. It may be politically difficult to suggest that people’s organs can be harvested in the name of a utilitarian calculus, but it is essential that the university provide a space for people to take ideas to their logical — if unattractive — conclusions.

Nevertheless, there is relevant difference between a religious-studies professor who encourages his students to love their neighbors and one who encourages his students to kill their neighbors. A coherent and successful academic plan requires its players to contribute to a thoughtful and unshackled community rooted in respect for human dignity.

So how does support for the Iraq war affect an individual’s qualifications to teach at Yale? Both those who support and those who oppose the war have important reasons to do so. And supporters are not characterized by wanton disregard for human life. They may very well be driven by the belief that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States or his own people, or that his demise represents progress for democracy in that region of the world. Others may believe that, having entered the war, we have an obligation not to desert Iraq. These reasons to support the Iraq war certainly do not rely on principles antithetical to the moral underpinnings of our academic community. In no way do they weaken the teaching qualifications of the former prime minister of Britain, a bulwark of democratic traditions.

Intellectual maturity demands that we recognize a difference between individuals with whom we may disagree and individuals that have no place in academia. For or against the Iraq war, Tony Blair has an important role to play at Yale. Let’s welcome the opportunity to learn from him.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.