I never thought I would say it, but today I am grateful for University President Richard Levin.
There are, perhaps, many reasons to be glad that we are at Yale now, rather than when Benno Schmidt was president. But a major one came on Monday, when the New York Times printed a letter from Schmidt, now vice-president of the City University of New York Board of Trustees, defending that body’s decision to publicly denounce CUNY faculty who questioned the war in Afghanistan.
The CUNY board was responding to an article by the New York Post about a teach-in organized by the CUNY professors’ union, the Professional Staff Congress. The Post reported that faculty at the meeting attacked U.S. foreign policy and suggested that past American policy helped precipitate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The chancellor and board of CUNY responded by saying that the professors “brought shame to the City University of New York.”
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the professors sentiments, it is a dangerous day when the governing body of a university attacks its faculty for speaking.
Thankfully, Yale’s traditions of academic freedom do not allow such attacks.
For the most part, Yale has always been a strong defender of academic freedom. At the height of the Cold War, the master of Branford College was a committed Communist. It is hard to imagine that happening at many other universities at a time when, even with the protections of tenure, schools were encouraged to purge leftists.
Indeed, we at Yale are blessed with dozens of opinions. Departments like history, religious studies, and the Medical School’s Psychiatry have all sponsored panels. We have had master’s teas featuring experts on diplomacy, terrorism, and the Taliban. We hear from the right and the left on this page.
Discussion and a search for truth is what a university is supposed to be about. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we argue, and at times we can even become disgusted with each others’ views. But the beauty of the university is that it is a safe haven for people to question their society and their government.
That is why, contrary to what James Van De Velde wrote on Monday, earlier comments by Paul Kennedy and Strobe Talbott were exactly in place on a college campus. It is contrary to the spirit of the university’s underlying principles of free inquiry and academic liberty to reduce one’s opponent’s arguments to “hate speech.”
For the same reason, the CUNY board and chancellor were wrong to attack the school’s faculty for holding a teach-in and having the audacity to criticize their country’s government.
Although Yale has a proud tradition of academic freedom, we must remain ever vigilant against encroachments. Yale’s record has not always been perfect, and will likely not remain so.
In the mid-1990s, graduate students who favored unionization were given negative recommendations in retaliation. A group of Yale radiologists have filed suit saying, among other things, that they were silenced for raising concerns about procedures at the Medical School.
Beyond the Yale administration’s history of sometimes silencing those with whom it disagrees, there is a broader danger in acquiescing to censorship. A long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American society makes universities easy targets when things go wrong. The current “war on terrorism,” like the Vietnam War before it and the McCarthyite 1950s before that, threatens to be such a time.
It has been suggested that leftists and pacifists in academia are out of step with the American people and so, it is argued, they should be quiet, conform, or perhaps even leave the country. That is the start of a dangerous trend.
The University must, in order to retain its integrity, refuse to merely go along with what others are saying. Academics have the obligation to question; scholars have the obligation to reject the American tradition of anti-intellectualism.
We must stand up to that tradition and every day reaffirm our right to question, to study, and to raise uncomfortable questions. If we allow ourselves to be silenced, if we fail to ask what others do not want to hear, we will let the terrorists win.
Jacob Remes is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.