The choice of history professor Donald Kagan to give the keynote address at today’s Sept. 11 memorial service provoked the Yale College Democrats to withdraw its sponsorship of the event.
The College Democrats, who had co-sponsored the event last year alongside the College Republicans, declined to participate in the service after Kagan, a noted conservative, was invited to speak by the event organizers, Laura Marcus ’10 and Luke Palder ’09. The Dems said Kagan was too partisan a figure to speak at a memorial event, but Marcus and Palder said they invited Kagan because of his three-year stint as Yale College dean and not for his political views.
College Democrats President Eric Kafka said his organization would not sponsor the event because Kagan has “politicized” Sept. 11 and questioned the patriotism of liberals, making him an unsuitable choice to speak at a nonpartisan memorial service. Kagan also would not provide a copy of his speech beforehand and would not guarantee that his address would be free of references to the Iraq war, Kafka said.
Marcus and Palder emphasized that Kagan was chosen because he is a respected historian and a former administrator, not for his political opinions. Kagan’s views do not represent those of the organizers or the sponsors, they said, and the organizers are not privy to the content of his speech in advance. Yale President Richard Levin, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and University Secretary Linda Lorimer were their first choices for a keynote speaker, but scheduling conflicts prevented them from attending, Marcus and Palder said in a letter to the News published today.
But Kafka said Kagan’s comments toward Yale students in the past render him an inherently political figure. Kafka pointed to remarks Kagan made two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he criticized the “intellectual arrogance” that he said surfaced on campuses following the attacks.
“No one should be surprised, as such voices have caused destruction throughout the century,” Kagan said in a November 2001 lecture at Battell Chapel. “Our schools have retreated from encouraging of right and wrong — with the exception of an education in moral relativism that borders on nihilism.”
In an e-mail sent to Kafka on Sept. 1, Palder said he was also concerned about the choice of Kagan as a speaker.
“I too have reservations about Prof. Kagan, but the fact that he was once dean of Yale College does a lot to assuage those concerns,” he wrote.
Palder said in a e-mail Monday night that Kagan’s former deanship overrode any initial doubts.
“I was initially concerned that Donald Kagan could be perceived as a polarizing speaker, but the fact that he is a highly respected professor and was dean of Yale College ameliorated those initial personal reservations,” he said.
The Yale College Republicans said that after the Democrats withdrew, Marcus and Palder told them they would not be allowed to co-sponsor the memorial because it would be too politicized unless both groups participated. College Republicans Secretary Matt Klein ‘09 said Kagan is “well suited” to deliver the keynote address — he said he expects Kagan to speak on “Western character and bouncing back” — and disagreed with Kafka’s opposition to the choice.
“I think [the Democrats] made the wrong choice,” he said. “[It reflects] poorly on them because the choice of the speaker was perfectly legitimate.”
Yale College Council President Rebecca Taber ’08 said the YCC, which is co-sponsoring the event, was unaware of the discussions between the political groups and the event’s organizers.
“[The event] meets our standard of an event that should have mass appeal, but I did not know about the political debate that was at hand,” Taber said.
The a cappella group Red Hot and Blue and the Yale Students for Democracy are also co-sponsoring the event.
The service will be held at 4:00 p.m. in Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona 114.