Compare and contrast the following statement—
“Mr. President, it is my pleasure to extend a warm welcome to you and Mrs. Liu on behalf of our entire community. We are honored that you have chosen to visit Yale. Your country has an ancient tradition of reverence for education, and your actions affirm this tradition.”
—with this one:
“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. … And, in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do.”
If you’ve so much as glanced at a newspaper in the past day, you’ll recognize the second statement as Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s incendiary introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spoke at Columbia on Monday afternoon. And the first? President Levin’s 2006 welcome to China’s President Hu, as polite and admiring of his guest as Bollinger was aggressive and polemical toward his.
Much has been made of Columbia’s decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak, and of Bollinger’s fiercely politicized introduction. For many Americans, the questions of free speech and the role of international politics at universities will serve as purely theoretical fodder for debate. But as students on a rapidly internationalizing campus, we would do well to consider how other universities are going about this business of confronting controversial world powers. The existing models may not seem to have much in common: Bollinger’s shoot-’em-up bravado couldn’t be more different from Levin’s buddy-buddy relationship with Hu. Still, each campus’s president has played a decisive role in choosing which powerful guests its students will hear speak. This raises a crucial question: To what extent should our University president’s agenda decide how we as a college face the world community?
Let’s begin with an assumption: Ahmadinejad would never be invited to speak at Yale. Why? When it comes to international relations, Levin has shown himself to be an alliance-builder. Hu’s visit to Yale represented a central moment in what is now an out-and-out partnership between Yale and China. From the Peking University study-abroad program to the legion of Yalies who jetted off to China as part of a University-funded trip last May, it isn’t hard to see that Levin is forging a mutually beneficial relationship with Hu. Unless Levin is planning to start shipping students over to Tehran to participate in Holocaust-denier conferences, Yale would have nothing to gain from inviting a renegade leader like Ahmadinejad to speak.
That this kind of attitude smacks of economic give-and-take shouldn’t be surprising considering that Levin is, well, an economist. Speak to any of the myriad Yale students who have spent time in China, and it is easy to see what we as a University have gained from this cost-benefit approach. But Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia, and Bollinger’s criticism of him, reveals serious flaws in our own system.
When Hu came to Yale, Levin did not address the many human-rights violations occurring in China or the Chinese government’s responsibilities for acts of censorship and repression. He has not made any public statements concerning China’s role in the Darfur crisis. This continuous refusal to criticize China for its serious failings can only point to a failing of academic integrity on Levin’s part. With no personal alliance on the line, Bollinger was free to lambaste Ahmadinejad for Iran’s serious human-rights violations. What will it take for Levin to look beyond the political benefits of a personal alliance with Hu and ask vital, tough questions of China?
It can be tempting to chalk these serious differences in leadership up to differences in scholarship. Levin, the economist, seeks tangible benefits from international contacts; Bollinger, the First Amendment scholar, seeks to pursue the truth. If Levin is to succeed in leading Yale into productive, long-lasting and ethically responsible relationships with foreign powers, he must strive to strike a balance between these two models.
One opportunity for this kind of change began in New York on Monday, when Levin met with a group of panelists at the Yale Club to discuss the future of India. It could be China all over again: the same potential for a unique relationship between university and industrializing country, the same pitfalls of human-rights violations. Still, it’s early enough in the game for Yale to forge a relationship with India that does not shy away from honest criticism. Outspokenness paired with support on Levin’s part can only benefit a Yale with expanding horizons.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.