Tenure protects job security when free expression may be challenged in academia. An unspoken code of courtesy between campus rivals also prevails; professors with opposing views argue over lunch or spar over coffee. They may discreetly avoid each other or have heated debates. Public insults, however, are rare and are frowned upon as irrelevant to scholarly discourse.
Business competitors, courtroom rivals, political opponents, and the like also seek respectful exchange, publicly giving each other sufficient polite space. However deep antipathies may go, professionals learn to be courteously cool and detached.
Columbia University president Lee Bollinger failed miserably recently in all these areas. His stunningly rude and base remarks to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denigrate the academic freedom that Bollinger pretends to represent. Stinging, emotional insults aimed at a guest — who was invited by Bollinger — teach students nothing of intellectual or social value. Worse, Bollinger inflicts damage beyond Columbia, potentially dragging American academics through the mud of broad disdain.
There was risk in Columbia’s inviting the Iranian leader to speak, as there was in Ahmadinejad’s acceptance. But Ahmadinejad agreed to attend, to speak for a predetermined length of time, and to accept uncensored questions from the audience — actions that George W. Bush would doubtless avoid, were he invited to Tehran University.
Bollinger’s use of his podium to prejudge his guest’s remarks and to engage in name-calling — to appease alumni, donors and others — only shows Columbia’s students and the world how immature, how inept, and how insecure we can be.
The First Amendment protects Bollinger’s right to be a boor, just as it protects Ahmadinejad’s hyperbolic categorical belief that there are no gays in Iran. Real learning experiences come from listening to free discourse, digesting it, and re-examining it in discussions on and off campus.
There is already too much global disrespect for the United States. Caught in the hypocrisy of our deeds in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, versus our chastisement of other countries’ human-rights’ records, America is enslaved by a hopeless war it created, wasting a currency devalued throughout the first world.
Bollinger’s post 9/11 assault on an invited guest, insulted for what he might say even before he might say it, embarrassed all of us.
If, as speculated, threats from enraged alumni, trustees and/or donors fueled Bollinger’s bad judgment, then what happened at Columbia happens too often on US campuses.
Controversy unsettles contributors or trustees, and economic demands push ethics and philosophical commitments aside. A phone call is made, a threat implied, and sacrifices may be made, so the fund drive can reach its goal. In such cases, the educational experience is not the one that Bollinger envisioned in inviting Ahmadinejad, but that described by Shakespeare:
Who steals my purse steals trash . . .
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
: This Just In
, Politics, George W. Bush, World Politics, More