Alumnus interruptus

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  November 16, 2006

How do I look?
The image-above-all mentality is part of a lamentable trend “Freedom Watch” has long identified as “the corporatization of higher education.” Increasingly, university presidents operate more like CEOs than academic leaders: they emphasize the bottom line, large endowments, U.S. News and World Report rankings, and highly visible campus construction (and donor-naming) projects, while they neglect or marginalize academic excellence, intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, and students’ rights.

Recent experiences with my own alma maters, Princeton and Harvard Law School, offer good examples of how the Ivies are sacrificing openness and frankness to the Almighty Image, especially when it comes to hiding some very un-academic steps taken by administrators. In the spring of 2005, Princeton associate dean of students Hilary Herbold punished editors of the Nassau Weekly, a student literary magazine, for publishing a satirical article that parodied the Holocaust. I wrote to Dean Herbold to complain, since parody is clearly protected by free-speech and academic-freedom doctrines. The dean assured me that while students at Princeton “are free to express their opinions,” racial or ethnic “slurs” fell out of bounds.

Because the dean appeared not to understand the role of parody in free discourse, I wrote a protest letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly. They sent a reporter to tape record an interview with me about free speech and academic freedom. When the Q&A-style interview appeared on May 11, 2005, it quoted much of what I said about a variety of colleges and universities that were engaged in censorship. But not a word of my criticism of Dean Herbold’s censoring the Nassau Weekly had survived the editor’s red pen. My complaint about censorship had itself been censored!

Harvard Law School has betrayed a similar attitude. For many decades, the law-school community has been blessed with an independent, student-edited newspaper, the Harvard Law Record. It covers, in occasionally discomforting detail, the controversies that regularly engulf that school — notably, whether frank speech and parodies on matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation should be censored. The Record was widely distributed among law-school alumni, mailed free to all members of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association as a benefit of membership.

With little fanfare, the administration persuaded the alumni association to pull distribution of the Record and substitute a long-standing official law-school publication, the Harvard Law School Bulletin. Earlier this year, I complained to the new law-school dean, Elena Kagan, about this action taken under her predecessor, Robert Clark. Although a highly regarded free-speech advocate both on and off campus (a welcome change from her predecessor), Kagan defended this switch. Acknowledging that the Bulletin would cast the law school in a more flattering light, Kagan pointed out that the independent Record is still available to alumni who bother to access it online, while admitting that the law school was — properly, in her view — now getting its own message out.

The Harvard Law School’s latest attempt to control communications with alumni recalls an incident about which I wrote a 1996 op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal. In that piece, I criticized the law school’s then-newly-enacted “Sexual Harassment Guidelines,” a censorship code adopted in the wake of a highly distasteful, but fully protected (by academic freedom) parody of a Harvard Law Review article about feminist scholarship. A member of the then-dean’s office was overheard complaining that he would not mind if Silverglate were to publish an article in some academic journal, but not in a newspaper widely read by wealthy donors. Harvard Law School cannot, of course, control the Wall Street Journal. But the university has now stepped up control over other publications that reach its alumni.

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