SAY WHAT?

Academia threatened

Kayhan Ahmadi Apr 25, 2005
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

University communities across the United States are facing a campaign of intimidation directly threatening academic freedom. Professors at Columbia University facing charges of institutionalized anti-Semitism have been subjected to death threats, hate messages, and massive sabotage of their e-mail correspondence. Yet these charges were found to have been grounded on "no evidence" by an ad hoc faculty committee on March 31. A victim of these tactics at Columbia, Prof. Joseph Massad, lamented, "The Columbia University administration acted as a collaborator with the witch-hunters instead of defending me and offering itself as a refuge from rightwing McCarthyism."

Most recently two speakers invited by Carnegie Mellon University, Ali Abunimeh and Norman Finkelstein, were the subjects of organized harassment. During Mr. Abunimeh's February 3 talk hecklers who rehearsed their tactics beforehand, in which they referred to the speaker as a 'cockroach' and waved signs, laughed and applauded when the speaker described Palestinian suffering, and had to be warned the meeting would be canceled if they continued. Norman Finkelstein's March 14 lecture had been delayed for a month after pressure was placed on CMU administrators from outside the University community. A few days before his appearance, Laura Conrad, Program Associate for the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, distributed an e-mail to CMU students and members of the Center which explicitly laid out a program designed to prevent Finkelstein from being heard by the community at large: "The concept is not to 'publicize' the event," wrote Conrad, "thus bringing more attention to the speaker, but rather to quietly fill the lecture hall with those who cannot be influenced by Finkelstein's rhetoric. Through filling the hall with Jewish students and community we will minimize participation of those who can be influenced by his propaganda." At Finkelstein's lecture, audience members stood and turned their backs on the speaker, spoke loudly to one another, and booed and catcalled at various intervals. Finkelstein's discourteous treatment was capped by the imposition, without consultation, of a "rebuttal" scholar, who attempted to discredit Finkelstein by alleging his popularity with anti-Semitic hate groups, not by engaging directly with his argument.

A notable proponent of open discourse and rational, compassionate thought was Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in the first century, and whose attributions in the Mishnah's Pirkei Avot and in the Talmud have rendered him one of the most respected interpreters of Jewish law. His most famous pronouncement is, of course: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Law: all the rest is interpretation." According to rabbinical tradition, Rabbi Hillel's distinction as a teacher is due primarily to the openness of his students and their willingness to consider opposing viewpoints. His profound contribution to the academic culture of the free exchange of ideas has impacted scholars across the world, not merely those interested in Jewish thought or history. Unfortunately, some groups who claim to act in Hillel's name need to be reminded that free thought is possible only when all are allowed to speak and be heard, even those whose viewpoints may be odious to us. A profound cultural amnesia, regrettably, seems to afflict many sectors of our modern society, in which the values of freedom of discourse are in increasingly serious danger of being replaced by ideologically motivated censorship, creating a well-founded fear of retribution from those in power. We scholars of Carnegie Mellon University feel it is in the best interests of all to uphold the principles of free inquiry guided and shaped by demonstrable evidence. While students understandably may wish to find their own personal convictions reflected in the ideas they encounter, it is the work of professors to challenge ideas, even deeply-held ones.

We the undersigned further call upon the administration and the Faculty Senate to quickly agree upon a clarification of the Controversial Speakers Policy, founded upon the principle that the free exchange of ideas is necessary to the project of a University and of inestimable value to the society at large, and strong enough to enable the members of our administration to protect the community they steward from censorship deriving from within or without Carnegie Mellon University.

Anthony Butts, Assistant Professor, English
Michael Chemers, Assistant Professor, Drama
David Demarest, Associate Professor, English (Emeritus)
Sharon Dilworth, Associate Professor, English
Jed Allen Harris, Associate Teaching Professor, Drama
Brian Johnston, Professor, Drama
Mladen Kiselov, Associate Professor, Drama
Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, Associate Professor, Drama
Catherine Moore, Associate Professor, Drama
Michael Olich, Associate Professor, Drama
Ken Leigh Rogers, Associate Teaching Professor, Drama
Jeffrey Williams, Professor, English