[Paleopsych] Index on Censorship: United States: Taboo subjects on campus
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Wed Feb 2 21:42:48 UTC 2005
United States: Taboo subjects on campus
Index on Censorship
How free is campus speech?
Furore over Harvard president's views raise wider issues. By Sara B.
Miller & Amanda Paulson
Harvard University president Lawrence Summers says his comment that
innate differences between the sexes may partly account for male
dominance in science and maths - was intended to provoke discussion.
Instead they have ended up raising an even larger question: Have
universities become so steeped in sensitivities that certain topics
can't be openly discussed? Sara B. Miller & Amanda Paulson discuss.
In the weeks since Harvard University president Lawrence Summers
suggested that innate differences between the sexes may partly account
for male dominance in science and math, the ensuing frenzy of
discussion has become a kind of national Rorschach test.
Editorialists excoriate his sexism or applaud his candour. The
National Organization for Women has called for his resignation.
Academics are poring over studies that deal with nature, nurture and
Dr. Summers's comments - which he said were intended to provoke
discussion about why women were underrepresented in top science posts
- have ended up raising an even larger question: Have universities
become so steeped in sensitivities that certain topics can't be openly
Historically, ivory towers have been society's bulwarks of free
intellectual exploration. But critics say that role is jeopardized on
issues ranging from gender and race to religion and the politics of
the Middle East.
"I could give example after example where speech that is considered
offensive by any particular group that has a disproportionate amount
of power on the campus is subject to censorship and repression," says
David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in
Education, a civil liberties organization that works on college
campuses. "It gives the most sensitive person the veto power on debate
Many disagree with that assessment. But the Summers flap has revived a
longstanding debate on the subject - often waged along ideological
lines over whether campuses are hostile to those with conservative
At Columbia University, for example, a different sort of controversy
has been brewing about what can and can't be said. In this case, it's
not an authority figure who's ruffled feathers, but students. The
tensions came to a head this fall when a documentary, Columbia
Unbecoming, filmed Jewish students alleging that pro-Palestinian
professors, particularly from the school's department of Middle East
and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), were intimidating them.
In the film, one student who had served in the Israeli Army says a
professor asked him how many Palestinians he had killed when he stood
up to ask a question.
The charges have angered both students and professors, with both sides
waving the banner of academic freedom. Columbia President Lee
Bollinger has formed an ad hoc faculty committee to investigate the
student complaints, while one professor in MEALAC has likened the
situation to a "witch hunt."
While teachers say they feel threatened (one has cancelled his most
controversial course), the students say theirs is the speech that's
being suppressed - and that the pro-Palestinian professors have
crossed a line into unacceptable territory. "I don't think I can go
before class and say something blatantly racist," says Ariel Beery, a
Columbia senior who appears in the documentary. "Creating a collegial
environment in order to work together is what a university is about."
Others have more sympathy for the professors. The controversy "raises
concerns that political disagreement is being conflated with
intimidation and harassment," says Donna Lieberman, executive director
of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who calls the student attacks a
throwback to the McCarthy era. The fact that the students have so
publicly denounced the professors and administration, she says, shows
that students are "quite empowered" to express opinions.
The controversies at Harvard and Columbia are, of course, quite
different in terms of both the complaints and who's making them. But
both touch on the question of whether academia is increasingly
unfriendly to vigorous debate.
Summers's repeated apologies, in particular, angered many op-ed
columnists who felt they were evidence of academic orthodoxy being
"It would be interesting to know what would have happened if Larry
Summers, after the controversy first emerged, had called a press
conference and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is what the
university is all about,' and stopped there. I think he would have
been a national hero," says Charles Murray, a scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute. Mr. Murray caused a similar storm a decade ago
when he co-wrote The Bell Curve, suggesting that there might be innate
differences among races regarding intelligence.
That idea of inequality, he says, is still one of the biggest taboos.
"There's just a part of the dogma in the university that centres on
equality as a good in and of itself, not just equality of outcome, but
equality of the raw material. It's something we didn't really
anticipate when we wrote The Bell Curve."
Evalyn Gates, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, sees it
differently. It's the not that the idea of studying innate differences
is so offensive, she says, referring to the Summers's remarks. Rather
it's that other, larger reasons exist for women's poor representation
in scientific fields - documented gender bias both early on and within
academia, and a culture that makes it hard to balance family life and
work. Biological nature, she says, is "a red herring" compared to
these issues of nurture.
In addition, there's the issue of who's making the comments. "If some
researcher at a conference says he wants to study this possibility [of
gender difference], that's fine," Dr. Gates says. "But the fact that
the president of Harvard has said it I think has done damage."
The charge that universities are intolerant of ideas that clash with
the accepted line of thinking has been around at least since the
1960s, and gained traction during the culture wars of the 1980s and
'90s. Usually the complaints come from conservatives who consider
academia too liberal.
One recent flash point involves bake sales at which items cost
different amounts based on a student's race, used to protest
affirmative-action policies, which several universities have banned.
Another hot topic is religion. A question du jour: Do universities
have the right to refuse to allow religious clubs to require that
members hold certain beliefs?
But demanding free speech, some academics point out, cuts both ways.
"On the one hand, professors should be free to pursue whatever lines
of inquiry they think academically sound," says Jonathan Knight,
director of the American Association of University Professors'
programme on academic freedom and tenure. "But they had best be
prepared to deal with the criticism, no matter how acid."
At Harvard, Summers has faced such criticism numerous times since he
took the helm in 2001. He's angered some with remarks ranging from a
rebuke of a celebrated black professor to praise of patriotism - a
style that some call candour, and other see as evidence that he's
insufficiently aware of the power of his words.
At the recent conference, for instance, he only suggested that gender
difference be studied as a possible reason for women's absence in the
sciences. "But the headlines say, 'Harvard president says men are
better at science than women,'" says Gates, the University of Chicago
professor. "That kind of phrase repeated over and over, especially
when it reinforces an underlying concept people have already, can be
This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. It
is republished with permission.
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