The offended university

The row in Harvard's African-American studies department reveals the thin skins of US academics.

Munira Mirza

Topics Politics

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The recent furore in Harvard’s African-American Studies department shows the US academy at its most sensitive.

Newly appointed Harvard president Lawrence Summers lit the fuse in October 2001 when he charged one of the department’s leading lights, Cornel West, with failing to produce a serious academic work in recent years. Summers also made it clear that he will no longer tolerate the grade inflation at Harvard (over 50 percent of grades given last year were As), and West is considered by many to have uncritical grading practices (1).

Summers thought that his criticism of West should have been glaringly obvious. In America, West is a public academic who has attracted much attention for his ‘alternative’ style. As well as regularly appearing on US TV, West has produced a rap CD, lent public support to Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy) during Combs’ criminal trial, and supported controversial black figure Al Sharpton in his presidential bid. West’s 1993 book, Race Matters, was a best-seller and has brought much public attention, as well as lucrative speaking opportunities (his agent estimates 150 a year at $15,000 a go) (2). With all these other engagements, Summers felt it reasonable to question whether West was devoting enough time to his classroom.

Yet this disagreement between two academics has had an explosive impact far beyond that which the president could have imagined. Head of the African-American department, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and prominent academic, Anthony Appiah, joined West in taking Summers’ remarks as a conservative attack on the entire discipline of African-American studies, and threatened to walk out in protest. West himself stated he would ‘not tolerate disrespect, being dishonoured and being devalued’ (3).

Even though Summers may believe that his peers and other members of the US academic community endorsed his criticisms, this incident has revealed a greater authority than that of intellectual rigour or professional rank – the moral code that offensiveness is not permissible.

In the hypersensitive climate of the US university campus, those who cite tolerance as a virtue tend to become remarkably intolerant when any criticism is directed their way. Summers’ questioning of West’s standards and the reasoning behind some of his chosen projects has been deemed as offensive – even racist. Prominent black figures in the USA used this affair to back up the view that there is a prevailing racial hostility within the academic elite. Reverend Jesse Jackson publicly accused Summers of holding ambiguous views on race, pointing to his less-than-positive stance on affirmative action as evidence.

West’s academic sympathisers have argued that this controversy highlights the problem of academic elitism. Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor in African-American studies at Yale, asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if this event were yoked to a broader analysis of how these institutions have not done anything for non-elite scholars?’ (4). Others have raised concerns that this affair could encourage stronger opposition to African-American studies in the USA. Robin DG Kelley, professor of history at New York University says, ‘If the president of Harvard could bring the country’s top Afro-American department down a notch, I can’t imagine what deans might do at other institutions where there is no respect for what we do’ (5).

But it seems that if anybody was brought down a notch, it was the president of Harvard. West and his supporters may have complained that their academic freedom had been challenged by Summers, but it was they who managed to silence him. Summers gave in to Reverend Jackson’s demand by officially endorsing affirmative action, and he negotiated with the academic trio as they received offers from rival universities, including Princeton (6).

African-American studies is far from being a marginalised, powerless discipline in US academia. If anything, West is an example of a new breed of academics that portray themselves as outsiders, but are fully institutionalised, highly paid university professors. Their complaint that they fight a daily battle to challenge the hegemony of the elite contrasts with their six-figure salaries and privileged academic positions. As Harvard Crimson (the Harvard daily newspaper) columnist Ross G Douthat asked, ‘Is there a slight contradiction between West’s prophetic contempt for material gain and his exquisitely tailored suits, comfortably tenured lifestyle, lucrative speaking gigs and fancy cars?’ (7).

Meanwhile, the reaction of Harvard’s Latino department to the whole affair was to demand its own ‘fully-fledged Latino centre’ so that it could enjoy a similar status to African-American studies.

It is also worth noting that West’s academic standards have been challenged openly before. The black scholar Shelby Steel has called West an ‘academic lightweight’ (8); and in a review for the New Republic in 1995, Leon Wieseltier wrote that ‘[West’s books] are almost completely worthless…noisy, tedious, slippery…sectarian, humourless, pedantic and self-endeared’ (9). Yet when somebody like Summers criticises his work, West can claim to be offended and command sympathy from the establishment.

Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain shows brilliantly how the fear of offending others pervades the modern American university. The novel’s principal character, Coleman Silk, is a long-standing professor at a fictitious university in America. One day, his unwitting use of the term ‘spooks’ to describe absentee students in his class lands him in serious trouble – he means ghosts, but ‘spook’ is also an old-fashioned pejorative word used against African-Americans. Silk’s valid criticism of two students for missing his class is perversely interpreted as a racist remark. The consequence, as Roth describes, is the loss of Silk’s reputation, his job and eventually, his life (10).

Significantly, it is not the use of the word ‘spooks’ that is Silk’s transgression – rather, it is his failure to apologise. He is not ousted from his position because anybody thinks he is really a racist, but because he will not bow down to the pressure of his peers.

The banishment of disagreement within US academia reflects a deep level of insecurity. Academics in even the most prestigious US universities are reluctant to have their own orthodoxies interrogated – perhaps out of fear that they may not stand up to the scrutiny. As relativism becomes more widespread in academia, it is much easier to claim to be offended than to be forced actually to defend your ideas. This degree of accommodation to intellectual laziness cripples the primary aims of the universities to further knowledge. Instead of dealing in robust and critical arguments, universities in the USA have barricaded themselves in with the etiquette of ‘appropriate language’.

The sharpest end of this disturbing development can be found within the undergraduate population, as was discovered by a friend of mine who teaches a sociology course to American students in the UK. Teaching a class on ethnicity and identity, he asked his students to consider why the term ‘African-American’ has become such an important part of the identity of black people in the USA. He suggested that it was a bit of an odd descriptive category, given that most black Americans have little immediate link to Africa, and that a well-noted feature of black studies is its lack of engagement with the issues of contemporary Africa. The class seemed to go well, and stimulated a lot of heated and intelligent debate about the issue. Only later did my friend discover that one of his students had complained that his discussion in the class had made her feel racially intimidated.

While my friend was not formally disciplined, this is in some ways beside the point. He admitted that the whole incident would make him think twice about what he would say to his American students in the future. This self-censorship should give us major cause for concern. Instead of sounding out ideas in order to judge them critically, academics seem only too happy to silence debate in case it causes insult or offence to individuals. We have a peculiar situation where it is intolerable for professors to argue against their students, in case they are accused of being intolerant of other people’s views.

A number of high-profile cases in America in recent years reflect the willingness of students to complain about academics’ views. The US Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claims that it has dealt with over 200 such cases since it opened its doors in October 1999 (11). The impact of 11 September has also been used to justify repression of speech. A tenured professor at the University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian, is still awaiting formal dismissal, after comments he had made about Israel in 1991 were discussed in a TV programme, and complaints were received. Another case is Professor Ken Hearlson from Orange Coast College, who was suspended without a hearing for 11 weeks, accused of offending some of his Muslim students when talking about terrorism (a subsequent college investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing).

Here in the UK, we imagine that the First Amendment provides strong protection of freedom of speech in America. But it seems that this freedom is undervalued by a younger generation of students, who complain and demand suspensions for academics who offend them.

If lecturers cannot challenge students freely to engage in debate, no matter how disturbing, how are they supposed to explode myths and encourage radical thinking? It is not just an occupational hazard that academics may be offensive to one another, but rather, one could argue, a responsibility, and one that needs to be maintained by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. When this freedom is eroded, the first victim is critical thinking and debate. If an academic must think twice about what they say, in case they provoke personal offence, intellectual questioning – the lifeblood of the university – is debilitated.

The consequences of this are damaging. Imagine if the French student revolutionaries had never discussed ‘offensive’ ideas about the state of the eighteenth-century French aristocracy. Or if US students in 1970s America had not dared to question the morally superior attitude of their government towards Vietnam.

The amount of offence an idea causes is no measure of its value – only reason and critical thinking can ultimately determine that. To deny the freedom of ideas in a university can make fools of even the wisest men.

Read on:

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

Giving race experts a Lasching, by Brendan O’Neill

A joke too far, by Barbara Hewson

British racism: a new original sin, by Frank Furedi

spiked-issue: Race

(1) ‘White Guilt = Black Power’, Shelby Steele, Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2002; A Harvard Education Washington Post, 8 January 2002

(2) Top-Dollar Prof National Review, 11 January 2002

(3) West quoted in Spinning Race at Harvard, Village Voice, 16-22 January 2002

(4) Quoted in Spinning Race at Harvard, Village Voice, 16-22 January 2002

(5) Quoted in Spinning Race at Harvard, Village Voice, 16-22 January 2002

(6) Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2002
(reproduced in Frontpage Magazine White Guilt = Black Power

(7) Let us now praise Cornel
, Harvard Crimson, 11 January 2002

(8) Washington Post, 8 January 2002

(9) ‘All and Nothing at All: The Unreal World of Cornel West’, originally appeared in the New Republic, 6 March 1995

(10) The Human Stain, by Philip Roth, Vintage 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(11) See the FIRE website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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