Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chemerinsky Post-Mortem, Ahmadinejad Pre-Mortem

Let's take at face value the claim by UC Irvine and its new Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, that the original decision to withdraw the offer of the deanship was not in any way based on a desire to stifle Chemerinsky's ability to speak out on important legal issues of the day, that it was in fact all a big misunderstanding. Still, the episode raises a more general question: Is it legitimate for a university---an institution committed to principles of free speech and academic freedom---to require its administrators to avoid taking controversial positions?

The question is complicated in the Irvine case by two factors: First, most law deans are also members of their respective faculties, and thus retain whatever academic freedom they would have as such. And second, as a state institution, UC Irvine is bound by the First Amendment (as incorporated by the Fourteenth). To simplify the analysis as a matter of policy, I want to ask about a private university. I'll return to the dual capacity question below.

The issue is hardly hypothetical. At my own university, John H. Coatsworth, Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), is scheduled to moderate a keynote address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday of next week. As far as I could tell, only skeletal information about the event has been posted on the university website (here), and it appears open only to invited guests (because of "security restrictions"). Based on the offensiveness and dangerousness of Ahmadinejad's stated views, not to mentions his actions, it is hard to imagine that this event will be anything but a PR disaster for the university. Just about the only thing that can be said in favor of the event going forward is that offensive and even dangerous views ought to be heard along with other views. (For just such a statement by Columbia President Lee Bollinger on the occasion of an Ahmadinejad event scheduled for a year ago that ended up not happening, click here.)

But that doesn't quite get at the question of institutional responsibility. If the event had been proposed by a student group (which, for all I know, it was), or by an individual faculty member, I would imagine that Coatsworth would have had no choice but to permit it to go forward. By serving as moderator, however, he gives the event the official imprimatur of SIPA (and to a lesser extent, the university as a whole). Perhaps Coatsworth, who is a tenured member of the Columbia faculty, is moderating in his capacity as a professor rather than acting dean. Perhaps also, he chose to moderate precisely so that he could ask tough questions that show that SIPA in no way endorses Ahmadinejad's views or actions. But if so, one would hope that, at the very least, he would make those facts known.

In reflecting on this invitation and L'Affaire Chemerinsky, I find myself somewhat more sympathetic than I originally was to the position that the UC Irvine administration formally disavows but could have been understood to be taking in un-hiring Chemerinsky (before re-hiring him): Namely, being a university administrator does not require you to forfeit your academic freedom as a professor, but it does require you to take great care to make clear to the public when you are speaking ex cathedra and when you are not. Even then, it's not obvious that the public will draw these distinctions, and to the extent that running a law school or other academic institution is partly a PR job, there may be legitimate reasons to select administrators whose public statements and actions as academics do not generate too much adverse publicity.
Or, to paraphrase a discredited line from Justice Holmes: You may have a right to academic freedom as a professor, but you don't have a right to be dean. I'm not saying this is my view, but it strikes me as a not-crazy view.

16 comments:

Mithras said...

By serving as moderator, however, he gives the event the official imprimatur of SIPA (and to a lesser extent, the university as a whole).

That's not at all the same as endorsing Ahmadinejad's views.

Just about the only thing that can be said in favor of the event going forward is that offensive and even dangerous views ought to be heard along with other views.

That's the first and last thing that should be said about it, in fact. Aside from demonstrating our belief in the value of the marketplace of ideas, the man is the head of a state we may soon be at war with. This talk may not prevent that, but it can't hurt to hear him out before the missiles fly.

-M

Sobek said...

"Is it legitimate for a university---an institution committed to principles of free speech and academic freedom---to require its administrators to avoid taking controversial positions?"

I agree with Mithras that controversial, dangerous or offensive views should not be stifled on simply because they are dangerous or offensive. I think no self-respecting lawyer could argue for such a thing, because law is controversial, frequently offensive, and sometimes dangerous.

On the other hand, a private institution is a brand, and the owners have every right to protect that brand.

With respect to Ahmadinejad, unless and until his regime stops killing US troops, I don't believe he should be admitted to the US at all.

Benjam said...

sobek:
he's got a right to visit the UN but needs a visa to go beyond that.

mike was right about the PR mess. bill kristol takes aim at columbia today.

it would be a PR mess for the administration if the guy goes back to iran and says he went to ground zero and said a prayer for the hijackers. no chance of that happening.

Sobek said...

"he's got a right to visit the UN but needs a visa to go beyond that."

Yet another strike against the UN, really.

moo said...

As an alumnus of Columbia, I find yet another reason to withhold my money. That said, if I were still a student, I'd probably try to get in hear to hear Ahmadinejad's speech.

No Exit said...

I am impressed that President Ahmadinejad is even making the effort to reach out given the demonization of him in the American press.

Despite Bush's claims that Iran is deliberately arming Shia militias, that fact is far from proven. In fact, it is far more likely that Iranian weapons are showing up in Iraq for the same reason American made weapons are.

Arms dealers looking to make a buck.

It would be interesting to now which country's arms dealers have done more to arm the insurgency... Iran or America.

The fact that a transparent WH shill like Kristol is up in arms about it is irrelevant. Kristol will rabidly oppose anything that doesn't paint Ahamdinejad as a crazy wing-nut. [note the irony]

Columbia is a world class learning institution. Ahmadinejad is the President of large, powerful country that has been demonized in our press.

Juan Cole has discussed at length the distortion of Ahmadinejad's views, but hey, Columbia has the chance to find out for itself.

What an opportunity to engage with a world leader. Do you think Bush would go to Columbia and engage with the faculty?

It's not like they're making him Dean or anything.

Ori H. said...

Dear “no exist” and some of the other commentators,

World leaders and politicians are rarely in the business of debating academics. Mostly academics invite politicians to support a position, to feel important and to raise the prestige of their university, as well as to give their students the experience of interacting with an important person. An experience that I think has real value. Politicians mostly accept these invitations for self serving reasons – it lends them respectability as well as a stage.

There will be no academic debate in Columbia this coming Monday, only a PR exhibition, of which Ahmadinejad will be the only real beneficiary.

Even though he appears prominently in your comment, I cannot see what President Bush has to do with this matter. Not everything in the world revolves around internal American partisan politics.

Yonatan said...

And so it begins - with no exit and the like trying to spin what is nothing but a publicity stunt into something it is not - an "engagement".

I all but abandoned my idea to write something about his here, but no exit left me no choice. My beef here, however, is not with him/her, the gross inaccuracies in no exit's post notwithstanding (to name just one, Iran is making no secret of its wholesale of weapons to Shiite terrorist groups outside of Iraq - not to mention the somewhat incredible fact that major-scale Iranian weapons (we're not talking ak-47s here), for some reason, end up only in the hands of Shiite militants).

My beef here is with Prof. Dorf and his colleagues at CLS, who have taken a back seat on this whole issue. And no, Prof. Dorf, this is not merely a PR debacle (although, I suspect, it is also that); this is a much more fundamental event, and one that is taking place not in Pakistan but in your very own back yard. The voice of members of the faculty of CLS should be heard on this, and not as a footnote; I have a clear opinion as to what that voice should say, but by now I'd accept any sign of life. So far, one is left to wonder whether the CLS faculty has an opinion at all.

Carl said...

So far, one is left to wonder whether the CLS faculty has an opinion at all.


Maybe they aren't aware of the Iranian policy concerning gays in the military. Surely they would not tolerate the presence of terrorist recruiters on campus if they didn't believe them to be equal opportunity employers.

Sobek said...

"Maybe they aren't aware of the Iranian policy concerning gays in the military."

For that matter, maybe no one told them about Iran's domestic surveillance program.

Or Iran's Jew-killing program.

Sally said...

"Just about the only thing that can be said in favor of the event going forward is that offensive and even dangerous views ought to be heard along with other views."

This would explain why a group of Columbia students were allowed to rush the stage during Jim Gilchrist's address last Fall.

Perhaps someone will ask Ahmadinejad about the recent purging of reform-minded lecturers at the universities in Iran, Columbia being so concerned about academic freedom and all that sort of stuff.

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