3 min read
It is amazing how little things seem to change in the academy. The College Republicans at Fordham University have invited Ann Coulter to speak in a few weeks. Upon hearing of this, the president of the university, Joseph McShane, announced that he would not block the invitation (because student groups are supposed to have autonomy in the use of their funds) but he was determined to use his bully pulpit to make his views on the matter clear. And bully he did. Here's a little bit of what he said:

To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative -- more heat than light -- and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.

Gee, Rev. McShane, how do you really feel?

Well, the College Republicans were sufficiently shamed that they backed down and rescinded the invitation. (They say they had already done so before McShane's statement was released publicly). McShane said that the group had "unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter’s (and the student organizers’) opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy -- and one another -- stronger?" Well they have managed to both abandon their ideals and they have failed to show that those ideals are any better than Coulter's.

Not all colleges let student groups decide which speakers to host. There are plenty of religious colleges, for instance, that wouldn't allow Princeton "bioethicist" Peter Singer within a mile of campus. And they would be perfectly justified in this policy. They want to create a particular intellectual and religious atmosphere and Prof. Singer who thinks infanticide can be justified simply doesn't fit in with that. But Fordham prides itself on letting in everyone--in fact they are having Professor Singer come soon.

When I interviewed Fordham students for my book God on the Quad, they often told me that they felt their institution was "Jesuit, first. Then Catholic." And just what the heck does that mean? Well, one might cynically suppose that they wanted to make clear they don't stand with the church hierarchy on the social and political issues of the day. That they stand for a radical left-wing ideology more compatible with American higher education instead. To the extent that the students were at all aware of what the Jesuits stood for, they told me proudly that the order had almost been "kicked out of the church" several times. The Jesuits were clearly the rebels of their time. But if this recent incident is any evidence, they are not very good at tolerating rebellion.

If a college has decided that its campus is going to be a free for all in terms of speaker invitations, then that standard should be applied across the board. And the president should not be putting his thumb on the scales. Instead of that ridiculous letter, McShane should have (if he really feels there are not enough liberal speakers on campus to respond to Ann Coulter) encouraged another student group or department to invite someone to offer another point of view.

In fact, as I have said on this blog before, more campus debates would actually serve to help students' intellectual development. Instead of only hearing the views of the speaker you already agree with you might have to sit through some you do not. At any rate, there is no hope of such a free exchange of ideas now. Moreover, Fordham's president has made perfectly clear what those students meant when they said they were "Jesuit first, then Catholic."

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