Carol Platt Liebau: An Alternate View of Columbia's Invitation

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

An Alternate View of Columbia's Invitation

This is guest blogger Wile E Coyote.

Columbia and its President, Bollinger, may initially and principally be guided by the educational mission of bringing divergent viewpoints to the university.

This mission is not absolute. For example, there might be high educational value in the clinical results from a would-be speaker's experiments on unwilling human participants. I would expect that the moral aspects of such research would outweigh the educational benefit to be derived from discussing the results and that the speaker would not be invited and his research, not disseminated or used.

A university president should be able to handle this type of moral issue and should be answerable for his judgment to the university, its alumni and the larger community.

The Iran situation presents an additional issue. As was the case with Soviet officials, bringing Ahmadinejad to a forum like Columbia gives him a standing and legitimacy that encourage our enemies and discourage our friends, particularly those suffering persecution in the official's country or those fighting that country. That is a real issue, and it is separate from the moral concerns outlined above, as well as First Amendment rights that in any event don't apply to a visiting foreign official.

The national interests involved in the encourage/discourage issue lie beyond what a university president can see and should be expected to decide on his own. I would expect the president of a major university to identify this issue and to consult confidentially with the State Department regarding the effect of the invitation on our national interests. Private consultation avoids embarrassing our Government and escalating the politics involved. The Government's view should not be dispositive in whether the invitation is made; but, the Government retains the right and power to prevent the foreign official from making the speech.

In this case, the Government declined to block Ahmadinejad's appearance, so it is unlikely to have been very detrimental to our national interests. But, the reported facts also suggest Columbia failed to consult with the Government in advance. That to me evidences poor judgment and perhaps bad faith on the part of the Dean who extended the invitation, as well as of Bollinger in not articulating a process for making such invitations.

In light of the State Department's declining to block the appearance, I can't get too worked up over the invitation, but we should expect more from our major institutions of learning and those who lead them.


Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Coyote, your suggestion flies in the face of the fundamental principles that make universities great. The most important of these is freedom to pursue intellectual inquiries without political intervention. Without that freedom, intellectual vigor withers.

Twenty years ago I was in Singapore and was asked what steps the government should take to foster high-tech creativity in the city-state. I told them that the very first step would be the elimination of all restrictions on intellectual discussion. I hurriedly pointed out that this was politically impossible, so my conclusion was that Singapore would have to wait for a generation or two, to relax its suffocating inhibitions on intellectual exploration, before it could begin to foster the kind of high-tech creativity they wanted. Today, twenty years later, they have still made no progress in high-tech creativity -- but they ARE starting to loosen the reins. Give them another few decades.

Commentators here are wont to deplore the sad state of American academia, but in fact, American academia is easily the best in the world. I haven't seen the latest league tables, but if memory serves me correctly, American universities take the top ten spots in such tables. America dominates the Nobel Prizes in the sciences (but not in other Nobel areas).

This did not happen because Americans are smarter than other people. It happened because American universities have fought hard for the principle of freedom of academic inquiry. Universities in America are freer from political interference than any other country in the world, with the exception of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK.

Throughout the cold war, American scientists met with Soviet scientists for open exchange of ideas. There was a certain amount of harrumphing from the right about such meetings, but they were part of the process that has made American science the strongest in the world.

You would throw away this huge advantage.

3:29 PM  
Blogger One Salient Oversight said...

Personally I think the the best thing to do was let the Iranian president speak.

He certainly dug himself into a few holes. His speech didn't do anything to make people love Iran.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

So, for the sake of unfettered intellectual inquiry, does Chepe invite the speaker with data from clinical trials on unwilling participants?

I am not recommending throwing anything away. I am distinguishing the moral issue from the national-interest issue and suggesting they be handled differently.

Once again, you misread my comment in order to set up a straw man to knock it down.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Coyote, the counterexample you cite is a crime. I didn't bother to specify that universities may not commit crimes in pursuit of excellence. I thought that would have been obvious.

You aver that you are only separating the moral issue from the national security issue and recommending that they should be handled differently. But in fact you wrote more than that in your original article: you recommended that universities should consult with the State Department before inviting speakers. That's well beyond differentiation, and that is the notion that I was responding to.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

There is no US crime in inviting the researcher.

Assume that the researcher is foreign and that the research was conducted in Foreign Country A on Foreign Country A nationals.

Consider two cases: (i) the research was lawful in Foreign Country A; and (ii) the research was unlawful in Foreign Country A.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

In the scenarios you describe, I agree that it would not be ethical to invite the researcher to speak. I can think of no cases in which this has happened. Can you?

9:49 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

Our hypothetical establishes that some moral filter is used to determine whether a speaker with useful educational information is invited to speak.

The next question would be whether the activities engaged in by the Iranian President personally, and by the government he leads and represents, sufficiently violated international or Iranian norms to the extent that he should not be invited.

Once again, this issue is separate from national-interest implications

1:36 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

OK, now I see the point you're driving at. Yes, I agree that moral factors should enter into the evaluation of the lecture. Not as an absolute filter, but as a factor worthy of consideration. For example, suppose that our hypothetical experimenter wants to present a lecture on WHY he believes his methods to ethical (and it is plausible that he has a case). Then I would say, by all means, we really want this lecture, because it presents a point of view that we find surprising.

If the lecturer wishes to present an implausible case, then I would think it unworthy of the students' time. However, academia bends over backwards to accomodate the most implausible points of view. An excellent example comes from the Intelligent Design crowd, who are pushing an obviously fraudulent case. Yet universities across the country are quite willing to allow them to speak, because this is a controversy of some significance in America -- hard as that may be for a rational person to understand. The ID people get no such courtesies in Europe -- because there's no controversy there.

Mr. Ahmadinejad presents a point of view that many people disagree with -- just as the Intelligent Design crowd presents a point of view that many people disagree with. Yet the controversy with Iran makes his point of view especially important, just as the controversy over ID makes the ID people worthy of some attention.

For these reasons, I believe that Columbia's invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad was commendable.

2:18 PM  

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