“It’s Hard to See What Good Dartmouth Has Done”


Earlier this summer I posted a piece praising conservative scholar Jonathan Marks for his forthright defense of the academic freedom of African-American activist Lisa Durden, dismissed from her part-time community college teaching position in response to comments she made on Fox News.  Now Marks has weighed in on the controversy surrounding lecturer Mark Bray at Dartmouth College, about which I wrote two days ago.  Bray has been the target of vicious threats and harassment for his comments on anti-fascist violence.  In response, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon publicly disavowed Bray’s comments while failing to mount any defense of the faculty’s academic freedom, prompting a protest letter from over 100 Dartmouth faculty members.

Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Marks disagrees with the Dartmouth faculty’s interpretation of Bray’s work, but more importantly also criticizes Hanlon’s response.  That critique is worth quoting:

As for President Hanlon, there are times when university leadership should distance itself from the opinions of faculty members.. . .

But college presidents have no obligation to denounce individual professors who hold wrongheaded views. Whether violence is ever justified is a legitimate ethical question, and I doubt very much that, whatever Hanlon may say, Dartmouth’s values are really inconsistent with the endorsement of any kind of violence under any circumstances. It is a legitimate empirical question to ask under what circumstances violence could be more effective than nonviolence. As for the rejection of liberalism, although colleges and universities owe their status and safety to liberalism, college presidents should not be called upon to denounce every intellectual departure from it. If they are called upon to do so, their typical response should be that tolerance for free inquiry is among liberalism’s great strengths.

Academic administrations have a duty to take sides in moral and policy disputes from time to time. But when they do, they take the risk of compromising their Socratic core in favor of preaching, or what may be worse, of constantly reassuring anyone who will listen that professors who might shock us are rare and perhaps undesirable in academic communities. So they should be reluctant to wade into such disputes. It is hard to see what good Dartmouth has done by making a statement about one of its visiting scholars. It is not hard to see how, if college presidents keep answering the call to sound off on every stray utterance of their staff members, they might do colleges and universities more harm than good.

If college and university presidents need to “sound off” it should be in defense of their faculty’s right to speak as citizens, not in criticism of what any individual faculty member may say, however misguided such statements may occasionally be.

One thought on ““It’s Hard to See What Good Dartmouth Has Done”

  1. if you are going to defend Bray, I really wish you would do yourself the favor of watching and listening to several of his interviews. I have. I am not going to do myself the dishonor of doing so again.

    You have to listen carefully, and you have to think about what the phrase “stopping fascists” means, given what Bray has said about the tactics that work and don’t work, and what “violence” means, and especially what the limits he himself provides are to the reasoning he so stridently offers.

    Bray is openly advocating–and I am not exaggerating, and if you forced me to, I could go back and demonstrate this with point-by-point commentaries on his public statements–*murder* of anyone he and his friends name “fascists.” he offers no way of differentiating between any kinds of violence; no way to explain how beating up a “fascist” “stops” them, or why his recommendations stop at beating them up, or whatever specifics he recommends (but he always backs away from specifics, so his arguments must be taken at face value: *any means necessary*–one of his favorite phrases–are acceptable to stop fascists, and it’s up to him to decide who is and is not a fascist).

    Bray’s specific claim, discussed in your earlier post, that only violence has ever stopped fascists, is total historical revisionism. There are, today, and have been historically, insurgent fascist movements in every European country and many other countries, quite a bit stronger than the ones in the US today, and have been for at least a decade in many European countries. they have some moderate influence, but have been largely kept at bay, almost *exclusively* through ordinary political and civic methods. there were much stronger fascist movements than today in the US and UK in the 1930s; neither rose to power, due to ordinary political methods. to look exclusively at Italy and Germany so as to declare that only violence can stop fascists is terrible special-pleading argumentation. ordinary politics stops fascists all the time, especially from getting too strong. the fascists in the US have nothing like the military and political strength that post-WWI movements had in Italy and Germany.

    watch Bray closely in his video interviews. I think there is every reason to believe he himself engages in black-clad violence, and that he loves violence and sees himself as a super-hero. he’s not describing a tactic, but justifying his own behavior.

    *sometimes* politics can’t stop fascists. that’s true. but very often it can. it is not up to a small cadre of the most violent and self-aggrandizing among us to decide whether we’ve reached that point.

    but that’s all to the side. Bray openly advocates murder of any he considers his political opponents. Dartmouth did not fire him, but noted that it cannot support that kind of rhetoric. Bray is very close to–in fact I’d argue he’s over the line–advocating the murder of specific people to advance his political agenda. freedom of speech does not protect that, and a fortiori neither does academic freedom. the Dartmouth President was not only justified in condemning Bray’s statement, but had to do so. I think he should be fired, and I find it disgusting that his colleagues are supporting him.

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