BY HANK REICHMAN
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.