Ahmadinejad visit illustrates colleges’ balance between free speech and irresponsibility

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:57 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Contrary to the often sensational portrayals of dissenting factions, academic freedom and the First Amendment are fairly mutually supportive. All one must do is look to the thousands of institutions composed of millions of students and faculty members to understand that harmony wins over confrontation hands down.

Nevertheless, when controversy causes the wheels to come off, the ensuing train wreck is a virtual nirvana for interest groups spanning the ideologies of the left, moderate and right and also constitutes a journalistic boon. While these disputes are argued vigorously by their proponents, often at the expense of common sense and civility, the resultant discourse is both healthy and necessary.

Consider, if you will, Lawrence Summers, a highly respected economist who served the Clinton administration as treasury secretary and later as president of Harvard University from 2001 until he was forced to resign in 2006. Cited among the reasons for his ouster were his angering a leading feminist faculty member by daring to allude to basic differences between men and women in academic pursuits and his criticizing the work ethic of Cornel West, a popular but allergic-to-accountability professor of African-American Studies.

More recently, an invitation to Mr. Summers to speak at the University of California-Davis was withdrawn following a protest by a group of women faculty members. One can draw his or her own conclusions as to whose academic freedom has been threatened or denied; however, the open reporting of the pros and cons tilted public opinion against Harvard and will be less than generous to UC-Davis.

Some of the more bizarre events in which academic freedom appears the antithesis of reason are found in schools’ choices of commencement speakers, and the latest claim that freedom of speech extends to the headlining of a four letter word by the pretend-journalist children of Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian. The leading example of the former has been the taped address of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal at Evergreen College, Antioch College and Occidental College graduations.

The former absurdity, a headline that reads “(expletive) BUSH,” is but an exercise in adolescent behavior designed to gain attention, akin to a child experimenting with a bad word to see how it plays out. The glorifying of felons as commencement speakers and the employment of four-letter obscenities may constitute academic freedom to some, but in reality, it reflects a woeful lack of faculty leadership. Thankfully, we have a press that is free to report and a public with the intellect to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The highly contested and much-maligned Columbia University address by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one for which a reasonable case can be made for both pro and con. The opportunity for a university to host a head of state is one to be taken seriously in spite of the controversial aspects of the speaker; for dialogue, regardless of its onerous nature, is vital in achieving understanding as well as rejection of ideas and ideology.

To doubters, despite the ultra-liberal bent of Columbia University, it is hardly fair to question President Lee Bollinger’s motive. One should assume that his aim was for intellectual discussion, accompanied by vigorous questions from the audience.

In reality, in spite of Bollinger’s intent and expectations, it was a failure. Although nominally the head of state, Ahmadinejad is merely the thuggish attack dog of Iran’s Ayatollah rulers. In capacity for intellectual debate, the Iranian president falls somewhere between Sean Penn and Mike Tyson.

Thanks to our free press, we were enabled to view this petty tyrant as the wannabe he is.

J. Karl Miller retired as colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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