Good for William Bowen. The former president of Princeton spoke at my alma mater Haverford College’s commencement on Sunday and has sharp words for the students who successfully campaigned against another commencement speaker, Robert J. Birgeneau, former Chancellor of Cal Berkeley. They accused him of violating a sacred principlethou shalt not require progressive protestors to obey the lawand issued a list of nine things he needed to do in order to properly repent and receive absolution.
Here is what he said: “I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of demands. In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”
It wasn’t only students he criticized, however. “I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
One wishes Bowen had expressed an opinion about Haverford College President, Daniel Weiss, who seems not to have made it clear publicly that the forty or so Haverford students and three faculty members who objected to Birgeneau and issued demands did not speak for the College, and that he strongly and unequivocally supported Birgeneau as a commencement speaker.
Or that Bowen has said something about the Haverford faculty, none of whom seemed willing or capable of mounting a public campaign to defend Birgeneau as a commencement speaker.
The kerkuffle over Birgeneau at Haverford is very similar to the ones over Christine Lagarde at Smith College and Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers. (The controversy over Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis has a different significance.) In each instance a standard issue Establishment figure was criticized by students and faculty who advanced precious claims that reflect the political Puritanism of the academic left. And in each instance a spineless academic administration stood by, apparent helpless or unwilling to assert adult leadership.
William Bowen is from an older generation of liberal academic leaders. In the post-sixties atmosphere they made fateful compromises, allowing the establishment of black studies, women studies, and other hothouses for academic identity politics. But they also had principles and stood up for them.
Today’s academic leaders? They’re administrative technocrats who are undone when faced with claims of principle, no matter how goofy, no matter how extreme, no matter how puerile.
This, it seems to me, is the real problem in higher education. It’s not that the fringe left has taken over. It hasn’t. Today’s Ivy League and Ivy League wannabe colleges and universities are filled with people who think like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom (and especially the latter) are right-of-center politicians by European standards. Instead, there’s very little there there among academic leaders. And so the shrillest voices and most extreme actions go unchecked.