Universities keep disconnecting – Part I: The shame of Brandeis

When people like me criticize universities for costing too much and producing too little, the classic comeback is that they have a higher purpose (at least, when it comes to liberal arts). They’re not supposed to be servants of the marketplace, we’re told. They’re the last bastions of thought leadership, the hallowed place where ideas are thrashed out and bold new concepts emerge, unfettered by such crass requirements as value and practicality.

Well, OK.

But if that’s the case, how to explain the disgusting surrender of Brandeis University, which withdrew its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of Islam, focusing particularly on abuses of women.

You can read a synopsis of her own dramatic life story here — there is no question that she suffered, first hand, from the extremist versions of Islam. She fled to Holland, became a member of the Dutch parliament, wrote the screenplay for Submission, a short film depicting the abuses suffered by four Muslim women (played by a single actress). The director, Theo Van Gogh, was later murdered in the street, and a letter addressed to , and threatening, Hirsi Ali was affixed to his body with a dagger. Eventually, Hirsi Ali fled to the USA . Her autobiography, Infidel, was published in 2006. She continues to write and speak and has started a foundation , the AHA Foundation, which “works to protect women and girls in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture.”

There’s no question she is a significant force – in 2005, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. There is also no question that her views on Islam are uncompromising and, to some (and not just extremist fanatics), unacceptable. She has stated that the west is “at war” with Islam, and that it is a backward religion. She’s controversial, no doubt about it.

Too controversial to give a commencement address? Which the university had already invited her to do?

There were protests against her appearance – from a group of professors led by Joseph Lumbard, a convert to Islam; from the CAIR, (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) and from members of the Muslim Student Association of Brandeis.

Brandeis caved. The president, Frederick M. Lawrence, announced that Brandeis was withdrawing the invitation because “certain of her past statements” (of which the university claimed it was unaware) were at odds with the “core values” of Brandeis, because they were “Islamophobic.”

There can be no doubt that this was simply a retreat, under the banner of political correctness and fear of giving offense.

Think I’m exaggerating? In 2006, Brandeis awarded an honorary degree to radical gay playright Tony Kushner, an outspoken opponent of Israel. (Brandeis is Jewish-sponsored, with close connections to Israel). Among Kushner’s many inflammatory anti-Israel statements were the sentiment that the creation of Israel was a mistake, and that he wished it had never happened. He also said that “the biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.”

Needless to say, there was a huge protest against Kushner’ appearing at Brandeis. But appear he did. The president of the university at the time (not Frederick Lawrence) said: “Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.”

The net net outcome of both events is plain to see. Criticize Jews, and even a Jewish-centered university will still award you an honorary degree if your other accomplishments deserve it. Criticize Muslims, and if people get offended, out you go.

What’s all this got to do with the inter-generational issues we’ve been following here? Why should I be getting involved in a controversy about Islam?

It isn’t Islam, of course. It’s the self-censorship of universities in the face of any “political correct” protests. There are protected groups or causes – Islam is by no means the only one – and any ideas that offend those groups must be banished.

What this does, however — and here’s where the topic moves into our territory — is make universities even more irrelevant, even more disconnected, even more cut off from the realities of the society around them.

Why so? Because they keep demonstrating how quickly and readily they will betray their own stated purpose – intellectual freedom. The very bastion they erect against commercialism, the very bulwark against the demands for jobs and value and return on investment, quickly dissolves under the most shallow and predictable pressure.

So what’s left?

They can’t deliver enough job-related skills in relation to their ever-rising tuition fees.

And they can’t deliver, with any consistency or conviction, on the idea of intellectual freedom. Instead, they just keep pandering to the most oppressive forces of political correctness.

It’s  journey straight off stage and into the wings, and for some reason they insist on taking it.


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. Vice President, Zoomer Media Ltd. . Author of "The New Old" . 30 years experience in marketing communications, advertising, media . Speaker, writer, commentator on the revolution in aging and how to market to Boomers and seniors