At Johns Hopkins, A Future President Bloomberg?

By on April 22, 2008

The New York Sun published an intriguing snippet of speculation yesterday regarding possible career options for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg following the end of his second term on January 1, 2010. According to the Sun, a movement is afoot at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to encourage the school’s presidential search committee to include Bloomberg, a JHU alumnus, in their search for a replacement for departing President Dr. William Brody.

Sun Staff Reporter Grace Rauh writes:

In the last week and a half, a letter has been quietly circulating among professors at Mr. Bloomberg’s alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, urging the school’s presidential search committee to consider the mayor for the top position. Nearly 40 professors have signed the letter, a professor emeritus of political science who drafted the letter, Matthew Crenson, said.

Mr. Crenson, who was a fraternity brother of Mr. Bloomberg’s, said the mayor would be a strong candidate because he knows the university well, was chairman of the board of trustees, and led a major capital campaign.

"We also understand he may be free soon," Mr. Crenson said in an interview with The New York Sun. "I think many of us realize this is exactly what we need right now, someone who has good management skills and thinks creatively," he added.

On the one hand, Bloomberg almost couldn’t help but be an improvement. FIRE supporters will remember that Brody’s tenure at JHU has been regrettable. Under Brody, JHU found itself on the wrong side of several free speech controversies on campus, suspending junior Justin Park for posting an "offensive" Halloween party invitation on Facebook.com and instituting a shockingly broad "civility code" prohibiting "rude and disrespectful behavior." Indeed, Brody was directly responsible for the civility code, explaining in the school’s paper that "tasteless" speech will not be allowed. Brody’s finely-honed and deliberate disrespect for free expression at JHU earned his school the ignominious distinction of being FIRE’s inaugural Censor of the Year in 2006, as well as securing JHU’s spot on FIRE’s Red Alert list.

So if a President Bloomberg proved to be even slightly more cognizant of the essentiality of free expression on a college campus, he could quickly reverse the damage done by Brody to JHU’s reputation as one of our nation’s premier institutions of higher learning.

On the other hand, Bloomberg’s track record when it comes to free speech on campus is unfortunately somewhat less than stellar. Last May, Bloomberg delivered the commencement address at Tufts University, another school on FIRE’s Red Alert list. No problem thereexcept that Bloomberg’s speech incorrectly summarized the case of conservative student newspaper The Primary Source, which had been found guilty of harassment by Tufts just a few months earlier for publishing politically unpopular satire. But Bloomberg’s speech made no mention of this finding, and the Mayor chose instead to gloss over the incident:

This past December, The Primary Source –which is a campus magazine– printed some things that much of the community ardently disagreed with and many considered quite offensive. But instead of suppressing the publication (which might very well have happened on other campuses) and despite the emotion of the moment, I think the students and the faculty and all of Tufts University deserve an enormous amount of respect because you respected the rights of others to express themselves. You discussed the piece… you debated it… you picked it apart. It was a classic example of free speech versus free speech. And in that battle, I’ve always thought everybody wins.

Bloomberg’s sanitization of The Primary Source‘s punishment did a disservice to his audience by offering Tufts administrators praise they had not earned. Despite being notified of his error in an open letter by Greg published in The Huffington Post, the Mayor stayed mum on the issue after the speech, refusing to admit error. Tufts shamefully covered up Bloomberg’s mistake in the weeks that followed, and the guilty verdict against The Primary Source stands to this day. While it’s conceivable (and perhaps even likely) that Bloomberg was simply misinformed about the particulars of the incident by Tufts President Lawrence Bacow prior to the commencement ceremonies, it’s disappointing that Bloomberg didn’t use his bully pulpit to rectify the mistake once notified of it.

So while some at JHU may be optimistic about the prospect of a President Bloomberg, those who value free expression on campus should be decidedly less so.