Some say that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes. I don’t know if that holds true for organizations like FIRE, really, but if it does, I feel like we’re doing pretty well after reading this article from the December 12 New York Sun. The article, by Gabrielle Birkner, covers an “armchair discussion” between Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and New York University President John Sexton at an Upper West Side Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Titled “Academic Integrity, the Middle East & the State of the Academy,” the meeting apparently focused not so much on the Middle East but on “their universities’ curricula, their quotidian interactions with students and faculty, and their ideas on academic inquiry and freedom.”
I know that sounds shockingly dull, but when the two leading censors of Manhattan get together, those who care about free speech have reason to get very nervous. NYU’s Sexton, you may remember from a few months ago, is the man who defended his administration’s censorship of a discussion of the Mohammed cartoons, evidently on the belief that discussing something while being forbidden to look at it was really a pretty normal state of affairs in the United States of America. I eagerly await Sexton’s decision to have NYU’s next building designed by architects who are forbidden to look at the plans while discussing them. Bollinger, on the other hand, appears to prefer to take his censorship in the form of a violent melée, while his promises to punish those who turned a peaceful lecture into a fight seem to have no more meaning than O.J. Simpson’s quest to find the real killers.
I would have been very interested to hear Bollinger’s and Sexton’s “ideas on academic inquiry and freedom;” considering their actions this year, they may well have invented whole new meanings for the terms. Unfortunately, the Sun article doesn’t cover what was said on these topics. But those who might wax optimistic about this sudden interest in free inquiry among Bollinger and Sexton had best contain their excitement. The article concludes:
Toward the end of the hour-and-ahalf [sic] meeting of minds, Mr. Sexton, who has held NYU’s top job since 2002, said that there is too much interference from “watchgroups” in the goings-on at universities.
“This kind of external inquisition could end up destroying the university we’ve talked about here tonight,” he said.
There can be no doubt, given our history with NYU, that the main “watchgroup” Sexton is talking about is FIRE. But you’ll have to pardon us if we don’t believe that Sexton- or Bollinger-style censorship is going to help the cause of liberal education and academic freedom. Everything FIRE has done at Columbia and NYU is on our website; read for yourself and decide whether FIRE’s advocacy is good for the marketplace of ideas or bad for it. And if you think, as we do, that FIRE’s ideals are crucial for the success of America’s universities, ask yourself this: just what kind of universities are Bollinger and Sexton trying to build if FIRE’s watching would destroy them?