In defense of freedom in academia

April 17, 2003

Alan Kors, from the Adam Smith tie around his neck to the “Liberty” flag on his wall, makes no bones about his libertarianism.

His files, refusing to conform to anyone’s concept of order but their own, apparently share it.

“Can you believe the kid won?” Kors asks, holding up an old envelope covered in scribbled names, numbers and reminders that, along with the mountains of scrap paper, xeroxes and formal reports from which it came, once played its part in Kors’ struggle against Penn’s prosecution of Eden Jacobowitz.

“This is what his defense looked like,” Kors says, spreading the piles around a coffee table in his office at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Center City.

A founder, co-director and president of FIRE, even with dozens of new battles on his plate, the case that started it all holds a special place in Kors’ office decor. A carved wooden water buffalo grazes eternally beneath an original drawing of the Gary Trudeau “Doonesbury” cartoon that helped make the incident famous.

“What are you looking at, you hedgehog?” cartoon students shout, Penn logos clearly visible on their hand-inked clothing.

The implications the University’s handling of the incident had for academic freedom are no laughing matter to Kors.

“Delaware County Community College is bound by the U.S. Constitution,” Kors points out. “The community was asked, ‘Can you live with liberty?’ And [then-University President] Sheldon Hackney’s answer was ‘no.'”

When Jacobowitz shouted from his high rise window, one anonymous voice among a number of irritated Superblock dwellers’ loud complaints, his status as a potential martyr to individual liberty was barely a twinkle in Fate’s eye.

Kors’ reputation, however, was already well-formed.

Fresh from defending controversial conservative Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Gregory Pavlik, whose opinions earned him 34 charges of racial harassment, Kors had a high profile.

Protecting the DP’s only conservative columnist, the man with the “most dangerous job on campus,” Kors managed to get the charges dropped.

“They tried to get Pavlik,” Kors says, summing up the case. “They couldn’t.”

Jacobowitz, meanwhile, was far from sure that Penn’s administration would fail again in its quest for a scapegoat.

“When they brought the case against me, I didn’t know what to do,” Jacobowitz says. “I knew nobody, so I chose… Fran Walker, to be my adviser…. She would argue… that I was guilty — the ‘adviser’ was working against me.”

Offered a “plea bargain” that would require him to apologize, admit to being guilty of racial harassment, carry a record of the incident on his transcript until his junior year and “conduct racial sensitivity seminars,” Jacobowitz refused to abandon a firm belief in his innocence.

Your back’s to the wall. You don’t know who to trust. Time to call Alan Kors.

“I read about Alan in the DP,” Jacobowitz remembers, relating how the article — which painted Kors as “a major thorn in the administration’s side…, somebody who got results” — led him to his defender.

Kors was well-known. Perhaps too well-known.

“I’ve already won three cases this year,” Kors says, recalling his first conversation with Jacobowitz. “They’re not going to give me another one.”

“At least I’ll have someone who believes in what I’m doing,” Jacobowitz says, remembering his reply.

“This was the first time I talked to somebody who reaffirmed my belief that… I was in the Twilight Zone,” Jacobowitz says.

Kors’ experience with the Twilight Zone began years earlier, at Princeton University where mandatory chapel, even for non-Christian students, didn’t make life under the orange and black especially comfortable.

“I tried to get out of it on grounds of disbelief,” Kors says. “I failed.”

“Since they couldn’t tell you which chapel to go to, I turned it into an education in comparative religion,” Kors says, reflecting on the dozens of different services he sampled to get his attendance-slip signed each week.

“I resented every minute of it,” he concludes.

Yet, it was at Princeton that Kors would find his political identity and meet his best friend.

“There was a sense of long-lost brothers from the start,” Kors says of his first meeting with Harvey Silverglate, who co-authored The Shadow University with Kors and serves as co-director and vice president of FIRE.

“We were two public-school, Jewish, scholarship students from the seamier sides of North Jersey who mysteriously found themselves at Princeton,” Kors says. “We met by passing each other on a walk… and have been inseparable friends for 40 years.”

Princeton unwittingly introduced Kors to libertarian thought as well — through a Marxist professor.

Having received sycophantically leftist answers from his students on midterms, Princeton socialist Arno Mayer assigned the libertarian classic, The Road to Serfdom.

“It changed my intellectual life,” Kors says. “That was education…. He strove not to create disciples but to create critical minds.”

At Penn, Kors decided, that method of educating should be the rule, not the exception.

Shortly after joining the History Department in 1968, Kors started Van Pelt Manor in what is now Gregory College House. Under Kors’ direction from 1971 until 1979, the dorm was designed as a melting pot.

“Van Pelt happened almost directly as my way of putting into practice at Penn what was totally absent during my… years at Princeton,” Kors says.

With residents ranging from pre-meds to music majors, and never less than 20 percent black when Penn’s black population was significantly lower, Kors says Van Pelt was a place where students learned to “intelligently defend what they believe” rather than preach to a self-selecting choir.

The educational value of Van Pelt represented the flipside of everything Kors has opposed — the stifling of open discussion in all its forms.

“When they first told Eden [about the charges], he said, ‘That’s awful, let me talk to them and explain it,'” Kors recalls. “Their response was ‘That’s not good enough.’ There’s the learning right there.”

Kors says he sees his colleagues’ transition from radical ’60s youth to repressive administrators as “a generational swindle of epic proportions.”

They turned the “struggle against mandatory chapel into the struggle for mandatory diversity education,” Kors says.

“The pendulum swung for a while — I probably slept late when it was perfect.”

Given his pace of life, Kors’ irony becomes stronger still.

In addition to his work at FIRE, Kors has enjoyed distinguished careers both as a scholar and as an educator, having won distinction in both roles.

Finding time to serve on the Council of the National Endowment of the Humanities and, recently, serve as editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, it seems unlikely that Kors has slept late at some time.

Jacobowitz adds yet another facet to Kors — his family.

“You can tell a lot about a person from his kids,” says Jacobowitz, who lived with the Kors during his summer trial.

“His kids were so smart and so polite,” he continues. “It was a joy to stay in that house.”

Kors and his wife Erika, a managing editor with a Philadelphia medical publisher, raised two children of their own as well as Mua Tran, a Vietnamese refugee they adopted in 1980.

“We saw an Ed Bradley reportage about teenage Vietnamese refugees in a dreadful camp in Asia,” Kors says. “Bradley concluded it by saying that no one left there unless someone opened up a home in the U.S. Erika and I sat up all night and decided that, if not us, who?”

That question is classic Kors, from adoption to advocacy.

“He had no reason to be involved,” Jacobowitz marvels, reflecting on his own case. “He could be like everybody else, teach his class, walk off campus and just let life go on. But he doesn’t turn the other way — I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

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Schools: University of Pennsylvania Princeton University