In an act of breathtaking cowardice even for this “disinvitation season,” Brandeis University has reversed its decision to grant an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist and female genital mutilation survivor who is also an outspoken critic of Islam.
According to a statement on Brandeis’ website,
[Hirsi Ali] is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.
Oh, please. If that last sentence in particular is not a steaming load of you-know-what, I don’t know what is. Ayaan Hirsi Ali rose to prominence as an outspoken critic of Islam, particularly the treatment of women in Islamic societies. Her best-known book is titled Infidel, for crying out loud. Does Brandeis really select its honorary degree recipients without so much as consulting Google or Wikipedia?
It certainly appears that Brandeis is feigning ignorance in order to avoid admitting that it simply caved in to pressure from students, faculty, and outside interest groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to reverse its decision. Once again, we see a university placing political expediency over freedom of expression. Brandeis’ list of honorary degree recipients includes politically diverse and sometimes controversial figures. In 2000, Archbishop Desmond Tutu received an honorary degree from the university in spite of earlier comments comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and stating that Zionism has many parallels with racism. Dr. Alan Guttmacher received an honorary degree in 1970 despite having served as vice-president of the American Eugenics Society.
Indeed, David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy has uncovered the fact that Brandeis issued a strong statement defending the diversity of views among its honorary degree recipients—basically the direct opposite of its statement about Hirsi Ali—in response to controversy over statements made by 2006 recipient Tony Kushner.
Bernstein reports that after learning that some at Brandeis objected to the university awarding playwright Kushner a degree in light of such statements as “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community,” then-President Jehuda Reinharz said the following:
Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. 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.
Ask yourself: Does Brandeis University truly believe that there is no room for Ayaan Hirsi Ali on its diverse list of honorary degree recipients because she has been a harsh critic of Islam, or did the university throw Hirsi Ali under the bus simply to avoid the inconvenience of this particular controversy on this particular topic? To me, the facts speak for themselves, and the story they tell is an ugly and depressing one indeed.