Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ann Coulter Out in the Cold at Fordham University

One of the great things about working for a nonprofit, educational institution is that it's not all about making money, maximizing profits, and efficiency. It's not the way to go if your goal is to get rich, but if your interests lie elsewhere, it is a very satisfying and nurturing environment to operate within.

Saturday night at the Meir Ribalow memorial that was the subject of my previous post, Meir Ribalow Memorial at The Players, one of the speakers reminded us of something that I've heard Meir say a number of times, especially at ceremonies where the Harold U. Ribalow Prize was awarded, named after Meir's father, and given by Hadassah Magazine to the author of the work of Jewish fiction judged to be the year's best. It's one of my favorite quotes from Meir, he'd say, "In our family, making money was considered a perfectly legitimate thing to do...  for those without any other talent." Not surprisingly, Meir thrived in the university setting, and I heard from a number of people at the memorial how much teaching at Fordham meant to him.

For myself, I have to admit that it's easy to take it all for granted, especially when it becomes part of your daily/weekly/monthly/yearly routine.  Sometimes it seems like it's just work, just a job. But then there are times I'm reminded that working at Fordham has given me a chance to join together with some very special people, like Meir.  And there are times when I'm reminded about just how special a place Fordham is. Coincidentally, this happened almost at the same time as Meir's memorial.

What I am referring to is the statement that our president, Joseph M. McShane, SJ, made in response to an event planned by our College Republicans student club to invite Ann Coulter to speak. If you're not familiar with this woman, suffice it to say that she is one of those right-wing pundits whose speech is truly hateful and angry, full of putdowns, insults, and incitements to engage in violent activity. I'm sure you can find plenty of examples over on YouTube, I won't bother to embed any videos here, I just don't want her on my blog.

As the parent of an autistic child, what is perhaps the most egregious example of her offensive talk is her use of the word "retard" to characterize President Obama. Beyond the disrespect that she has every right to express in a democratic society, she is using the word in a way that is every bit as offensive, and hurtful as a racial, ethnic, or religious bigot-word, and she has been utterly unapologetic about it.

As much I am lauding educational environments in particular here, I want to note that at most other institutions, inviting Coulter to speak would have been met by a shrug of the shoulders from the administration, and a ducking behind some reminder about academic freedom. And as much as that is a value I wholeheartedly endorse, along with First Amendment rights, I am so very proud of how Fordham's president handled this, that I want to share his statement with you, and preserve it here on my blog of record:

    University Statement on Ann Coulter Appearance | November 9, 2012
    The College Republicans, a student club at Fordham University, has invited Ann Coulter to speak on campus on November 29. The event is funded through student activity fees and is not open to the public nor the media. Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus.
    To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.
    As members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion, not to sling mud and impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree or to engage in racial or social stereotyping. In the wake of several bias incidents last spring, I told the University community that I hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.
    “Disgust”was the word I used to sum up my feelings about those incidents. Hate speech, name-calling, and incivility are completely at odds with the Jesuit ideals that have always guided and animated Fordham.
    Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement. Preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a university, and I fully expect our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff to voice their opposition, civilly and respectfully, and forcefully.
    The College Republicans have unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter’s (and the student organizers’) opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy—and one another—stronger? We have chosen the latter course, confident in our community, and in the power of decency and reason to overcome hatred and prejudice.
    Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President

Now, I think it is pretty clear from this that Fordham is a special place, one where there still are certain core values and principles that speak to the importance of human dignity and compassion. This stems from the fact that Fordham is a Jesuit institution, but of course these are values and principles that are shared across faiths and creeds, by all individuals of good will and ethical character.

Not long after this statement was issued, the College Republican club announced that they had canceled Coulter's appearance. In response to this decision, the following statement was issued:   

University Statement | November 10, 2012 

Late yesterday, Fordham received word that the College Republicans, a student club at the University, has rescinded its lecture invitation to Ann Coulter. 

Allow me to give credit where it is due: the leadership of the College Republicans acted quickly, took responsibility for their decisions, and expressed their regrets sincerely and eloquently. Most gratifying, I believe, is that they framed their decision in light of Fordham’s mission and values. There can be no finer testament to the value of a Fordham education and the caliber of our students. 

Yesterday I wrote that the College Republicans provided Fordham with a test of its character. They, the University community, and our extended Fordham family passed the test with flying colors, engaging in impassioned but overwhelmingly civil debate on politics, academic freedom, and freedom of speech. 

We can all be proud of Fordham today, and I am proud to serve you. 

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President

So, I am indeed proud of Fordham, as a member of the faculty, and for the past few months as the parent of a Fordham student (my son) as well.  And I am proud as well of our president, for his willingness to take a stand on this issue and rise up in the defense of common decency, for his judicious response in the form of admonition (rather than relying on some more coercive form of ammunition), and for his eloquence in communicating all this, truly exemplifying the Jesuit ideal of eloquentia perfecta.

And I just want to add that I communicated to Fr. McShane my appreciation, and was further impressed by the fact that he is now concerned about reprisals against the College Republican club for having extended the invitation in the first place.

Quite right! Coulter deserves to be left out in the cold. There would be no better response to her vile discourse than to be completely ignored and relegated to the marginal media outlets and platforms that she appeals to. But for our students, this should be nothing worse than a learning experience, a chance to grow, mature, and learn from role models at the university about character and conduct. That's the kind of conservatism, of conservation, or the conserving activity (to use Neil Postman's phrase) that we all can sign on to!

1 comment:

Megan said...

Couldn't agree more but I was a bit disheartened when I read some of the FB posts from users (who I assume were alumni) missing the big picture and saying Fr. McShane "bullied" the group into cancelling the talk. I was upset that someone with that little tolerance and intelligence can also call themselves a Fordham alum. But I was very proud to be assocaited with the university from McShane's statements. Thanks for sharing your perspective as well!