Fordham University President (and Jesuit priest) Joseph M. McShane made news over the weekend with a full-throated condemnation of the Fordham College Republicans’ invitation to political pundit Ann Coulter to speak on campus.
College Insurrection reported on this on Sunday. If you haven’t read what McShane was willing to say about his own students (not to mention Coulter), click on the previous link and prepare to be stunned. Some excerpts:
To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement…. [Coulter’s] rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature… 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.
Ouch. McShane is clear that he is disappointed that the College Republicans would invite a speaker who is so “needlessly provocative” and aimed at the “darker side,” and compares Coulter’s speech to “hate speech,”’ which “disgusts” him.
Father McShane did go on to say (in the most grudging fashion possible) that because the “old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech,” he will nevertheless permit the event to go on, but doesn’t manage to do so without calling into further question the character of the Fordham College Republicans.
I would have called the idea of countering bad speech with more speech instead of censorship—one of the central ideals of the Enlightenment—as something a little more significant than an “old saw.” But at least McShane was willing to allow the event to go on. (It didn’t. Apparently having been gifted with the ability to know what was good for them, the Fordham College Republicans canceled the event, supposedly even before McShane’s embarrassing email went out.)
Having been personally slammed as immature bigots who lack character and judgment in an email from their college president to all students and many family members, the group’s cancellation of the Coulter event, while unfortunate for the principle of free speech, is hardly surprising.
Father McShane’s message is unmistakable: those who agree with Ann Coulter hold political and social opinions that are in direct conflict with Fordham’s belief system, even if the university will (barely) tolerate their expression.
So one can hardly wait to hear McShane’s reaction when he finds out that Princeton professor and philosopher Peter Singer, who is probably America’s best known advocate for human infanticide, has been invited to speak on a panel at Fordham. And not by an independent student group, either: by his own faculty and administration, including the Department of Theology, Center for Religion and Culture, Office of the Provost, Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, and Dean of Fordham University Faculty!
In 1999, Nat Hentoff wrote of Singer:
LAST YEAR, while I was teaching at Princeton University on the politics of journalism, a lot of class time was devoted to a debate on the appointment of Princeton’s very first full-time tenured professor of bioethics, Peter Singer.
An Australian, Singer was a principal founder of the animal-liberation movement and is a former president of the International Association of Bioethics. What led to our discussion in class — and to various protests outside the university against his appointment, which starts this month — is that he is also an advocate of infanticide. Not of any infant, but of severely disabled infants.
In class, nearly all of us agreed that in a university, a credentialed scholar should not be banned, no matter how controversial his views.
But some of us wondered why Princeton chose this renowned apostle of infanticide and certain forms of euthanasia for so influential an endowed seat at, of all places, the university’s Center for Human Values.
To many, Singer’s philosophical positions will make Ann Coulter’s political positions seem bland. Via The Daily Princetonian:
Over the course of his first 10 years at Princeton, Singer, whom many view as the most influential applied ethics theorist in the world, has been a divisive figure, garnering attention from alumni, students and faculty who disagree with his controversial opinions and from those who laud his academic prowess and his openness to alternate viewpoints.
While Singer is largely praised for his work pioneering the modern animal rights movement, affirming moral obligations to alleviate extreme poverty and defending nonviolent civil disobedience, he has created controversy with his views on infanticide, abortion and medical treatment of the severely disabled, said former politics professor George Kateb, who chaired the search committee that recruited Singer.
“When it comes to killing, I do believe that beings have different interests in continuing to live,” Singer said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian last week. “I think killing a being that wants to continue to live and has designs for the future is very different from killing those that do not.”
Fordham seems downright honored by Singer’s participation. The website promoting the event prominently features Singer, calling him “the most influential philosopher alive today.”
Singer is indeed well-known, and has made headlines with statements like “the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants,” and “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”
Father McShane is a Jesuit Catholic priest, and the president of a Catholic university. He must know that the espousal and advocacy of Singer’s beliefs at such a place is sure to “disgust” many members of Fordham’s community, who would undoubtedly describe it as a “needlessly provocative” and “hateful” appeal to the “darker side of our nature.” So while McShane, following the precedent set in the case of Ann Coulter, would likely be willing to allow Singer to speak, where is the full-throated condemnation of the decision of his faculty and provost to invite Singer? Singer is slated to speak on Friday—there’s not much time left!
Of course, I am being facetious. Both Singer and Coulter should be allowed to speak. But now that Father McShane is in the business of condemning speakers at Fordham, we can determine that if such a condemnation of Singer is not forthcoming, there are only so many reasons why this can be:
1. Nobody at Fordham knows what Singer espouses or told Father McShane. This seems unlikely, as Fordham calls him “the most influential philosopher alive today.”
2. Neither Father McShane or Fordham institutionally finds Singer’s espousal of infanticide disturbing, or they lack any opinion on it. This is remotely possible, although as a Catholic university, such a circumstance would probably shock the Church hierarchy as well as Fordham students and alumni.
3. Father McShane and Fordham institutionally do in fact find Singer’s espousal of infanticide repugnant, but see no political gain to be had in condemning it, especially as Fordham faculty and administrators are the ones who invited Singer.
I probably don’t have to tell you that number 3 is by far the most likely option. It’s also the most disgraceful from an academic standpoint. While McShane may not feel that he can completely jettison Fordham’s written promises of free speech and academic freedom, he nevertheless used his “bully pulpit” to bully the relatively powerless students of the College Republicans into disinviting Ann Coulter. Meanwhile, he so far has nothing to say about his own administration’s invitation to a person whose views far more people at his university are likely to find repugnant.
In the end, the only reasonable conclusion can be that McShane and the Fordham administration have allowed their politically driven distaste for Ann Coulter to overcome their responsibility as academics to allow the marketplace of ideas to function as intended at Fordham.
The wisest and soundest course would have been to avoid wading into an unnecessary political debate, let both Coulter and Singer speak without commenting on their views, and trust Fordham’s adult students to make up their own minds in an unfettered marketplace of ideas.
Belittling students who dare to invite a speaker to campus as a way to disincline them from expressing their views or inviting future speakers is beneath the dignity of a university president. Father McShane should be ashamed.
Robert Shibley is Senior Vice President of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)