My Visit to Brown · 17 November 2003

Filed under: Brown University

By David Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | November 18, 2003


In the spring of 2001, I placed an ad in the student paper at Brown giving "Ten Reasons Why Reparations For Slavery Is A Bad Idea - And Racist Too." I thought it was a bad idea because it was being proposed 137 years after the fact, and that it was racist because it made all non-black citizens responsible for slavery and promised restitution on the basis of skin color rather than any actual suffering of the individuals to whom restitution was to be made. Even though recent polls showed that the opinions in my ad reflected the anti-reparations attitudes of three-quarters of the American public, forty college newspapers refused to print the "Ten Reasons" on political grounds. On the thirty campuses where the ad was allowed to appear, there were protests by student leftists. The protesters threatened the editors of papers printing the ad and tarred the names and reputations of anyone associated with it, denouncing them as racists.

The worst of these disturbances was at Brown, a school that had already earned a reputation for itself as being one of the most politically intolerant campuses in the nation. Leftists stole and destroyed the entire issue of the Brown Daily Herald, where the ad had appeared, and threatened to continue their attacks until the paper folded or was brought to its knees. In a signed statement, sixty members of the Brown faculty supported this vandalism and joined the protesters attack on the ad suggesting that its author and the student editors who printed it were "racists." The faculty statement was an explicit rebuke to Brown's president, Sheila Blumstein, who had made mild remarks in defense of a free press and free speech.

The ugly intolerance that now enveloped Brown so affected the lives of its student community that there are still convocations, two-and-a-half years later, to deal with the repercussions. One year after the event a member of the Undergraduate Student Council still recalled its traumas: "Last year on UCS, I returned from a meeting physically shaking after being called a liar and other names by council members for defending The Herald's printing of David Horowitz's reparations ad." Many other testimonies appeared in the Herald written by bewildered students who had recently voted for Ralph Nader or Al Gore but now found themselves stigmatized as bigots and worse.

During the controversy meetings were held to discuss the issues and deal with the roiling emotions. Leftist organizations brought in outside speakers, including a Black Muslim and a Black Panther to stir the campus brew. Brown's College Republicans attempted to set up a debate between the head of the Providence NAACP and myself. In the Salem-like atmosphere that had enveloped Brown, I considered it a small victory that the most famous civil rights organization decided not to join the mob and shun me. But the invitation was soon withdrawn when two campus leaders - the head of the College Democrats and a spokesman for the International Socialist Organization -- threatened violence if I came. Without a formal invitation, there was no way for an outsider like me to get to campus so the event never happened.

The left succeeded in keeping this ban in force for the next two years. Brown's College Republicans could not summon enough courage to invite me and no alternative offer was forthcoming from the Brown Administration or other campus groups. In the fall of 2003, however, the College Republicans decided to try again. Under the leadership of senior Joseph Lisska who had been a freshman when the first invitation was withdrawn, they renewed the invitation and were even able to secure funding from the student government to pay for the speech.

One of the factors leading to this turn of events was a change in the institutional environment at Brown. In the fall of 2001, the university installed Dr. Ruth Simmons as its new President. The daughter of a Texas sharecropper and the great-great granddaughter of slaves, Dr. Simmons was the first African American to head an Ivy League school. Inspired by her mother who taught her to face life's challenges with "grace, magnanimity and aplomb," Simmons earned a doctorate in Romance Languages and Literature at Harvard, and served as a translator for the State Department and in several administrative university posts and before taking on the job at Brown.

At her inauguration, Dr. Simmons had made an oblique reference to the reparations controversy: "The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult, difficult things we do," she said. "While confidence may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there." She concluded her address to the class of 2005 with these words: "If you've come to this place for comfort, I urge you to rise, walk through yonder gate, and don't look back."

Dr. Simmons was an authority figure the left was bound to respect and her support for intellectual tolerance had already had a visible effect before my arrival. In the spring of 2003, Defense Department advisor Richard Perle was invited to campus for a panel discussion. A leftwing fringe did turn out to protest and call Perle a "war criminal," which was the foreign policy equivalent of "racist." But this time, the campus reaction against the hecklers was widespread and impressive.

I had been encouraged myself by a remark Dr. Simmons made the first time she met with students as Brown's president. One questioner asked her about the reparations controversy. She replied that David Horowitz should have been invited to campus. I immediately emailed her that these were the wisest words anyone had uttered in the course of the controversy and offered to come at her invitation. She emailed me back suggesting that would be fine but her fall schedule was full and plans for a visit would have to wait.

It turned out to be more than a wait, as the invitation never came. I was disappointed but not surprised by this result. If Dr. Simmons were to invite me as a guest of Brown she would be throwing down a gauntlet to the 60 leftist professors, who had attacked me and the Daily Herald editors. It would be a profound (and richly deserved) slap in the face to the faculty intolerance brigade. But I reasoned that no college president could afford this kind of war with her own faculty, and resigned myself to the situation.

In my disappointment, I had underestimated Dr. Simmons. When I arrived at Saloman Hall, the main campus theater, it was packed to the rafters with 600 students and many had to be turned away. Amazingly, there were no protesters and the Dean of the College, Paul Anderson, was there to introduce me - itself an almost unprecedented occurrence in the 250 or so appearances I had made on college campuses (so thorough is the institutional dominance of the left in the university culture). And there, sitting in the front rows and honoring me with her presence, was a magnanimous and gracious Dr. Simmons herself.

I began my speech by thanking Dr. Simmons for attending, acknowledging her leadership in committing Brown to intellectual diversity, and expressing the hope that the evening's event would help her in accomplishing this goal. The dramatic change in tone at Brown that Dr. Simmons' interventions had brought about was evident throughout the evening. The audience was multi-ethnic and more than half those present appeared to be politically liberal or left. Considering that I had been made a campus pariah and was a symbol of the right wing demon its radicals had been schooled to hate, the Brown audience was as polite and respectful as audiences at any university where I have spoken. Dr. Simmons' presence was probably responsible for the lion's share of this result, but it was still no small achievement nonetheless.

While civility prevailed, the evening's proceedings were not without a sharp retort or two and the occasional expression of audience opposition. My subject subject was "Academic Freedom: A Vanishing Ideal at Brown." I introduced it as I do all my campus speeches with this proposition: "You can't get a good education if they are only telling you half the story, even if you are paying $35,000 a year (the tuition fee at Brown)." I followed this remark by observing that registered Democrats on the Brown faculty outnumbered Republicans 30-1, a statement that was greeted with enthusiastic applause by half the packed house. Apparently, at Brown, many students are uncomfortable with the democratic idea.

Nonetheless, a dialogue was beginning, and Brown's administration was supporting it - an enormous stride forward from the recent past. Opportunities had suddenly opened and I attempted to speak to them. "A university is not a political party," I said, "and an education is not an indoctrination." I pointed out that when we go to our doctor's office we don't expect to find political slogans on the office doors or partisan political cartoons on the waiting room walls. Yet that it is precisely what many students encounter when they go to their professors' offices for counseling and guidance. "We can trust our doctors to be professional, to minister equally to their patients without regard to their political or religious beliefs. But we can no longer trust our professors to do the same.

Pursuing the subject, I recalled an occasion on which I had invited Leon Panetta, former chief of staff for the Clinton White House to speak in Los Angeles at the Wednesday Morning Club, a lunch forum I had founded. Since leaving the White House, Panetta had set up his own public interest foundation, devoted to "statesmanship" and training public servants. The speech he gave was about civic virtues and those concerns that united Americans as a community, beyond party interests. He was even gently critical of his former bosses President Clinton and Vice President Gore, when they came up short of these ideals.

The conservative audience that had gathered to hear Panetta reacted with warm enthusiasm to his speech and said afterwards how impressed they were by the views he had expressed. I did so as well. "Mr. Panetta," I said, "you're speech was quite wonderful. On the other hand, when you were in the White House and I saw you on television I wanted to throw my shoe at the set I was so provoked by what you were saying. What happened?" He gave me a knowing smile and replied, "Oh, that was just the partisan thing."

I paused and looked out into the crowd of faces in the Brown audience and said: "We all can do the partisan thing. We all know what it is. It's the sound bite and the spinning of facts. It's the labeling and demonizing of opponents. We all do it because politics is about power, and that's what's required to win. But this is only one aspect of who we are. We have another side as well. We can also call on the better angels of our nature and rise above partisanship. We can come together and listen to each other civilly and seek a better understanding the problems that confront us as members of a shared community.

"This is what a university should be about. A university is not a political party and should not be a political platform for partisan campaigns. Instead, it should aspire to be a house of reason, to bring out the better angels of our nature, to school us in civil discourse. A university's mission is to seek out a better knowledge and to educate us in the problems that confront us as human beings. There is a place for politics in our society, but there also needs to be a sanctuary where reasoned discourse is the prevailing ideal. Universities like Brown should be a place for something other than politics, something worthy of the name 'higher learning.'"

The uproar over my ad was really the reverse of this idea. I had laid out ten reasons for rejecting reparations, but not a single one of my reasons had been answered by the Brown community that was opposed them. Instead the ad - and everyone associated with it - was stigmatized and demonized by ugly smears. In effect, a warning was issued to the Brown community to shun anyone who even defended the appearance of these thoughts and the right to free speech.

I pointed out how absurd the stigmatization was. Anyone reading the ad with the slightest care for what it actually said would have noticed, for example, that the 10th and final reason for rejecting reparations began, "Black Americans were here before the Mayflower. Who is more American than the descendants of African slaves?" What racist, would launch an argument by claiming that the descendants of African slaves are more American than anyone else?

In the remainder of my talk I tried to observe the Panetta ideals. I addressed my words to the common interest of liberals and conservatives in a university community in insisting that academic dialogue be civil, in keeping political agendas at bay and in supporting the presence of diverse viewpoints. The more ideological a university became, the more everyone's education would suffer.

When I finished, the microphone was opened for questions. They were interesting and civil and even indicated that some re-thinking had already begun. Among those who spoke was Brown University's new "Associate Provost and Director of Institutional Diversity," Brenda Allen. The Associate Provost expressed her disagreement with some of my remarks wondering aloud if I hadn't played a "cheap trick" on the audience in referring to the fact that Democrats and liberals controlled most of America's large inner cities and thus bore responsibility for many of the deplorable conditions found in them, in particular their failing public schools. Provost Allen suggested that Democrats may not have controlled the finances of those inner city governments. I assured her that they did.

Right after my event, Provost Allen attended a meeting called by the coalition of leftist students who had stolen the Daily Herald during the reparations dispute who, according to a report in the Herald, said they were still "not emotionally prepared" to come to listen what I had to say. Provost Allen supported their boycott: "If anyone left [Saloman Hall] feeling they learned something significant about anything," she told the students, "that's a shame. That man doesn't have a clue about race in America. He's a waste of time." These were understandable comments for a political agitator but puzzling coming from an educator.

Earlier, with Dr. Simmons in the room, and myself available to respond to such comments, however, she spoke in a very different voice. Her remarks, in fact, were prefaced with the observation that she supported intellectual diversity and considered it part of her institutional mission. Even more important, she wanted to know if I would come back to Brown to debate Randall Robinson, the leading spokesman for reparations, and thus continue the discussion. I said I would be more than glad to do this and praised the idea itself, which supported the educational ideal towards which Brown and I were now both apparently striving.

To further my end of this effort, I had created a national organization called Students for Academic Freedom, which was already represented on 90 campuses and had a chapter in formation at Brown. After my event, I met with the organizers and encouraged them to build a coalition across the political spectrum and to work with Dr. Simmons and Provost Allen in promoting intellectual diversity at the school. I encouraged them to begin discussions with the administration about codifying students' academic freedom rights. These were laid out in the "Academic Bill of Rights" we were sponsoring as an organization (text available at www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org). A day prior to my speech at Brown, a bill based on our document was introduced as legislation in the House of Representatives by by Georgia Representative Jack Kingston.

When the question and answer period was over, I stepped down from the stage and met Dr. Simmons for the first time. Her greeting was friendly and she said she would like to talk to me further, but she was also unhappy with what I had said about Brown and, in particular, the way I had characterized the Brown faculty, calling it hostile to diverse intellectual viewpoints. I said that if I had painted the faculty with such a broad brush, it was inadvertent, and also incorrect. During the controversy over my ad, several Brown professors had stood up courageously against the would-be censors. Moreover, the vast majority of faculty at Brown, as at other institutions are not ideologues, but scholars. Unfortunately, when political issues like the reparations controversy arise an intolerant minority can intimidate them along with everyone else.

In my talk, I had also perhaps failed to make a sharp enough distinction between the old Brown that had responded so negatively to my ad and the new Brown I had just discovered, that she was trying to create. I told her I regretted any generalization that offended her, and was eager to work with her if I could be of any help in improving these matters.

On balance my visit to Brown could be counted a success -- even greater than I had imagined possible. My student host Joseph Lisska agreed. "The evening went better than even I hoped," he told the Daily Herald. "This was exactly what the university needed."

 

It was a heartening evening. Brown will not change overnight and perhaps only very slowly and over a long period of time. But changes will come. There is a will now among conservative students to challenge the orthodoxies of their environment. There is support from students who are not conservative but who are also under siege from the campus ideologues, and who want the opportunity to breathe a freer air. And there is the support Brown's new President is providing for a more open, less ideological, academic culture. These are positive developments and I will do what I can to encourage them. For openers I will not call my next talk on campus: "Academic Freedom at Brown: A Vanishing Ideal."