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Academic justice at crossroads over Hirsi Ali controversy

Published: April 25, 2014
Section: Opinions


Ayaan Hirsi Ali suffered at the hands of those who used religion to justify evil actions. After this trauma, Hirsi Ali became an advocate for the rights she herself had lost, becoming a critic of Islam in the process. Brandeis University offered Hirsi Ali an honorary degree for her feminist efforts, despite her statements against Islam. After a well-deserved uproar from the student body, the university declared it could not “overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis’ core values.” Despite the official memorandum, Brandeis University is not off the hook. Brandeis devalued our degrees by its poor manners to Hirsi Ali by highlighting its past double standards and by setting an unachievable standard for future speakers: complete agreement.

Brandeis University follows academic justice instead of academic freedom, which endangers dissenting opinions. I take the term “academic justice” from a Harvard Crimson op-ed, where the author argued that academia should suppress research that pursues offensive ideals. This idea fuelled the outrage against Hirsi Ali’s coming; since she has called Islam horrific and erroneous names, she should not be tolerated. Personally, despite my disagreements with her, I would love to hear her speak or even for her to be honored by the university. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Hirsi Ali’s presence would have allowed us to show off our educated minds. In academic justice, offensive dissent cannot be tolerated. Universities exist to justify free discussion of all ideas, from those we agree with to those we find absolutely wrong. Academic justice goes against the ideas of a university and a liberal society. With academic justice, it does not matter the prose or the validity of the argument, but solely its popularity.

Brandeis’ ill-advised actions were impolite. Brandeis originally claimed Hirsi Ali was “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights … we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.” The deciders knew she was a women’s rights advocate, but not about her statements? The first part of research is to enter a query into an Internet search engine. If Brandeis had Googled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy,” they could have avoided the entire cataclysm we faced. It is amazing that Brandeis would not do something so many people do by instinct now, especially when school administrators use Facebook and Twitter from smart phones. After Brandeis revoked the invitation, Hirsi Ali also published a statement, which said, “I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me—just a few hours before issuing a public statement—to say that such a decision had been made.” The administration offered no resolution or appeal. That’s severely unprofessional and impolite. It’d be like Brandeis telling me to leave because they found out I spoke at a school function through an op-ed opposing me and not consulting me to learn its veracity. This action is shameful and horrifically mannered of a well-respected university.

Brandeis’ actions show that the university values academic justice and double standards instead of academic freedom, just as it values closed decision-making and unprofessionalism. In 2008, a professor used a racial slur to tell the history of said racial slur and criticized racists who used the slur. He got fired due to racial harassment in the name of “academic justice.” Yet we have had honorary degree recipients who have said more offensive things. Tony Kushner has referred to God as a person who “splits the skin … [and] pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out!” He has called Catholic bishops “mitred, chasubles and coped Pilates” referring to the Governor who ordered Jesus’ death. Kushner claimed “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.” Yet despite his anti-religious, anti-Catholic and anti-Israel statements, Brandeis University gave him an honorary degree in 2006. Brandeis University honorary degree recipient in 1997, Whoopi Goldberg, defended Roman Polanski’s criminal accusations, claiming his actions were not rape, yet there is no action to revoke her honorary degree despite her ignorance toward sexual assault victims. Do these people personify Brandeisian values? We could have confirmed Brandeis’s commitment to academic diversity, but alas, academic justice has won the battle and the war.

Brandeis University’s silence and actions devalued our future degrees. Despite all the factors and reasoning, this issue will mark the university for years to come. This controversy would be nonexistent if militant atheists who hated other religions were invited to speak, such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry. Despite their past anti-Catholic statements, Brandeis University would most likely give them a degree, as they should. Brandeis University should tolerate and endorse as many types of people as possible to show their value of diversity and academic freedom. Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” If by the end of this article you disagree with me, that is wonderful. He and I welcome it. Diversity of opinion is a true Brandeisian value, and let’s not forget that.