Muddled Thinking at Brandeis:

Readers may recall that (my alma mater) Brandeis University embarrassed itself a bit last Spring by hamhandedly taking down a previously-approved library exhibit created by a student of anti-Israel paintings by Palestinian children. A faculty committee has gently criticized the university for this action, while praising the university for more generally promoting an open dialogue on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"We felt [the removal] was a departure from the administration's own record of promoting and fostering discussion and dialogue [on] the Middle East and in other matters," said Prof. Paul Jankowski (HIST), the chair of the Exhibitions and Expressions Committee. Jankowski cited several examples of the administration's efforts to foster healthy discussion, including the University's recent, hotly criticized decisions to hire the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, who has been accused of having ties to terrorism, as well as the decision to partner with the Palestinian Al-Quds University and to present the playwright Tony Kushner-who has been criticized for his views on Israel-with an honorary degree.

This seems to me to be mixing apples and oranges in a rather foolish and counterproductive way.

The problem with taking down the exhibit was not that it failed to foster healthy discussion, but that a (non-religious) university, as such, should not enforce an official orthodoxy on any matter of public concern, and thus should not intervene in any way to stifle any student's expression of his opinion, except via content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. Ironically, Jankowski seems to be praising the university for hiring a pro-Palestinian professor, and for giving the anti-Israel Kushner an award, because this "fosters discussion" of the Middle East, in other words giving some university impramatur to the Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel side of things. Yet Brandeis as a university has no obligation to "promote" or "foster" discussion of any given topic, much less to ensure that its faculty and even less so its honors are distributed in a way that gives equal (or any) weight to both sides of any given controversy. Indeed, it is entirely consistent to criticize Brandeis for taking down the student exhibit, and also for giving an honor to Kushner; indeed, I have done both on this blog. Moreover, as a Brandeis alum who follows events there reasonably closely, I can state with some measure of confidence that the range and depth of opinion expressed there with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far broader than with regard to most other major public issues; I'm quite certain there are far more professors and students who express sympathy for the Palestinian side, than, say, support the invasion of Iraq or argue that abortion should be illegal. Somehow, I doubt that any Brandeis professors are going to argue that the university has an obligation to "promote dialogue and discussion" on those issues.


Harry Mairson, chair of the Faculty Senate, who was not a member of the committee, said he spoke only for himself, as he addressed the faculty first Thursday. Mairson said the administration's "move on" stance is an insufficient response to the controversy, which occurred because the exhibit made Israelis and by extension Jews, "look bad." "That's why this crisis, at Brandeis, attracted such public notoriety-free speech issues at universities don't make news like this," he said.
Professor Mairson obviously doesn't read this blog, which discusses many such controversies, some of which attract much more attention than the incident at Brandeis. For example, he is apparently not aware of the analogous (but more serious, because it involved a state university and thus First Amendment rights) free speech controversy last Spring at Penn State, involving the suppression of pro-Israel speech, that received far more attention than did the incident at Brandeis.