The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Disinvitation, Northwestern Style

June 20, 2016 by Michael B. Poliakoff

On May 31, the Washington Post published the distressing account of how three-star general and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry withdrew under faculty pressure from his appointment as executive director of the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, to which he had been named last November. Forty-six faculty members had signed a letter in February describing Eikenberry as a “non-academic career military officer.” And this, despite the fact that he holds a M.A. from Harvard in East Asian studies and an M.A. from Stanford in political science and that he has served as a Stanford professor of the practice and as a distinguished fellow in Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

But the charges of academic inadequacy couldn’t quite disguise what really irked the professors and grad students. They were enraged that he called upon the humanities to demonstrate their value, and they quoted as witness to his inadequacy that he said: “Sitting in one’s arts and humanities classroom, worrying about declining enrollments, cursing the STEM god, might be good grist for Shakespearean tragedy, but it does little to help the cause. You have to get outside of the box, and you have to compete for market share.”

Some wanted, as one petition supporter told the Washington Post, someone “less belligerent and tainted by U.S. bias.” They needed no more proof of his bad character than his service to the nation: “An ex-U.S. general will likely think about international politics in terms of war and from the perspective of the U.S.’s interests.” It was just too terrifying that this Stanford professor of the practice might bring the very real experience of war and diplomacy to the institute.

Northwestern has a groupthink problem, but it doesn’t stem from overrepresentation of the United States. Even those undergraduates majoring in history are carefully steered away from engagement with the history of the nation we just happen to inhabit. There is no requirement for even a single course concerning the United States but an explicit requirement to take at least two courses that focus on areas outside the United States.

And speaking of groupthink: This, after all, is the campus that was complicit in the persecution of Laura Kipnis for daring to challenge its Title IX orthodoxy

Northwestern will be much the poorer for having driven off General Eikenberry.


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