Much ink has been spilled recently discussing Brandeis University’s shameful decision to rescind its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As a Brandeis alum (Class of ’13) who currently makes a living defending academic freedom, I hope offering some thoughts will contribute to this important debate.
I don’t agree with Hirsi Ali’s views on Islam, and understand why many find her views offensive. The Muslim community at Brandeis is a distinct minority, and the alienation Hirsi Ali’s invitation caused is understandable.
But this issue is far bigger than one woman and her views. It is about the attitude the academy, ostensibly dedicated to free inquiry and intellectual diversity ought to have toward those who express unpopular, even offensive, opinions.
Many of those who opposed offering Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree rested their argument on a fallacy. Giving an individual an honorary degree does not imply an endorsement of all of that individual’s views or all of that individual’s work—something former Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz made clear when he faced backlash regarding Tony Kushner’s honorary degree. The notion put forward by the school paper that by “presenting Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree, the University applauds all aspects of her work” is utter tripe. It is unbefitting the students of a great university, let alone the citizens of a great republic, to allow the controversial things Hirsi Ali said undermine the good she has done.
Given that Hirsi Ali had already been invited and accepted the offer of an honorary degree and chance to speak, disinviting Hirsi Ali from commencement amounted to caving to a hecklers’ veto. It sent the message that if enough students make enough noise then the board and administration will back down. Students have now learned that academy’s commitment to free speech and the pursuit of truth—presumably, the very foundation of a university—is actually subordinate to their desire to avoid offense.
Of course, there are some views that cross the line. White supremacy, Holocaust denial, and the extreme homophobia of a group like Westboro Baptist Church come to mind. But Hirsi Ali’s sentiments simply do not cross it. Hirsi Ali has engaged in respectful, civil, and fascinating public dialogues with Muslims such as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Maajid Nawaz, and Zeba Khan. These individuals recognize that Hirsi Ali’s views ought not be dismissed, but seriously engaged in vigorous debate. They were not afraid to share a stage with her.
We must be very wary of expanding the range of views and individuals we deem beyond the pale. Nearly every belief or opinion has the potential to offend. We run the risk of creating a hermetically sealed university bubble, in which no individual who has any values with which the majority of the students disagree is welcome.
The protest against Hirsi Ali isn’t a unique occurrence. We live in a world where literally every year brings protests against those universities choose to honor. Condoleezza Rice, Michael Bloomberg, Ben Carson, and even President Obama have provoked backlash. Brandeis, named for one of the nation’s greatest defenders of free speech and free thought, could have bravely stood against this trend. Instead, it acted with cowardice and handed a victory to the hecklers.
Many may see Brandeis’s rescinding its offer of an honorary degree to Ms. Ali as a victory. But it is hard to explain how profoundly saddened I am that a school I love, and so many people whom I respect, have taken a stand against intellectual diversity, free speech, and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.