How a University Compromises Its Principles ~ Not Quite Totally
About two weeks ago I heard Debra Satz, a friend who teaches philosophy at Stanford, on npr. She was interviewed as part of this report on faculty and student opposition to having former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed as a "distinguished fellow" at the Hoover Institution which is located on the Stanford Campus. I admire Debra's work ~ especially her series of extremely smart papers on markets and equality* ~ and her politics. It seems to me that faculty ought to speak out when their University seeks to appoint someone like Rumsfeld, who arguably is a war criminal, to some position or other.
Of course, Stanford has no real control over the folks at Hoover, which is a quasi-autonmous entity. But, I have to agree with the folks there who object to Rummy's appointment. Unlike BushCo minions like John Yoo ~ he of the infamous 'torture memos' ~ who now teaches law at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley), Rumsfeld was not just a mouthpiece for putrid policies. He was directly in the chain of command. I would object to having Yoo on faculty where I teach but fortunately we have no law school! This is not "left-wing intolerance" as Conservatives (or Liberals who are free speech fundamentalists) are wont to proclaim; it is simply talking back to those who have said things in public that are both dangerous and stupid.** It is an attempt to hold Universities to their own principles. Would I urge the administration at Rochester to deny Yoo an academic appointment? No, but I likely would make clear that I find his rationalizations for torture contemptible. Would I ask the administration at UofR to deny Rumsfeld an appointment? Yes, just as I would in the case of other war criminals like, say, Henry Kissinger. Yoo rationalized torture in his speeches/writings, Rumsfeld actually implemented various dispicable policies.
All of that brings me round to the good old University of Rochester. This past weekend was "Meliora Weekend," part of the PR/Development campaign by which the University seeks to cultivate relations, both intellectual and economic, with alumnae and alumni. Nothing wrong with that. But the Keynote event on campus was an address by none other than former Secretary of State Colin Powell, he of the deceptive BushCo campaign to justify our invasion of Iraq.
This official-style head shot is how the University PR materials depict Powell. That makes sense since, according to the University, Powell is a "fervent purveyor of democratic values." This, unfortunately, seems to me to be considerably more than a stretch. Powell is a liar. In his 2003 testimony before the United Nations Security Council, Powell lied with a straight face about the alleged WMD in Iraq. He did not "mislead" or "dissemble." There is no need to sugar-coat the testimony he offered. He lied. He lied to you and me and the world. And he has admitted as much himself. It is deeply embarassing that the UofR invited Powell to speak on campus. Accordng to the University, while in office Powell "used the power of diplomacy and the universal ideal of democracy to" among other things "build trust"; it escapes me completely how lying to the American people, and to our allies and adversaries, enhances trust either domestically or internationally. Quite the contrary. And to the extent that our premise is that healthy democracy presupposes a reservoir of political trust, Powell seems to me an enemy of democracy.
Here is a far more appropriate photograph of Powell. It is a still taken from the video of his perfomance at the U.N. in the winter of 2003. This is the defining moment of Powell's career in public service. Here he is peddling lies. He is peddling lies that it seems quite disingenuous to suggest he did not know were lies at the time. Why didn't this image appear on our Meliora Weekend web page?
Call me an "absent-minded Professor." I do not pay much attention to Meliora-like events. The only evidence I had that there was a special event on campus last Friday was my inability to find a place to park. So I didn't even know Powell was on the schedule. I didn't know there was a schedule. Had I known I would've objected in advance. As it is, I am objecting now. I'm sure there will be those who chastise me, claiming that Powell has a right to speak. That, of course, is true. But let's be quite clear about what has happened. As part of the Meliora events we didn't just offer Powell an audience; we granted him an honorary degree. That is simply pathetic. It tarnishes the reputation of the University ~ to put it very mildly ~ to lend its name to the "achievements" of an admitted liar. Allowing someone to speak is one thing. Honoring him and his ignominious achievements is another.
I started this post with a reproduction of Picasso's Guernica because it bears witness to the evils of unjust and duplicitous regimes and the consequnces their policies generate. It also is relevant to Powell's defining moment, because the copy of this work that hangs at the U.N. Headquarters in NYC appropriately was covered over during Powell's testimony. Picasso's is a work of testimony. And ironically enough another of the speakers invited to address our alums this past weekend was Barbara Olshansky (BA, Rochester ’82; JD, Stanford '85 ~ how is that for a coincidence?) who, as the Deputy Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, successfully fought the Bush administration's ongoing efforts to shred the Constitution in the name of this or that ill-conceived and deceitful policy. Olshansky now is on the faculty of Stanford Law School and is Litigation Director for the International Justice Network. She is a truly distinguished alumnus.
As far as I know the UofR bestowed no honorary degree on Olshansky; she simply was offered an audience to whom she could provide a report on her honorable work trying to counteract the lies and actions of those like Colin Powell. So our compromise, I suppose, was not total.
* You can find a draft of one of these papers here.
** Steve Holmes dismantles Yoo's views (pardon the rhyme) in this essay in The Nation.