College President Defends Free Speech
(It Happens)


Hadley Arkes is the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College.  He is something of an institution himself.  He is a brilliant scholar but perhaps known as much for his irascible temper and aggressive style of argument as he is for the substance of his positions.  The combination of intellectual virtuosity and pyrotic style is not that unusual. Think of John Silber, David Horowitz, Robert Bork, and Charles Murray among the contenders for the title Most Froward Public Intellectual, conservative division.  Professor Arkes is by most accounts the king of this hill.

On September 13, six Amherst alumni from the class of 1970 met with Amherst President Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin to request that the college “dissociate itself from both the homophobic substance and the intellectual dishonesty of Professor Hadley Arkes’s writings in non-academic publications, in which he regularly chooses to identify himself with the College.”  The quotation is from a letter sent by the six (Ronald Battocchi, Ernest “Tito” Craige, John Greenberg, Warren Mersereau, Robert Nathan, and Eric Patterson) to other Amherst alumni asking them to co-sign a letter supporting their “request.”

President Martin listened to the complaint but turned down the request.  In a letter posted October 1 on the college website she cited the college’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression, and the special role of academic institutions in protecting those freedoms” as reasons to leave Professor Arkes free to make his arguments against same-sex marriage and to identify himself in his writings as an Amherst professor.

Bollinger’s Failure

Her stand is commendable and is, of course, exactly what we should expect from a college president.  Her duty is to uphold academic freedom from forces–whether they be reactionary, illiberal leftist, or simply special interest–that would sacrifice it in the name of some greater good or would, alternatively, conjure some explanation of why this particular act of censorship isn’t really a violation of the principle.

But what we should expect of college presidents isn’t always what we get.  We have had plenty of incidents in which college presidents confronted with egregious violations of academic freedom just sit on their hands.  Or, if pushed, make a token show of action. Or, if that doesn’t work, intervene well after the fact.  October 4, 2006, radical students mobbed Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen, who was speaking on campus at the invitation of the Columbia College Republicans.  Gilchrist was silenced and the event broken up.  Initial response from President Bollinger:  crickets.  At the end of the term, Bollinger wrote a mealy-mouthed letter to the community explaining how his investigation was proceeding.  Eventually, the students who had swarmed the stage and ended Gilchrist’s talk got off with a slap on the wrist. As Inside Higher Education put it, the sanctions were “as lenient as university rules allow,” which meant that temporary disciplinary warnings were put in their transcripts, to be removed at the end of 2008.

The Course on Catholicism

Then there was the 2010 case of adjunct associate professor Kenneth Howell, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty member who taught an “Introduction to Catholicism.”  He was fired after giving a lecture on May 4, on “The Question of Homosexuality in Catholic Thought.”  There appeared to be no question that he represented Catholic teachings on this matter accurately, but some of his students judged that Howell actually believed and advocated those teachings.  They complained and shortly later Howell, who had been teaching the course since 2001, was non-reappointed–in a word, fired.  An outcry followed, led by the Alliance Defense Fund, and the university mended its ways via an announcement from its Office of University Counsel.   The letter, of course, admitted no wrong-doing.  Interim Chancellor Robert A. Easter, as far as I know, remained mum from the beginning of the affair to the end.

I don’t want to multiply examples endlessly, but let’s not forget what happened at Swarthmore College in May of this year.  A mob of students commandeered a meeting of the board of trustees to stage a protest on the pretext of getting the college to divest in fossil fuel companies.  When one brave student, Danielle Charette, stood up against the mob to insist on the principle of orderly dialogue, the mob clapped her down.  Ms. Charette appealed to a trustee and to President Rebecca Chopp to restore order.  In this case we can watch the proceedings as videoed by a member of the student mob.  President Chopp doesn’t lift a finger.  Afterwards she defended her inaction as part of Swarthmore’s Quaker tradition, and of course the violators of Ms. Charette’s academic freedom paid no penalty at all.

Good for Biddy Martin

Bollinger, Easter, and Chopp are cut from the same cloth:  unwilling to stand up to the bullies who violate academic freedom with seeming impunity.  It’s a cloth that apparently comes from a large loom, as a great many of other college presidents are wrapped in it too.  But not Amherst’s President Martin.  For that, we give thanks.

But what of Professor Arkes?  Is he now assured of his academic freedom?  Certainly having the backing of the college president helps.  But he is clearly in a difficult spot.  An alumni campaign to vilify him has spilled into the student press.  After President Martin turned down the petition to censor Arkes, Tito Craige (one of the six original alumni petitioners) wrote an article in The Amherst Student, continuing his campaign.  He explains:  “I get angry when I read that Professor Hadley Arkes compares same-sex marriage to bestiality.”  He is standing up for his gay-married sister and “gay students in my high school’s Queer Club.”  But he insists, “I cherish academic freedom,” and he opposes “any effort to censor Arkes.”

Craige evidently has some word games at hand in which censorship can be spelled “f-r-e-e-d-o-m,” but the substance of his complaint is that Arkes has ventured beyond the bounds of civility, and the gravamen of that accusation is his alleged comparison of homosexuality to bestiality.  Craige backs this up with a quotation, which you can read in the linked letter, and in its original context in an online journal, The Catholic Thing.  In that article, Arkes criticizes the whole notion of “sexual orientation” as a “self-deception” which is “broad enough” to include not just homosexuality but any sexual predilection.  Once you begin to name what some of those predilections are, you are exposed to the rhetorical trick of metalepsis.

No Metalepsis, Please

Let’s move this to neutral territory.  If I say, “I like Empire apples and upstate farms and country churches,” I am not comparing Empire apples and country churches.  They are elements in a chain of association that evokes autumn for me.  People generally know how to read such chains of association.  They can, with some poetic power be compressed:  “An Empire Apple is a country church.”  That doesn’t literally mean I equate apples with architecture.

But people also know how to twist such associations into offenses.  Last year I mentioned Michael Mann and Jerry Sandusky in an article about the misbehavior of Penn State’s then-president Graham Spanier.  There was no whisper of comparing Mann and Sandusky but proximity was enough for numerous Mann apologists to declare that I had compared Mann to a child molester.  That’s how the game is played.

And I am pretty sure that Professor Arkes also knows that’s how the game is played.  But he loves the provocation.  The result can be pretty ugly.  One of the people responding to Craige’s letter traces another chain that extended from Arkes’s comments on abortion in class, to his students’ views, to the suicide of a student who didn’t take his class.  The metalepsized version in the writer’s own words:  “One student and a good friend took her life as a result of Prof. Arkes’ view on Abortion.”

More Francis, Less Torquemada

The provocateur professor of jurisprudence clearly knows a lot about juris, but maybe not so much about prudence.  That said, as far as I can tell he hasn’t transgressed the boundaries of academic freedom.  His writing respects evidence and rational argument; there is no hint of plagiarism; he libels no one; he is open about his sources and methods; and he writes on topics which are directly related to his academic expertise.

How this gets twisted in the hands of his opponents is worth noting.  In a letter to President Martin, Craige and Mersereau accuse Arkes of “gay bashing” and they add, “Arkes is guilty of sexual misconduct every time he denigrates people solely on gender orientation.”

It isn’t clear that Arkes has denigrated anyone of the basis of “gender orientation.”  But, of course, if you define “gay bashing” and “sexual misconduct” broadly enough, anyone advocating traditional views of human sexuality, let alone Catholic teachings, can be condemned.

As it happens, President Martin is herself openly gay.  I don’t know whether this makes her principled decision to support Professor Arkes’s academic freedom more courageous, but it does seem to underscore that real academic leaders know when to set identity politics aside.  Hats off to Biddy.  And Hadley, you’ve got a genius for bringing out the worst in your opponents. To counsel moderation at this point probably wouldn’t do much good, but it may not be too late to suggest you seek a little more St. Francis and a little less Torquemada.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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2 thoughts on “College President Defends Free Speech
(It Happens)

  1. As much as I dislike disagreeing with Peter Wood, I am a little uncomfortable with his representing the writings of Hadley Arkes in non-academic publications as protected by academic freedom. They are certainly protected by the first amendment, which should be enough for anyone. The expansion of the concept of academic freedom to non-academic matters is a slippery slope which can lead to the justification of any sort of behavior at all, coming under this protection. I also think his praise of President Martin is a bit premature. Let us wait until she has to confront a group a angry students and see whether she can stand up to them. It is students that all college presidents really fear. This fear is what leads to their callow behavior.

  2. “it may not be too late to suggest you seek a little more St. Francis and a little less Torquemada.”
    To steal a line: “Let’s face it…you can’t Torquemada anything!”

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