Exclusive: New Harvard Prez Nearly Won “Sheldon” Award

We note that Lawrence Bacow has been named the president of Harvard, succeeding Drew Gilpin Faust, who held the office for 11 years.

Mysteriously missing from the news coverage was the fact that Bacow was a 2007 finalist for the “Sheldon,” our coveted award for worst college president of the year. The award is a statuette that looks something like the Oscar, except the Oscar features a man with no face looking straight ahead, whereas the Sheldon shows a man with no spine looking the other way.

The award is named for the late Sheldon Hackney, the former president of the University of Pennsylvania and the Babe Ruth of modern Sheldonism.

As president of Tufts University, Lawrence Bacow looked the other way when a student-faculty committee put a conservative Tufts publication on trial and found it guilty for publishing two parodies. One was a mock Christmas carol making fun of affirmative action and the other was a satire of Tuft’s Islamic Awareness Week.

The committee accused the journal of causing “embarrassment, which we had thought was the entire purpose of satire. The committee ordered the publication not to run any unsigned articles in the future, a rule not applied to other campus publications. The committee also hinted that funding would be cut if other controversial articles were published.

The spineless Sheldon award. (Photo-Wikipedia)

FIRE wrote Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow to ask why a verdict declaring The Primary Source (TPSguilty of “harassment” and “creating a hostile environment” still stands―despite the fact that Bacow himself has openly admitted that such a punishment could not stand under the First Amendment.

“We explained to President Bacow (again) that the only way for Tufts University to shed the dishonor of being one of three schools named to FIRE’s Red Alert list―reserved for schools FIRE deems ‘the worst of the worst’ when it comes to protecting rights on campus―was by immediately dropping the guilty finding against TPS. As we wrote:

“As long as the harassment finding against The Primary Source remains, students at Tufts are in danger of being censored and sanctioned merely for expressing unpopular opinions on campus.”

Eventually, Bacow acknowledged freedom of speech by eliminating punishment for the student journalists and praised free expression but refused to overrule the guilty verdict, leading the Sheldon committee to conclude that Bacow’s commitment to free speech ‘’shuttles between tepid and imaginary.”.

A mutual friend invited Bacow and me to lunch, where Bacow once again reiterated his innocent but guilty position, a stance opposed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and several newspapers. It was, however, the only time a Sheldon candidate argued his case before the whole Sheldon committee (me).

Bacow lost the worst-president title that year to a superlative effort by Richard Brodhead, president of Duke.

Here is what Brodhead did to win: On hearing the first reports, he abruptly canceled the lacrosse season, suspended the players named in the case, and fired the lacrosse coach of 16 years, giving him less than a day to get out. All with no hearings.

This helped create the impression that the players were guilty. His long letter to the campus did the same thing. He didn’t say the boys were guilty, but he talked passionately about the coercion and assault of women, the legacy of racism, and privilege and inequality – all of which fed the anger aimed at the lacrosse team.

Brodhead did nothing to deter the tsunami whipped up against the players by some students and the Group of 88, an alliance of mostly radical race and gender professors. One of the 88, Houston Baker, answered a polite and worried letter from one of the lacrosse moms by calling her “the mother of a farm animal.” Again with no comment from Brodhead.

Without any comment from Brodhead, the protesters issued death threats, carried banners that said “castrate,” featured photos of lacrosse players on “Wanted” fliers, and banged pots outside the boys’ residences in the early morning hours to disturb their sleep. A word from the president about leaving the boys alone and guaranteeing them a fair trial would have been nice. An engineering professor at Duke said, “There never was a clear sense that the students were innocent until proven guilty.” The whole “scandal,”was, of course, a scam.

Despite their perpetrations, Brodhead won a glittering contract, and Bacow is president of Harvard.

John Leo

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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