During my years at Minnesota universities, we argued — and listened — and we were better for it. Now, inhibition rules the day.
The other morning I removed my Masters in International Management degree from the office wall and carefully pulled it out of the frame. I held it in my hands and considered a chaotic journey of discovery during a campus era that has now come to an abrupt end.
Born in the Minneapolis suburbs, I did not have to travel far for an exciting education. The University of Minnesota was a thrilling place to learn in the mid-1980s.
Most stimulating for me were the perpetual classroom and campus debates. My first day in a philosophy class titled “Life of the Mind” opened with a pitched verbal battle between a proud semisocialistic professor and a rabidly free-market freshman. Their verbal sparring over the course’s reading list benefited me greatly and set the tone for what was in store for me on campus.
At the time, I had no idea what the term “political correctness” meant, or what the possible tradeoffs were between the quest for individual wealth and social welfare. It was all new, heady and contentious stuff.
When the Central Intelligence Agency came to the campus job fair, I initially sided with my outraged roommates. Surely passing through their booth was an endorsement of the Reagan administration’s contra war against Nicaragua and every covert CIA action from the toppling of Mossadegh in Iran to the attempted assassinations of Castro.
However, rather than join the cacophony of protesters, I went and spoke with the analyst and agent recruiters. Their congeniality was disarming. Yes, the “company” had implemented ham-handed policies, they allowed. Learning from mistakes was now part of the organizational structure. And wouldn’t I like to help fill their desperate need for Arab linguists and regional intelligence analysts?
No, thanks. But I learned more about real-world professions and opportunities from government, NGO and corporate recruiters than I ever could have by simply shouting them all down.
As I approached the end of my core curriculum, I had the pleasure of sitting at the elbow of a mild-mannered professor who actually flew up from Chicago to give chilling insights about his Cold War expertise: conventional deterrence. It was horrifying to listen to him spin scenarios of European tank warfare under the shadow of nuclear holocaust. Few, certainly not I, agreed with or wanted to face up to the bloody implications of his research. But we listened, and argued, and graduated.
In the early 1990s the University of St. Thomas offered the irresistible lure of a master’s degree in International Management. Hundreds of graduates now working in the United States and abroad will remember the stern financial protocols of director Herb Leshinsky contrasted against the flamboyant intercultural-communications teachings of Jon Giordano.
Giordano would spontaneously bring in interviewees as diverse as recalcitrant Soviets and a delegation of mild Canadian businessmen looking for market insights. Hushed student whispers in the corridors confirmed that Giordano and Leshinsky had nothing in common and were in constant conflict about everything. What they lacked in complementary worldviews, both educators made up for in competition to serve students. In my case, Leshinsky recommended me for a job in Bogota that would create an unprecedented opportunity personally and professionally. Giordano also remained in touch, flew in to give seminars to the local executives club and even invited me back to address students and to dine in his home. These professors continued teaching me long after my final tuition payments.
More than a decade later, I stand in awe over how intolerant of diverse views higher education and research institutions have become. The educational ferment is being purposefully watered down as cowardly administrators prioritize endowment over education.
John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science in Chicago, is now something of a pariah for his recent work on the Israel lobby, unwelcome and disinvited from numerous relevant venues. I now agree with much of what he says, but also value the opportunity to consider opposing views.
I have frequently gone to the American Enterprise Institute to hear and even confront controversial thinkers like Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle. I don’t agree with anything they say or have done, but wouldn’t deny anyone a venue for presenting their case. That would be deeply un-American.
Columbia University resisted pressure and grudgingly honored its commitment to hear out Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. DePaul University recently bent to the same pressures when it denied tenure to the controversial but brilliant Prof. Norman Finkelstein.
When President Dennis Dease denied Archbishop Desmond Tutu an opportunity to speak on the University of St. Thomas campus, he was quietly responding to the opaque pressures of a dangerous national trend. None of the names of the many great and sometimes controversial speakers and professors who grappled with and educated me appears on my diploma. However, the name “Dennis Dease” does.
I believe that the reputation and comportment of a university follow degree recipients long after they’ve graduated. This is why I mailed my diploma back to Dease, stamped “return to sender.”
That Dease has now changed his mind in the face of public protest matters not. The pressure to deny relevant venue to controversial thinkers is spreading across American campuses, and both students and graduates need to be vigilant. Dease can keep the diploma.