Stifling Times at College Campuses

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.

Grant F. Smith is the author of America's Defense Line: The Justice Department's Battle to Register the Israel Lobby as Agents of a Foreign Government. He currently serves as director of research at the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington (IRmep), D.C. Read other articles by Grant, or visit Grant's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on October 15th, 2007 at 6:27am #

    Grant, when I read about Dease’s reversal, I e-mailed Nancy Zingale, the faculty sponsor for Tutu’s appearance.

    I said; “Go Catholics. And Galileo is with you.”

  2. Michael Kenny said on October 15th, 2007 at 7:03am #

    Bear in mind that both DePaul and St. Thomas are Catholic universities whose mission is to provide Catholic education. What what I know of them, both Norman Finkelstein and Desmond Tutu are very admirable men but neither is Catholic and it is questionable whether the cause of Catholic education is advanced by giving them a platform in a Catholic institution. Clearly, there is a difference between a Jewish academic and an Anglican Archbishop and I’m not surprised that Father Dease has had second thoughts. Refusing to receive one of the most
    world’s prominent Anglicans would ecumenically damaging for the Catholic Church and that may well be the thought which convinced Father Dease.

    A more interesting question, though, is how America’s Catholic universities found themselves in a position where non-Catholic groups, whether Jewish or otherwise, could bully them. Is it linked to finance? If so, shouldn’t the universities look to broadening their financial base. Certainly, the cause of Catholic education is not well served if the universities can be held to ransom by non-Catholic groups.

  3. rgaylor said on October 15th, 2007 at 2:59pm #

    Mr. Kenny … lock step thought is precisely what Grant Smith is warning against. Your advocacy of ‘correct’ thinking is anathema.

    Parochialism is a negative. The parochial mindset is inimical to the values of an open society … and thus, while well withing the unfortunate tradition of American narrow-mindedness is antithetical to what a college education should be … an opening of the ears to the ideas of others. It does not imply that the speaker is correct because the speaker is heard.

    My own journey was radicalized, not by speakers but rather by actors. As a librarian I am committed to the concept of collection balance … the idea that in the life of the mind all ideas are worth giving some thought to. It is a sad fact that there are so many well-meaning people (I give them the benefit of the doubt) who are so mean about things they disagree with. Book banning and burning is not dead … and it is a two-way street.

    Is that what we are all about? Agree with me … or leave? Agree with me … or I will ban you from my presence? Agree with me … or I will ban/burn your book? Agree with me … because only I can be right?

    I would hope not.


  4. Joseph Anderson said on October 16th, 2007 at 3:27pm #


    Michael Kenny said on October 15th, 2007 at 7:03 am: “Bear in mind that both DePaul and St. Thomas are Catholic universities whose mission is to provide Catholic education.”


    Or perhaps he needs to define what you think “Catholic education” is. Is it teaching “Catholic physics”, “Catholic astronomy” (no, Galileo and Copernicus have now been officially accepted by the Vatican), “Catholic biology” (including “Catholic creationism”), “Catholic capitalist economic theory”? Catholic universities (at least modern ones) have always had non-Catholic professors/instructors. Besides, Finkelstein wasn’t at DePaul to proselytize for Judaism (or to teach that Judaism is “the one true faith”), and Tutu wasn’t going to the Univ. of St.Thomas to proseltyze for Anglicanism. However, it’s also entirely possible for a Catholic university to have a scholarly course taught by a Muslim or Jewish or Anglican scholar (whether even Muslim, Jewish, Anglican him-/herself or not) about Islam or Judaism or Anglicanism.

    A Catholic university is a university founded and, in part, funded by the Catholic church to provide an education in, presumably, a Catholic environment — which means there would be university recognition and celebration of Church religious days and holy days and holidays, and church services on those days. There would be courses on/by Catholic theologians, theoreticians and philosophers. There would be a university church/chapel for daily mass attendance and a pastor &/or other priests/clerics funded, as clerics, by the university. There might also be Catholic catechism classes.


    What do we have in common with both Finkelstein and Tutu and any other such threatened academics or denied speakers?: both are incisive CRITICS OF POLITICAL ZIONISM AS A RACIST IDEOLOGY AND ISRAEL AS AN APARTHEID EUROPEAN-FOUNDED IMPERIALIST SETTLER-COLONIAL STATE — and *that* is what must not be officially allowed on American/Canadian university campuses, especially by academics and prominent official guest speakers.

    That is where “cowardly administrators prioritize endowment over education”: they usually cave in to, indeed, bullying threats by THE ISRAEL LOBBY — unless the rest of us fight back.

  5. gerald spezio said on October 16th, 2007 at 5:23pm #

    Joseph, please be kind, gentle, and tolerant of you brothers, Grant Smith and Michael Kenny, because we are all on the same side against hateful Zionist propaganda and its bloodshed and murder.
    There are plenty of vicious bastards working for Zionism.
    We will need each other in the near future.

  6. gerald spezio said on October 16th, 2007 at 5:30pm #

    Guys, for what it is worth.
    Nancy Zingale, the faculty sponsor for Tutu’s lecture at the U of St. Thomas
    sent me a gracious thank you for my humble support of her university’s stepping up to scholarship and open debate.

  7. jaime said on October 20th, 2007 at 8:58am #

    let’s look at this slightly hysterical phrase for moment, Komrades….


    Interesting. Jews are indigenous to the middle east. This was accepted on other threads. Remember…The Dead Sea Scrolls? Jesus?

    So this hate stuff is just so much programmed racist claptrap. Sorry.
    Which puts s back to what do you want to do about Israel, if you’re so obsessed with how terrible it is?

    7 million people there now.

    Do you want to kill them all? What’s your answer?

  8. Mike McNiven said on October 21st, 2007 at 4:38am #

    Anti-imperialist/ anti-capitalist academics, everywhere, deserve our support!