The issue: When the heat is on, colleges’ first priority is comfortable silence
In the big picture, honorary degrees — the participation trophies of the academic world — are not worth getting worked up over. They usually represent a chance for the school to give out a nice certificate to a commencement speaker, in exchange for some easy PR. But how Brandeis University thought things would be so easy in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali defies belief.
HIRSI ALI, a tireless campaigner for women’s rights, is best known for her strident anti-Islam rhetoric. She suffered in her native Somalia, enduring genital mutilation and fleeing to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. From these experiences spring an uncompromising disdain for her native religion, which she sees as inherently violent and misogynistic. She wrote a movie called “Submission,” whose director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim extremist. Attached to van Gogh’s body was a note for Hirsi Ali, warning that she was next.
For her humanitarian work, Brandeis offered her an honorary degree and a place at commencement, which was met with protests from students, faculty and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The word “Islamophobe” was thrown around liberally. Students claimed they felt threatened by her presence.
It is a mark of the perverse state of affairs on American college campuses that a woman who has endured mutilation and death threats was deemed dangerous because of the words that came out of her mouth.
Faced with a choice between standing up for free speech or mollycoddling the hurt feelings of the outraged, Brandeis predictably caved to the loudest voices. Their disinvitation to Hirsi Ali was public and condescending, and it also beggared belief.
They had no idea, said the administration, that she had said all those awful things (Google, apparently, does not exist in Brandeis’ offices), and now that they were aware, they found the clash with the university’s “core values” unacceptable. She was off the list.
BUT THIS is merely the latest example in a trend. Condoleezza Rice, Geraldo Rivera, Ben Stein, Meg Whitman and even President Obama have all triggered outrage over commencement and honorary degrees. No actual harm is needed — just hurt feelings and volume. Get enough virtual signatures on a change.org petition, and the powers that be will roll over. Anything for nice, comfortable silence.
The students themselves begin to embrace this mentality. Alina Cheema, co-president of Brandeis’ Muslim Students Association, expressed her alarm to the school paper, saying, “How am I supposed to tell a prospective Muslim student that (he or she) will be accepted on this campus?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but we have an answer: The only time you know a school will accept anybody is when it actually welcomes everybody.