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Two old campus antagonists find themselves neighbors.
By Michael Brus
The following appears on page 330 of the recently
published book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's
Campuses: "Sheldon Hackney's career is perhaps the embodiment
of the 'not on my watch' concept and its resulting double standards ...
[As president of] Penn, he imposed speech codes, double standards, and
the University's history department are two offices: One is occupied by
the book's co-author, Dr. Alan Charles Kors, and the other, just down
the hall, by the subject of the excerpt above, former University president
and now professor, Dr. Sheldon Hackney, Hon'93. And therein lies
When Kors began writing The Shadow University with
attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, Hackney was comfortably distant in Washington,
D.C., presiding over the National Endowment for the Humanities. In mid-1997,
though, tired of doing battle with conservative critics of federal subsidies,
he resigned his post and returned to Penn to "try and become a historian
again," as he puts it.
The Shadow University describes dozens of "politically
correct" prosecutions of students and faculty at colleges and universities.
The book's tone is shrill, but it does contribute to the national debate
on PC. Unlike previous attacks on higher education, such as Dinesh D'Souza's
Illiberal Education, Kors's book comes from inside the academy
and is based not on anecdotes but on detailed research and, in some cases,
first-hand experience. It devotes about 60 pages to incidents at Penn.
The campus reputations of both Kors and Hackney are
well- and long-established. Kors is the libertarian troublemaker, the
maverick intellectual- history scholar on whom DP reporters can
always call for a soundbite against the administration. Hackney is the
Pope of Political Correctness, the waffling, jelly-spined former University
president who made Penn a national laughingstock in 1993. But the strange
thing about this public tiff is that it has nothing to do with these caricatures.
Instead, it has to do with how two decent, generous, and (largely) honest
intellectuals became such ideological and personal foes.
Hackney's views on race and free speech -- of which
his behavior during the "water buffalo" affair is perhaps the
most notorious emblem -- are, rightly, controversial. In early 1993, a
Penn judicial officer charged freshman Eden Jacobowitz, C'95, with
racial harassment for calling a group of rambunctious black sorority sisters
"water buffalo." By July, Hackney was taking a beating from
both liberals and conservatives in the national news media for letting
the University conduct a "witch trial" of an undergraduate.
Simultaneously, he was recanting his belief in speech codes in front of
the U.S. Senate panel reviewing his appointment to head the NEH.
In his book, Kors persuasively argues that Penn's judicial
process was riddled with loopholes that denied defendants due process,
that Penn knowingly prosecuted Jacobowitz with false evidence, and that
Hackney hid behind a stance of impartiality until the time of his Senate
testimony, when he privately brokered a settlement from Washington to
defuse the crisis. For his part, Hackney persuaded me that he was acting
out of a noble impulse to keep debate civil. "It is very difficult
to get it right the first time around," Hackney said, "[which
is] perhaps the price for higher education being out on the social frontier
on this issue."
To some extent, calling Hackney's philosophy "politically
correct" is misleading, for it implies that Hackney arrived at it
casually or expediently, which is not the case. Reared in Jim Crow Alabama,
Hackney encountered the inequities of racism at an early age. He married
into a family of white Montgomery radicals sympathetic to the bus boycott.
His in-laws employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress, and when Parks was thrown
in jail for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Hackney's father-in-law
helped post bail.
While teaching at Princeton University from 1965 to
1972, Hackney spearheaded the establishment of an Afro-American studies
program. He realized that he had a knack for organizing people and began
to see university administration as a way to deal with racial inequalities
directly. He spent three years as Princeton's provost and six as president
of Tulane University before he became Penn's president in 1981.
Twenty-six years have passed since Hackney had last
been a practicing historian, and in some ways it shows. The contrast between
Hackney the historian and Hackney the administrator can be seen clearly
in his two books: From Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969)
and One America Indivisible, published last year. The first book
is a scholarly analysis of the role of race in turn-of-the-century Alabama
politics, written right before Hackney left scholarship for administration.
The second book is a kind of manifesto on multiculturalism written in
Hackney's last year at NEH. Decorated with a textbook-like montage of
patriotic photos, it reads like a 236-page political speech.
Kors has never felt the pull of administration. He knew
from his undergraduate days that he wanted to become a teacher and scholar,
and he has done just that. He is a renowned intellectual historian of
the 17th and 18th centuries, having written respected books on witchcraft
in Europe and on the Enlightenment.
If One America Indivisible is the product of
an administrator reduced to platitudes, The Shadow University is
the product of a historian certain of his enemies. Among other things,
the book betrays Kors's penchant for hyperbolic rhetoric and melodramatic
narrative. It is also not given to subtlety. "After reading this
book," Kors and Silverglate instruct, "no one -- academic or
nonacademic citizen -- should be able to doubt the reality and moral urgency
of [PC]." That said, the book is meticulously argued, well documented,
and often convincing.
In some ways, the philosophical debate between Kors
and Hackney has been fought before. For several decades now, political
science and philosophy departments have been debating the merits of "communitarianism"
as an alternative to classical liberalism. As Hackney explains it, "There's
a difference [between me and Kors] in his radical individualistic way
of looking at the world. He thinks that society is simply an aggregation
of individuals, a war of all against all. [In my view,] I am an individual,
but I am also a social being. That idea of [socially-constructed] individual
identity is something I don't think Alan has. He has a much more classically
liberal, I-am-an-individual-apart-from-all-other-influences" worldview.
Kors, who calls himself a libertarian, agrees with Hackney's characterization
of him as a fierce individualist.
The nation's foremost communitarian philosopher, Michael
Sandel, has described eloquently the practical difference between classical
liberals and communitarians. "For example," he writes, "the
civil-rights movement of the 1960s might be justified by liberals in the
name of human dignity and respect for persons, and by communitarians in
the name of recognizing the full membership of fellow citizens wrongly
excluded from the common life of the nation."
If you were to summarize the thrust of Kors' and Hackney's
worldviews, you could scarcely do better than that. Still, it is questionable
if Hackney's institutional remedies -- whether speech codes or less-intrusive
forms of race-based "education" -- are in the communitarian
Kors and Silverglate's book documents in minute detail
the practical result of attitudes like Hackney's. Yet the arguments they
make are undermined by their hectoring tone. And Kors's apparent obsession
with Hackney leads to important mischaracterizations.
Here is one of Kors's most unflattering portraits, detailing
a phone conversation Hackney had with Wall Street Journal editorial
writer Dorothy Rabinowitz at the height of the water buffalo case: "When
[Rabinowitz] called Hackney, she pressed him for serious answers about
what was going on at Penn. Apparently thinking that she was some inconsequential
staffer, he said, 'I don't need to take this from some reporter,' and
hung up the phone on her." Later, Kors writes that "Hackney's
slamming the phone on Dorothy Rabinowitz could have been a metaphor for
Penn's entire handling of the case" and credits Rabinowitz for being
"an investigative reporter and editorialist with courage and a will
of steel." Kors footnotes his account of the phone conversation to
an "interview with Rabinowitz."
Here is Hackney's version of the conversation: "I
called her -- she did not call me -- and I went through my spiel [defending
Penn's judicial procedure], and there was this silence on the other end
of the phone, and then she said, in this absolutely chilling voice, 'This
is the darkest moment for freedom in the history of Western civilization.
And you, Sir, are complicit.' I was so taken aback that I think I said,
'Are you a journalist, or what?' Because I had never heard a journalist
say something so absolutely, penetratingly ideological. Then she said
something else, and I think I did hang up, actually." Rabinowitz
told me that an exchange similar to this had in fact taken place, although
after a "substantial [two-way] conversation." When I related
this to Kors, he simply stated that he trusts Rabinowitz "100 percent."
"I'll stand by my description of things in the book," he said.
"I know they're true."
The irony of Kors's book is that, for all his persuasiveness
about the lack of due process on campuses, he did not extend the same
due process to Hackney -- by offering him a chance to "meet his own
accuser" in a formal interview. "I don't think Sheldon Hackney
has any interest in discussing the water buffalo case with me," Kors
protested. He noted that at a lunch with Hackney in late-1993 he had suggested
they discuss the water buffalo case, but Hackney had demurred.
When I told Kors that Hackney thinks he has trivialized
the feelings of the women whom Jacobowitz called "water buffalo,"
he bristled. Angrily citing controversies over Andres Serrano's Piss
Christ and Louis Farrakhan's appearing on campus, in which Hackney
had been "explict" in defending freedom of speech over the offended
feelings of some others, he added, "I have defended more black than
white students before the judicial system. I do not need a lesson in ethics
from Sheldon Hackney. I am not impressed by selective moral empathy."
"One of the interesting questions," Hackney
told me, "is why he goes out of his way to demonize me. What do I
represent? Why me?" It is a good question, and one I posed to Kors
repeatedly. "Of course it's uncomfortable" to work two doors
away from Hackney, Kors told me. "But the issues are larger than
personal issues. The last possible thought in my mind when I wrote the
book was that we would be two office doors away at Penn. I mean, he was
in Washington, and I was here," he said. "But I would have written
the book, anyway."
Michael Brus, C'99, is a political science major from Madison,
N.J. He has been published in The New Republic, The Weekly Standard,
The Washington Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, Philadelphia Forum, and
other publications and was a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian
for three semesters. Last year, he won the DP Alumni Association's annual
award for "outstanding news writing."
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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