Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the call by alumni and professors at St. Lawrence University to strip Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) of her honorary degree in light of her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The university has now confirmed that they have never rescinded an honorary degree and will not start with Collins. Putting aside the prevalent “rape culture” declared by almost a hundred faculty members, the two letters reflect the diminishing hold of intellectual honesty and integrity at our places of higher education.
Here is the column:
When Republican senator Susan Collins joined 49 of her colleagues to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, critics pledged to defeat her in the next election. Indeed, advocates who oppose Kavanaugh raised millions in contributions that would be released to her next opponent if she dared to vote for his confirmation.
Faculty and alumni of St. Lawrence University, however, are not satisfied in changing her future. They want to rewrite part of her past. In a raw act of retaliation, they are demanding that the college rescind an honorary degree awarded to Collins in 2017. Just one year ago, Collins was honored for her independent thinking and integrity, but now professors and graduates want her stripped of the degree for exercising such values in opposition to their own views. For exercising such independence, she is now denounced as lacking “integrity and commitment” to justice.
The demand could easily be dismissed as the expression of the far left element at a well known liberal institution. In the end, it is unlikely that St. Lawrence will take this extreme action. Collins is, arguably, its most famous living graduate. However, it is part of a rising wave of intolerance across the country against conservative views, including actual assaults committed by faculties and students.
Before her Senate vote on Kavanaugh, Collins gave a thoughtful speech explaining why she had demanded further investigation into the allegations of sexual assaults raised against Kavanaugh and why she concluded those allegations remained unproven or refuted. One could certainly disagree with her logic or her view that no further investigation was necessary. According to one poll, more than 40 percent of Americans agreed with her, while 51 percent opposed the Kavanaugh confirmation.
Yet, almost 2,000 alumni and dozens of faculty at St. Lawrence want to punish Collins for reaching a conclusion opposite from theirs. She now is deemed to have deviated “from the path” and thus lacks the “core values” of the school. Of course, there was a time when “core values” were defined as tolerance of opposing views and the exercise of free speech.
If the letter of the graduates is hard to fathom, the cause becomes clearer when you read the letter from the roughly 100 professors supporting the action against Collins. The letter shows precisely why students could leave St. Lawrence with so little notion of intellectual integrity and tolerance. The professors implausibly assert that their call for this punitive action is “not rooted in partisan loyalties or disagreements.” Instead, their disagreement with her vote is considered sufficient justification to rescind the degree as a “fitting consequence to her detrimental and unprincipled actions.” The professors not only denounce the “rape culture” at St. Lawrence but declare that this culture “no doubt influenced the actions Senator Collins took during the Kavanaugh hearings.” That is right, Collins voted out of her own facilitation of a “rape culture.”
Across the country, faculty members have led students in shocking demonstrations against free speech and even violence against those with opposing views. While the violence is thankfully rare, the response can be unnerving. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, feminist studies professor Mireille Miller Young led her students in attacking pro-life advocates, stealing their display, and then committing battery on a young woman. Despite pleading no contest to criminal assault, Miller Young not only was retained but widely supported by faculty and students, including those who viewed the pro-life advocates as “terrorists” who should be kept off campus. This week, the University of Oregon gender studies department is featuring her as a speaker.
Last week, a Ryerson University employee attacked pro-life students on campus. Earlier, California State University assistant professor of public health professor Greg Thatcher led students in wiping out pro-life statements of students after telling them that they had no free speech outside of restricted zones. He is wrong but was still retained as faculty. Earlier this year, University of New Hampshire professor Joelle Ruby Ryanscreamed profanities and tried to shut down an online talk show host who was calling for free speech protections on campuses. Last year, Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger was injured by protesters after she merely accompanied a controversial speaker to campus.
For too many professors and students, free speech is now viewed as a privilege to be enjoyed only by those with whom they agree. Indeed, the intolerance shown in the St. Lawrence campaign is often disguised as principles in works like “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” by Dartmouth professor Mark Bray. This movement denounces classic liberalism. It rejects the notion of protecting free speech for its own sake and rejects “coexistence” in favor of a goal “to end their politics.”
Academic institutions once prided themselves on a broad array of divergent views and values. There was not a single “path” but rather common “principles” allowing students to find their own place in this world of ideas. It was based on mutual respect and tolerance for those holding opposing positions. Today, campaigns on campuses like the one at St. Lawrence reflect how ignorance of, and even hostility toward, these basic values is fueling our age of rage. Faculty are replicating their own intolerance in students who have been taught that free speech means the right to shut down or punish those with opposing views.
There is no longer a willingness to accept that people like Collins could come to good faith but opposing conclusions. It is easier to declare the Maine senator to be a champion of a “rape culture.” It may be true that critics will “end the politics” of Collins in the next election. That is fair game in a representative democracy. That is a right such as free speech protected by democratic institutions. However, this is different.
These professors and graduates are seeking to retroactively punish Susan Collins for reaching a conclusion different from their own. The professors denounced her for undermining the “crucial role of evidence based decision making in democratic processes” simply because she came to a different view of the evidence by using her once heralded independent judgment. These professors and students vividly demonstrate how power without principle is little more than a mob dressed up as a movement.