Editorial: Academic Freedom?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dartmouth finds itself — needlessly, we think — in the midst of a controversy over free speech and academic freedom that is playing out in a highly charged political atmosphere. But since the storm has blown up, the college should take the opportunity to clarify what the teachers and scholars whom Dartmouth employs can expect from the institution.

At issue are comments that Mark Bray, a visiting lecturer in history, made on NBC’s Meet the Press last month that were interpreted by some viewers, and perhaps willfully misinterpreted by others, as embracing violent confrontation with neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the wake of protests in Charlottesville, Va., and Boston.

The next day, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon issued a short statement disavowing Bray’s purported views. This in turn elicited a letter to Hanlon signed by 120 members of the faculty asserting that Hanlon had been duped into issuing his statement by right-wing media that distorted Bray’s views and manufactured a controversy. Hanlon and Dean of Faculty Elizabeth Smith subsequently answered with a letter of their own that sought to smooth the waters, but perhaps predictably did not.

For his part, Bray, whose academic specialty is the study of human rights, terrorism and political radicalism in modern Europe, told Valley News staff writer Rob Wolfe in an interview that, “I am not calling for violent protest. My position is that, after the horrors of slavery and the Holocaust, my research shows that self-defense against neo-Nazis is a historically and ethically justified position.” Taken as a whole, his remarks on Meet the Press support that comment. Where things may have started going off the rails was in the introduction given to Bray by program host Chuck Todd: “So Mark Bray, I’ll start with you. You seem to be a very small minority here who is defending the idea of violence considering somebody died in Charlottesville. Why do you defend confronting in a violent way?” To which Bray, seeming to accept Todd’s premise, answers, “Well, first I would contest the notion that I’m not that small of a minority,” although he immediately adds that, “I think that a lot of people recognize that, when pushed, self-defense is a legitimate response to white supremacy and neo-Nazi violence.” A nuance that Bray has spelled out more explicitly elsewhere is that “self-defense” as the term is used by militant anti-fascists can refer to two related but quite different things: One is a simple act of physical self-preservation when under attack; the other, the highly controversial idea of organizing to confront pre-emptively, and sometimes violently, what is perceived as a deadly threat.

Whether Hanlon watched the program or consulted the transcript is unclear. In any case, his statement is unequivocal in characterizing Bray’s views: “Recent statements made by Lecturer in History Mark Bray supporting violent protest do not represent the views of Dartmouth. As an institution, we condemn anything but civil discourse in the exchange of opinions and ideas.” He goes on to say that, “Dartmouth embraces free speech and open inquiry in all matters, and all on our campus enjoy the freedom to speak, write, listen and debate in pursuit of better learning and understanding.”

It’s not entirely clear whether this positively affirms Bray’s right to go wherever his scholarly interests lead him; or stands as a rebuke to the perspective that Bray has described as “the notion of ‘no platform for fascism,’ that it’s essentially not to be debated, but opposed as illegitimate.” Bray argues that historically speaking, civil discourse doesn’t work when your interlocutor is determined to murder you and people like you. In that context, the last clause of Hanlon’s statement is arresting: “the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary to Dartmouth values.” One wonders whether the college really cannot conceive of any circumstance in which violence may be justified or necessary. World War II?

Hanlon subsequently provided the context for his statement in his response to the faculty’s letter: “Immediately following Mark’s appearance on Meet the Press, the College experienced a tremendous surge of phone, email and social media inquiry, from students and families, alumni and friends of the College, and from people without a clear connection to Dartmouth. These questions and comments came from viewers of the show who not only interpreted Mark Bray to be supporting violent protest, but also believed him to be speaking for the college.”

If indeed students and families, alumni and friends of Dartmouth believed that Bray was speaking for the college, then the college has done a remarkably poor job of educating its community about the nature of academic freedom. But if any statement at all was required, it would have been best confined to simply restating that institutions of higher education are intended to be havens for unfettered academic inquiry and for expression of the sometimes unpopular views that arise from it; and that no single professor or group of professors speak for the institution. As it is, the Hanlon statement raises the question of which professors and which controversial views the college will feel obliged to disavow in the future. And when it does not do so, will that constitute an endorsement? With the new academic year about to begin, further explanation is in order.