Saturday, December 15, 2007

Academic Freedom and Tolerance of Our 'Aspirational Peer'

I recieved a shocking email this morning from my brother, a recent Princeton alum. He wrote that a student at his alma mater, an outspoken member of the Anscombe Society,was beaten unconscious yesterday, his head slammed repeatedly against a brick wall for his unpopular views as he walked back to campus from a tutoring session. The student along with several other outspoken conservatives including Professor Robert George had been receiving death threats for weeks with little response from the university.

So far it has only been covered in the student media, The Daily Princetonian and the conservative paper, the. Princeton Tory.

Amazingly, on the same day a student wrote an op-ed piece calling out the university for its double standard. He recounts the story of how the university responded immediatley with a thorough investigation when someone merely drew obscene pictures on the white board outside a homosexual student's room, while repeated death threats to conservative students and faculty were all but ignored.

The Anscombe Society, which promotes traditional views of marriage and sexualiy, is part of a growing conservative movement at Princeton led by the James Madison Program and Witherspoon Institute. These groups have made great strides in recent years, providing a place for Christians and conserverative voices on campus. This episode shows pretty clearly, however, how entrenched the liberal orthodoxy is at the Ivies.

When I hear stories like this it makes me realize how insulated Notre Dame is--perhaps by the perminant cloud cover--from the 'real world' and the rest of academia. This kind of incident is unthinkable at Notre Dame--well, unless maybe you tried to take away someone's student football ticket booklet. Perhaps Notre Dame is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of political activity. Most students are apathetic, not intolerant. Rather than sending death threats and assaulting people over political/social issues, ND students are more concerned with following their fantasy football team or their next paper or project. Still, the full range of political views is represented at Notre Dame and for the most part respected.

This story goes to show once again that if Notre Dame wants to retain the academic freedom, diversity or tolerance which are inherent in the idea of a university, we will have to do so by cherishing our uniquely Catholic identity and not by mimicing the Ivies' empty, hypocritical standards of excellence.


Matt Smith said...

I received emails from several of our readers today alerting me to this horrific story, and only just now got a chance to sit down and look at them, and to check the blog.

The op-ed that Ben linked to from the Daily Princetonian, ominously titled "Open Season", gives the full background of the story, including evidence of the Princeton administration's gross negligence when compared with how it has recently handled relatively mild behavior directed at homosexual students. As it happens, that op-ed (written by Princeton student Brandon McGinley) is one of the finest pieces of collegiate journalism that I have read in a long time. I wish it were under different circumstances that it was brought to my attention, but Kudos to him for exposing the Princeton administration's truly dangerous double-standard regarding "hate speech."


Anonymous said...

Matt, there's no double standard. The University is taking this at least as seriously as they took the homophobic graffiti. Stop using this as an excuse to further the false perception that the university's administration discriminates against conservatives. They don't. You're just trying to gain sympathy in a very disingenuous way.

matt smith said...


Nowhere did I write that the university discriminates against conservatives. If that were true, it would imply that the Princeton administration condoned the physical assault and battery of one of its own students, which is patently absurd.

What I did write is that the university acted negligently in responding to the threats directed at Francisco Nava and other members of the Anscombe Society. It clearly did not act in a way which would indicate that they took those threats as equal in liability to the speech directed at several gay students.

Had you read the entirety of McGinley's article, you would understand the point I was agreeing with him on: that by vigorously responding to some incidents of "hate speech," but not others, the administration (I would strongly suppose, inadvertently) sent the message that those incidents were more deplorable than others in the same category.

Indeed, the university is taking the case of Francisco Nava very seriously -- now that it has escalated beyond "speech" and Nava has been brutally beaten. It is inarguable, however, that not enough was done to protect Nava in the first place. We know by looking at other recent cases that had Nava been receiving death threats because of his sexual orientation, the University would have responded quite differently.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response. The way McGinley writes in the Prince certainly does give the impression of a double standard by the administration. However, based on accounts I've heard from other students, it does seem like much of the response of the administration that McGinley refers to was actually arranged by the LGBT center, an organization that really has little to do with the administration. It would be the equivalent of the Anscombe Society, the Tory, or the campus Republicans encouraging people to put up signs in their windows.

Why didn't the university respond to Nava's case with counselors and RAs as they supposed did to the homophobic graffiti? Well, did Nava truly make his plight known? Did he try to get the attention required for such help?

If he did, then this does expose a double-standard of the administration. If this is indeed the case, I'm left wondering whether it's intentional or inadvertent and what the implications are of either. My guess is that the university is used to LGBT students being the subject of theats and other forms of intimidation, and as such, is aware of their plight and sensitive to their issues. The conservative groups on campus, in contrast - and this probably applies more to the Tory than to Anscombe but they tend to get lumped together in people's minds - generally have the reputation of being bullies: strong, well-assembled, and making their points heard at the expense of those whose rights they seek to curtail (i.e. gay marriage, etc). When the perennial bully suddenly becomes the victim, there is confusing and the university doesn't know how to react.

That said, this doesn't excuse the university's actions. Any threat of violence should obviously be taken equally seriously if there's reason to believe there's an actual threat. I'm not sure what they should have done (had a public safety escort?), but the university definitely needs to be more aware of these things. Now that it's clear that conservative student groups can also be the subject of threats (and unfortunately, attacks), the university needs to get their act together and do what they can do protect anyone who may be in harm's way.