Sheldon Hackney, president of the University of Pennsylvania, was recently chosen to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. Hackney has been described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as something of a moderate with a passion for free expression. I won’t rehash his credentials as a defender of free speech, except to say that he backed the public financing of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photo exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Penn in 1989. The president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, Stephen Balch, described Hackney as an “intelligent, open-minded man of integrity.” With all this lavish praise, one can easily sec how Dr. Hackney was so promptly confirmed.
But rhetoric and reality too frequently diverge, and Hackney’s reputation for defending open expression is ill-deserved. Major national media attention has focused on the university’s zealous prosecution of a young Jewish man for calling a group of black women “water buffalo.” Although the charge of racial harassment was dropped by the women, the controversy lasted long enough to raise serious questions about the propriety of the university’s “hate” speech code. This code has been flagrantly abused with some frequency, and has resulted in a climate of outright political intimidation. I speak now from personal experience, having been very nearly mauled by the Hackney administration for the high crime of insensitivity.
In the fall 1992 semester, two white students were placed under investigation by the university for racial harassment, a charge that can result in a range of repercussions, from a permanent mar on a student’s transcript to expulsion. They had thrown water out of their dormitory window on a group of students performing a ritual “tapping” exercise for initiation into a senior honor society. Never mind that this rather noisy ceremony occurred after two o’clock in the morning, that the two white students claim that members of the honor society had thrown eggs at their building, that the initiates were blindfolded in violation of university policy and state law, or that these “honor” students let loose a stream of violent and anti-white epithets after the soaking: the honor society is called Onyx, meaning black.
Because there was no real evidence of racial ill will on the part of the white students, the university’s acting Judicial Inquiry Officer, Catherine Schifter, pressed for a settlement. The two students were essentially coerced into signing an agreement that involved expulsion from their rooms, writing a letter of apology, and community service to avoid the kangaroo court that would have followed the investigation. Predictably, the Onyx Society faced no consequence, only appeasement.
As an editorial columnist at the school paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, I suggested in an opinion piece that somewhere the idea of justice had been lost and that a gross double standard was at work, not only in the university, but in the country at large. I cited the ease of the Onyx Society in particular, and expected an angry response from some (particularly after an administrator threatened my life if I chose to run the column). But I hoped to draw attention to the real issue of the rot that has settled within the university system in multiculturalism’s wake.
Six days passed when I received a call from Dr. Schifter. She rather happily informed me that 31 charges of racial harassment had been filed against me. When I queried her as to why, her response was, “You need to ask?” I asked Dr. Schifter if I was protected by the university’s “Open Expression Guidelines,” which explicitly state that speech critical of the university is protected, and was told that this was to be determined as part of her investigation. It was then intimated to me that if I sat down with the entire bulk of students that had filed the charges against me and opened a dialogue, all would be forgiven. Try to envision 31 angry black students placing the blame of hundreds of years of white oppression on my head. I am sure that had I accepted this offer and eventually broken down in an admission of my insensitivity, I would have been railroaded straight through the campus court system: shot by my own confession, as it were.
Hackney did not live up to his reputation as a free-speech idealogue. Although he had full knowledge of the ease, he nevertheless allowed an investigation to be launched against me, despite Penn’s signed agreement with the newspaper stipulating that no judicial action will be taken against a student for anything written in the paper. The ordeal ended only when Alan Kors, a professor of intellectual history who serves on the NEH board, placed a personal call to Hackney. It seems that the prospect of a political spectacle was not on the Hackney agenda for the semester. Nevertheless, a month passed before I received written notice that I was not to be formally charged.
Apparently, the threat of permanently smearing my academic record was not enough for the militants in the campus black community. On April 15, they chose to seize and dispose of nearly all 14,200 copies of the Daily Pennsylvanian, in which my final column of the semester ran, from the distribution points on campus. In place of the newspapers was a note, claiming responsibility lay with the “Black Community,” which was protesting the “blatant and voluntary perpetuation of institutional racism.” A black student’s remark to the Philadelphia Inquirer that day seems to reflect the attitude of the Hackney administration: “I really feel like I totally, absolutely agree with freedom of speech. But it’s another thing when they’re getting complaints from over a hundred people that they’re feeling really harassed, and they don’t do anything about It.”
As is customary for campus minorities after committing a crime, the gaggle of thieves marched to Hackney’s house with a list of demands, including the dismissal of a police officer who had the audacity to arrest one of the protesters. It seems the student, a black male, resisted and was poked with a police club. As it turns out, the young man is the great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, a militant black organization that describes whites as “devils” created as a curse upon the world by an embittered black scientist.
That evening Hackney came out and met with the student militants, and the following day he refused to condemn the minority students for their theft of the paper. His statement reads like an apology. Hackney lamented that “two important university values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict.” One wonders if Hackney regretted the conflict between the morals of normal Americans and the publicly-funded homosexual pornography in Mapplethorpe’s photographic exhibit in his past defense of free expression. Perhaps he would have been quick to come to my defense if I had been receiving federal subsidies for my work.
As of this writing, the theft of the paper has been deemed a violation of the open expression policy of the university. This cerebral realization represents something of a milestone in university life. Perhaps some backlash will crystallize against the previously unstoppable juggernaut of university thought control. However, the security officer who arrested the young Muhammad has been suspended for detaining two of the protesting thieves. Penn’s enforcers of the politically correct have apparently found another scapegoat on whom they can vent their bitter brand of sensitivity.