Reckoning; or, the Distressing Transformation of Harvard (and American Academia)

What I witnessed in my two decades of teaching at Harvard.

A demonstration in 2005 against then-president of Harvard Lawrence Summers. Jodi Hilton/Getty Images.

A demonstration in 2005 against then-president of Harvard Lawrence Summers. Jodi Hilton/Getty Images.

Observation
Aug. 20 2019
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


We present here the fourteenth and final chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here.

By the early 1990s, when I moved from Montreal to take up my new position at Harvard, I was able to participate in campus life more than I could during the decades when I was raising a family. At McGill I had scheduled classes and office hours to coincide with our children’s school day; now I was freer to behave more like your typical male—or at least that’s what feminists might say, except that almost none of the male members of my Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures showed any interest in campus affairs.

At a university, many if not most professors function strictly within their own departments, leaving faculty-wide policy to be made by those who regularly show up to make it. It would not have occurred to me, either, to attend my first meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) had Charles Berlin not insisted that I appear in person to receive my new degree.

I had gotten to know Charlie as Harvard’s head Judaica librarian and the founding executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, and he had always given me excellent advice. As for that degree, it seems that Harvard requires every tenured professor to be a graduate of the university; those without one upon arrival are therefore granted a token Harvard MA upon assuming their role.

Symbolic or not, this little ceremony eased me into the faculty, so that a half-year later, when I was appointed director of the Center for Jewish Studies and was expected to attend faculty meetings in that capacity, I was already familiar with the protocol.

The spacious high-domed room in the administration building where FAS holds its monthly meetings, lined with portraits of past dignitaries, guarantees a formal air to the proceedings. After a quarter-hour “tea” plus mingling, the university president, at this time Neil Rudenstine, takes his chair at the front, flanked by the faculty dean and secretary, and the meeting is called to order. I asked why Rudenstine presided at ours when he surely did not for other faculties, and was told that he did so as the head of the undergraduate college, the whole of which was under the aegis of FAS.

My favorite part of these meetings came right at the start with the “memorial minute” for recently deceased members, prepared by a committee of colleagues and read aloud by one of them, sometimes in the invited presence of the departed’s family. I had not been at the university long enough to know the people being eulogized, but I relished hearing of their accomplishments, which in addition to academic feats often included military service. Behind the standard items of praise, one caught glimpses of the kindly teacher-shepherd, the genius with irrepressible humor, the occasional curmudgeon who had outlived his welcome, and the thoroughly decent colleague who assumed the bulk of administrative duties.

Most of these obituaries bespoke a very high standard of mind and spirit that we, the heirs, were expected to uphold. I was sorry when, by the end of my tenure, the time allotted to them was curtailed and the full texts were instead made available online.

 

II.

 

Anticipating a curriculum that included something like the compulsory survey course I had taught when starting out at McGill, I was delighted when Dean Jeremy Knowles asked me during our first interview whether I would be prepared to teach in Harvard’s version of the “Core.” It turned out to be a very different thing.

Although acknowledging that students did need some guidance in their pursuit of knowledge, the Harvard program merely offered a grid of subject areas from which undergraduates were obliged to select ten courses over their four years. Of the prescribed areas—including Foreign Cultures, Historical Study, Moral Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Science, Social Analysis, and so forth—mine was to be a sub-division of Literature and Arts that focused on critical and analytical approaches to literature through questions like “How does literature function?” and “How are literary genres and traditions constituted and transformed?”

In other words, there were no foundational texts like the Bible, Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers, and other sources constituting (in Matthew Arnold’s famous formula) “the best that has been thought and said.” Courses were vetted to ensure more or less equal levels of difficulty but were otherwise as individualist as the instructor’s design.

Because I valued a canonical curriculum, I planned what was in effect a “great Jewish books” course featuring Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish), Franz Kafka (German), Isaac Babel (Russian), Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish), Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Hebrew), Primo Levi (Italian), and Saul Bellow (English), sometimes substituting one book for another but including major works written in at least six languages to represent the multilingual quality of “Modern Jewish Literature.” We would track the experience of Jews in the 20th century in the various ways that fiction interpreted history.

When I submitted my course proposal, the Core supervisor said, “I see that you assume students will not know what a shtetl is, but you think they will understand the term ‘tsarist Russia.’ Actually, half our incoming students have not taken a history course since ninth grade.” So I added more historical background to the literary analysis, enjoying the challenge of engaging students from across the disciplines, including those who may have registered only because they had to fulfill a requirement.

At the start of one semester I noticed a girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt so low over her forehead one could scarcely see she was African-American. She turned up during my first office hours, still hooded, to say she was stymied by the first assigned text: Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman in a translation generously sprinkled with transliterated Hebrew quotations. I assured her that almost everyone in the class would need to resort to the glossary provided at the end, and then tried to show her that the game might prove worth the candle if she could just relax and enjoy it. From then on, she came to see me almost weekly and, face visible, was soon doing most of the talking.

Thanking me for the course at the end of the semester, my student surprised me by singling out the novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s demanding indictment of the counterculture and inflamed racial relations of the 1960s. “When I arrived here,” she said, “I was the you-go girl! I was going to change everything. I was going to change the world. Well, this book showed me that I could also change it for the worse.” She articulated better than I had done what a course on modern Jewish fiction could hope to transmit.

I had the opposite experience with a student from Pakistan who refused to deal with Agnon’s Hebrew novella, In the Heart of Seas, because he deemed it “racist.” This young man was exceptionally intelligent and had until then been doing very well. It being too late to withdraw from the course, he demanded to complete it without having to deal with this book—which was technically possible since assignments and exams left him enough to choose from without it.

But it was from this novella that he had the most to learn. Agnon’s modern legend of a group of pious Jews who journey to the Land of Israel in the early 19th century was the most affirmative book in the course and, and had he come to understand it, in certain ways the one most compatible with his own religious culture. But his acquired hatred for Israel and opposition to the idea of Jews reclaiming their homeland stood in the way.

Although this book was his chance to overcome the “racism” in which he had been raised, by then I had already faced enough of Harvard’s bureaucracy to know what it would cost in time and energy if my teaching assistant and I were to refuse his demand. So, after an unsuccessful attempt at persuasion, I allowed a member of Pakistan’s “Harvard-educated elite” to have his prejudices confirmed.

I should add that the course provided employment for the upper-year doctoral students in Jewish studies who taught its weekly “sections” as part of their responsibilities. No one was more fortunate than I in these teaching assistants, through a division of labor that worked to the professor’s advantage but that I hoped would also give them a basis for future courses of their own.

 

III.

 

Soon after my arrival at Harvard I received a call from a gentleman introducing himself as Harvey Mansfield, professor of political philosophy in the department of government, who invited me to lunch. The name was unfamiliar, and I had no idea why he’d sought me out. The only other person who’d invited me for coffee that first semester was a young professor about to come up for tenure who was eager to secure my departmental vote.

Though actually quite shy, Harvey was delightful company. Toward the end of our lunch he mentioned that he ran a program on constitutional government that regularly brought visiting speakers to campus. Would I care to attend? Thrilled by the sound of the thing but afraid he had made a mistake, I asked, “Are you sure you have the right person?”

I think he smiled. “I know who you are. I read you in Commentary.” Although I myself hadn’t quite realized it, by then I was writing as much about politics as about literature—the fate of Yiddish having impelled me to figure out why its speakers had become the no-fail targets of European anti-Semites.

Harvey’s friendship helped to offset the isolation I would otherwise have experienced in a political climate that reminded me of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: Nature—“How beautiful is Nature!” To be repeated every time you are in the countryside; Republicans—“Republicans are not all scoundrels, but all scoundrels are Republicans.” (Flaubert, to be sure, meant something different by the term.)

As I write now, by the end of the second decade of the 21st century, “political correctness” on campus is taken for granted, but what I experienced was less the direct coercive tyranny of leftism than a pervasive culture of capitulation and pusillanimity, with everyone from administrators through deans and professors to students and the campus police looking over his or her shoulder in fear of censure by others. What a relief to attend Harvey’s regularly scheduled events amid congenial company and hear speakers like Charles Murray, Camille Paglia, James Q. Wilson, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the last of whom required stricter security arrangements than did many heads of state.

Once I had the unique experience of hearing the economist Glenn Loury literally “take the words out of my mouth” and say exactly what I had intended to say, only better. (Sadly, he soon stopped attending.) I also enjoyed the program-sponsored biannual post-election analyses conducted jointly by the two Williams, Kristol (conservative) and Galston (liberal), and for a semester I attended the course on political theory that Harvey co-taught with Peter Berkowitz.

As the university’s most prominent conservative, Harvey functioned like the lone sheriff of a disoriented town, trying to uphold standards that had prevailed when he first arrived there as an undergraduate in 1949 and returned as an instructor in 1962. He offended even some potential allies in his crusade against grade inflation, a practice whose origins he attributed to instructors adjusting upward the grades of students admitted through affirmative action but that had since taken on a college-wide life of its own (except perhaps in the hard sciences). He solved his own problem with this practice, at least temporarily, by giving his students the grade he thought they had earned alongside the grade he submitted.

Opposing the introduction of gender studies, Harvey also wrote a book called Manliness in the teeth of feminist orthodoxy. One never knew when he would rise at a faculty meeting to challenge a resolution. Once, during a discussion of guidelines governing behavior between professors and students, he impishly asked, whether the new policy would include a “grandfather clause.” (His late wife Delba Winthrop had been a graduate student of his.)

Though I sometimes felt like Harvey’s deputy sheriff, I had my own issues. At a faculty meeting in the spring of 1996, President Rudenstine presented a congratulatory report on the implementation of “diversity at Harvard.” I provoked him to what the next day’s Crimson called “an uncharacteristic display of emotion” by warning against the political consequences of ethnic/racial classification, and insisting we speak honestly of “group preferences” rather than euphemistically about “affirmative action.” The person beside me whispered: “This is the first time I ever saw him lose his temper!”

I hadn’t meant to irritate the president, but I was no less indignant than he. A society trying to correct past injustice ought to offer special encouragement and assistance to those whom it or, arguably, its precursors had damaged, but a public policy of reverse favoritism based on coarse categories of color and ethnicity could only deepen the student insecurities one was trying to overcome.

Raised as I’d been on the biblical model of the freed slaves who needed the disciplining laws of Sinai to transform them from a rabble into self-accountable people, I felt that condescension to the disadvantaged implied contempt rather than reciprocal trust. I also found it discouraging that a university would undertake a social experiment of such importance without establishing benchmarks to check on whether its good intentions were actually producing the intended improvements.

When the same question of “diversity” later resurfaced under the presidency of Drew Faust, I suggested that the faculty test the correlation between the introduction of group preferences and the correlative decline at Harvard of the intellectual-political form of diversity. Once the contested principle of group preferences was made sacrosanct, it seemed to me, it had to shut down the diversity of viewpoints. President Faust mocked my suggestion by pointing to the women and dark-skinned individuals in the rows in front of her as evidence that diversity, plain and simple, had been attained. I doubt she realized that she had proved my point: counting heads by gender and race had replaced diversity of the ideas inside them.

Student groups, with greater presence of mind than faculty, organized a campus debate on affirmative action with Professors Cornel West and Michael Sandel speaking for, Harvey and me against. (I’d been approached after several others declined.) Turning up outside the hall on the designated evening, I found the line already stretching far back into the campus. The organizers, taken unawares by the size of the turnout, soon had us running to a larger hall at the Science Center, and then, when that proved inadequate, to Sanders Theater, which was soon crammed with a thousand students.

Cornel West, whom I had never met before and who disarmingly called me “Sister Ruth,” tried to preempt our arguments by rejecting as “myths” the idea that racism no longer existed in America, and that it was un-American to consider the group ahead of the individual. He was a superb showman, but I think Harvey bested him on these very points by exposing the harm done by reverse discrimination. I “won” my side of the argument because I was the only one talking about gender quotas while the others talked about race. We all held our ground before an appreciative and by no means homogeneous crowd.

In truth, affirmative action required lying. Departments looking for the “best” person to fill a position were obliged to demonstrate that they had not conducted a fair and open search but had rather interviewed an unspecified percentage of women and other “minorities,” and if at all possible, appointed one of them rather than an equally or better qualified white male. Since individual merit and group diversity are contradictory goals, the process was corrupt irrespective of outcome. At one departmental meeting when the chair asked us to supply evidence of a member’s candidacy for promotion, someone at the table hooted, “Why bother with all this? He’s Hispanic!”

I was the only one who laughed at this eruption of suppressed truth.

Although, when I arrived at Harvard, I enjoyed the friendship of a number of conservatively-inclined faculty members at Harvard, almost all were gone by the time I left in 2014. With, again, the possible exception of the hard sciences, one could be certain that no strictly meritorious appointees replaced them.

At the same time, being visibly conservative was a personal advantage. I was a sounding board for students who wanted to affirm but not advertise a similar political orientation or were just intellectually curious. In my capacity of faculty adviser I came to know the feisty students of the Republican Club, the conservative newspaper The Salient, clubs associated with the military, Students for a Safe Israel, and the Stand-Up Comedy Association.

One day I was visited by several girls who asked me to become faculty adviser to a new right-wing Catholic club. They brushed aside that I was neither Christian nor a categorical opponent of abortion, their main driving issue; on a hegemonic campus it was enough that I supported their group’s right to life.

 

IV.

 

More troubling even than affirmative action was the exclusion from Harvard campus of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). During the Vietnam war, Harvard’s faculty had objected to any form of campus military training that either provided (or implicitly denied) exemptions to the draft. But once conscription was repealed in 1973, rather than encouraging students to join what were now the voluntary reserves, the faculty found a new pretext for banning ROTC in the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals, declaring sweepingly that any form of discrimination “unrelated to course requirements is contrary to the principles and policies of Harvard University.”

Opposition to the military was in general a faculty obsession. After ROTC was banished from campus, Harvard’s administration arranged to reimburse the neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for absorbing the few annual Harvard recruits. This backdoor channel made it possible to accommodate the “need-based” students on ROTC scholarships whom the faculty presumably wanted to help, while burdening them with the additional complications of predawn travel back and forth to MIT.

Then in 1995, in an upsurge of Pecksniffian preening, FAS declared that even paying the subsidy to MIT implied collaboration with the armed forces. What to do? Rather than risking a confrontation with the faculty activists, the administration asked sympathetic members of Harvard alumni to defray the costs for the handful of students annually enrolled in the program. Call it Harvard’s version of money laundering. And when the student body, to its credit voted in 1999 to reinstate ROTC, the faculty refused to change its previous position. Needless to add, all this time Harvard was accepting grants from the government whose policies it selectively opposed.

Mere hypocrisy is not enough to get under my skin. I teach 19th-century satire, much of which excoriates religion and traditional morality for preaching standards to which their followers do not adhere; but this made me equally distrustful of reformers who failed to rise to the moral standards of those they mocked. Like the political theorist Judith Shklar—who died before I got to Harvard—in her book Ordinary Vices, I defended old-fashioned hypocrisy against the nihilistic alternative of renouncing all aspirations to a higher morality.

The campaign against the military, however, went far beyond hypocrisy. A country’s protection depends on soldiers of college age. On a campus studded with memorials to former students who had died serving their country, the faculty congratulated undergraduates for evading this highest responsibility, and for 40 years—ten four-year undergraduate rotations—strutted its moral superiority to the soldiers who actually did serve. By now, a much-weakened ROTC has been readmitted to campus, with no apology and no renewed call for student enlistment.

At many universities, the same faculty cohort that expelled ROTC and took up so-called progressive causes was also becoming increasingly anti-Israel. In 2002, Harvard’s English department invited to the campus the poet and Oxford lecturer Tom Paulin, best known for a poem in response to the first intifada accusing Israel of gunning down “another little Palestinian boy/ in trainers, jeans, and a white teeshirt.” In 2003, Yale’s Afro-American cultural center joined the Black Student Alliance in hosting Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, and cheered when he read his poem about 9/11 asking “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?” In 2006, a faculty group at Brandeis University invited former President Jimmy Carter to speak upon the publication of his malignant book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.

Each of these cases followed what I had come to call the three-step: (1) An avowedly anti-Israel event generates (2) a protest against it, which then triggers (3) a counter-protest against the alleged attempt by, of course, the protesters to suppress free speech. By this sleight of hand, the initiators of the event and the counter-protesters outmaneuver defenders of the Jews by implicitly appealing to the forces of law and order to punish those engaged in the perfectly legal act of protest for an aggression that is in fact being perpetrated against them.

 

V.

 

I was very hopeful when, in the summer of 2001, Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard. Even before the attacks of September 11, he addressed the need for military service and made the point explicit by personally attending ROTC commissioning ceremonies. I had never met the man (it seemed natural to refer to him as Larry) and knew only that he had taught in the economics department and served as President Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, but I liked him the first time I saw him in action, chairing the faculty meeting as though he were performing a minor duty not to be confused with the serious business of running the university.

Indeed, Summers seemed to take charge by monitoring academic performance itself, and by holding the professoriate to a meaningful standard of excellence. Concurrently, he paid serious attention to undergraduates who found his concern for them genuine, and who made him by far the most popular president of the four I saw in action.

Popular, that is, among students. Not so, among professors. Some whom he called in for private discussions welcomed his interest in their disciplines, and one told me he appreciated being reminded of the school’s high expectations. Cornel West, who had apparently already negotiated a transfer to Princeton, went public with the president’s alleged complaints against him: namely, that he was busy cutting rap records instead of pursuing serious scholarship, that he headed a political committee for Al Sharpton as president, and that he inflated student grades. West implied that these were racial offenses, knowing, that unlike himself, the president would feel obliged to maintain the confidentiality of their meeting. His was the first shot across the presidential bow.

Around the time of Larry’s appointment, some 70 faculty members from Harvard and MIT petitioned their universities to divest from Israel and from companies that sell arms to Israel. Led by MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, and profiting from improved social media, the petition intended to stoke opposition to Israel whether or not it achieved its stated goal. Larry added his prestige to a counter-petition that gathered more than ten times the number of original signatories after he made anti-Semitism the subject of his October 2002 maiden address at Memorial Church, saying he had come to realize, reluctantly, that anti-Jewish politics did not end with the Holocaust but rather morphed into attacks on Israel. Academic communities, he said, were obliged to admit expression of all viewpoints, and “there is much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged.” But, he added, “[s]erious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

This gracious phrasing did not deter the three-step. At the next faculty meeting, with an open bellicosity that I had never before witnessed in that room, Summers was accused of stifling free expression. His accuser, Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and Afro-American studies, was backed up by a chorus of obviously orchestrated supporters. Although the press was excluded from faculty meetings, the next day’s Boston Globe carried an item reporting the charge that Summers was stifling debate. Within a year of his arrival, two professors of Afro-American studies had labeled the president a racist and a Zionist-racist opponent of free speech.

Having placed my hopes on Larry’s leadership, I watched the unraveling of his authority with real horror. His temperamental mildness, perceived as timidity, inspired disaffected corners of the university to rise against him. The feminists administered the coup de grâce after a small private conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.” As an economist, Summers had been invited to address the question of why, although more women than men now attended university, women did not enter fields like mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences in the same proportions as their male contemporaries.

Urged to provoke discussion, Larry offered a range of ideas, starting with the general fact that certain groups are “underrepresented” in certain activities and then homing in on whether the discrepancy might be due to—in declining order of importance—female choices, unequal distribution of cognitive skills across the sexes, or discrimination:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.

He concluded by wishing “nothing better than to be proved wrong,” because he would have liked the problem to find a better solution.

He had been ambushed. A female professor stormed out of the hall telling reporters (but where had they come from?) that the talk had made her physically ill. Falsely accused of sexism and of calling women innately inferior to men, he yielded to the complaint by a caucus of senior women faculty that there had been discrimination against them, and therefore created a task force to address the charge. The leftist coalition was now drawing blood.

Once again, students aired what faculty members had tried to squelch. At a graduate students’ forum on women’s careers, most of the young women spoke, just as Larry had conjectured, about the difficulty of balancing family life with the unyielding demands of the hard sciences. One had already switched into a career path that did not require open-ended laboratory experimentation; others described trying to figure out how to combine family with work.

In addressing the group, I made my own usual pitch for gratitude over grievance—gratitude to science for having given us so much better control over the main concerns of women over the ages: conception, childbirth, and infant mortality. I was furious with the women’s libbers for politicizing womanhood rather than facing up to the anxieties that quite naturally accompanied their greater freedoms.

But Larry did not shore up his authority. Though he and I had never spoken, I requested a meeting to urge him to fight for his position. Did he not understand that “blood in the water” attracts sharks? Why did he not rally his supporters—including students—against those trying to shut him down? We had counted on his leadership and were prepared to help him defend it. Alas, he submitted to my reproach as meekly as he had to the others.

By speaking out as one of the few vocal “defenders of Summers,” I got a taste of media frenzy. Reporters with an otherwise dull academic beat saw their chance for bylines on a story that would stay hot for only so long as the president could be kept on the ropes. Since it was easier to go back to the same people for statements than to find new ones, I could have been talking to reporters all day.

But the end came fast: at a special open meeting of FAS, Lorand Matory introduced a motion of no-confidence in Larry that passed by a vote of 218 to 185 with 18 abstentions. On the way to the meeting, held at the American Repertory Theater—the regular venue being too small to contain this spectacle—two junior faculty members told me they were coming to vote against the president. They could have saved their boasts: the balloting was secret and, in any case, neither of their own appointments had been renewed.

That spring, I ran into Larry after the last faculty meeting that he chaired as president. As though continuing our conversation in his office, he said that I had not taken into account the pressure he was under from the Harvard Corporation, which had hired him and had the power to fire him. I answered with less sympathy than I felt that this should have made him fight even harder. He was correct that I did not know all of the facts. But I did know the stakes, and I had the impression that his defeat may have meant more to me that it did to him.

 

VI.

 

Five years later, apparently not satisfied with his earlier triumph, Lorand Matory resumed his anti-Jewish campaign, now aimed not only at the already deposed Summers but also at the law school’s Alan Dershowitz and me. In an opinion piece in the Harvard Crimson, he charged that through the enforcement powers yielded by the three of us, the state of Israel was making people like him “tremble in the fear of losing their friends, jobs, advertising revenues, campaign contributions, and alumni donations if they question Zionism or Israeli policy.”

Rather than responding. I decided to deny him the notoriety he sought and refuse to dance. After several weeks of quiet, which seemed to confirm my strategy, the agenda for the upcoming FAS meeting arrived with the following proposed resolution: “That this faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.” Attached was a note explaining that the context for this motion was Matory’s opinion piece in the Crimson, with the text conveniently appended to the faculty agenda. That undigested mess of innuendo began:

Since Vietnam, Israel has become the heartbeat of U.S. foreign policy and a litmus test of what can be debated—and even of who will be allowed to speak—on university campuses.

Where would one even start to separate the freakish from the vicious in that that one-sentence charge, or from the paranoid projections that inspired it? What was the “heartbeat of foreign policy” in Secretaries of State Cyrus Vance, Edmund Muskie, Alexander Haig, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright? If Israel controlled campus speech, how did the field represented by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) fall so thoroughly under the sway of academics opposed to Israel that two of its members, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, felt compelled to establish an alternative academic association? And how could the man who had brought down President Summers claim that he was not allowed to speak? Had this been submitted by a student, I would not have read beyond the first sentence before sending it back for a rewrite.

Far more troubling than the letter itself, which went on interminably in the same vein, was that our colleagues had included this item on the agenda, and without first informing Alan and me. Matory had actually assured an interviewer that he had no academic credentials or knowledge of the subject, and no special reason to go after Israel beyond what he had gleaned from the “international press.” Yet the faculty council admitted his spurious call for free speech—speech already guaranteed by existing guidelines.

Members of Matory’s department supported his proposal; not a word of objection was heard from Afro-American studies. He was granted a platform at two full meetings, as he proceeded to maneuver us, his “defendants,” into the three-step for the faculty’s sadistic amusement.

What popped into my head during the worst of that time was watching on television the scene of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky being set free at Berlin’s Gleinicke bridge and, told to walk straight across to the American side, zigzagging his way across instead. In retrospect, we defenders of Israel ought to have turned our backs on the faculty of a distinguished and venerable institution and said, “Such crap will not be tolerated.” We should not have submitted to a racist’s charge against the alleged racism of Israel.

The saddest such episode that I witnessed during my last years at Harvard involved the person responsible for my being there, whom I had always imagined a consummate insider. Though Marty Peretz had endowed a chair in Jewish studies, his longstanding association with the university was through its committee on degrees in social studies, a program that he helped to found and in which he taught hundreds of undergraduates, including Albert Gore. He had also hosted dozens, perhaps hundreds of gatherings in his home for visiting professors, graduating students, and other university occasions.

It was therefore fitting that in the fall of 2010, to commemorate the program’s 50th anniversary, a group of his former students announced a new research fund in his honor. Marty was to be one of the speakers at the celebration as well as an honoree. If he himself bore any responsibility for the ensuing ugliness, it lay in an item he had published the previous month in his blog, The Spine—his remaining connection to the New Republic, the magazine he’d once owned.

Plans were then afoot by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf to build a mosque, to be named Cordoba House, abutting the site of the former Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. Marty’s objection to the project included this intemperate passage:

Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

His speedy apology on the eve of Yom Kippur, cast as if in public penance, did not stop his political antagonists on campus from using these words as the pretext for their ambush. Muslim and Arab student groups protested the honor being done him, and general emails were sent through some of the undergraduate dorms inciting students to “Party with Marty.” As he emerged from the event, he was met by a phalanx of jeering students and had to be conducted through their gauntlet under police watch, accompanied by Michael Walzer and Charles Maier, two old friends and fellow members of the program’s committee. Its current faculty, by contrast, supported the protest, and one declared that everyone “was—without exception—appalled by Peretz’s comments.”

Really? Was there no one who shared at least some of his disappointment in the failure of America’s Muslim population to speak out more forcefully against the murderous actions of their coreligionists, not least at the site of the proposed mosque? No one to defend his freedom of speech? And since when had the committee on social studies become a monolith? In stark contrast to Marty’s contrition, whoever issued the call for potential violence went unpunished, and no one commented when Imam Rauf was subsequently indicted for crimes of embezzlement.

The “party” against Marty completed the arc that began with his celebration of the chair in Yiddish literature and of my arrival at Harvard as its first incumbent, described in the previous chapter of this memoir. How much had changed in the interim. Xeroxing had gone the way of spats, The Social Network had long since replaced Love Story as Hollywood’s idea of Harvard—and a wonderful new cadre of Harvard-trained academics was out there teaching Yiddish literature. So I certainly wouldn’t wish my recitation of the change to be read as a tale of personal damage to me—as you can tell, here I am—but rather as a tragic chapter, still unfinished, in American higher education, and in American history.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

More about: Politics & Current Affairs, The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse