Central Connecticut State University is doing its part for international diplomacy. The campus newspaper, The Central Reporter, tells us that in late September CCSU professor of political science Ghassan El-Eid brought a dozen CCSC students "to attend a dinner with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran," who was in New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
President Ahmadinejad, of course, has had some practice talking to American college students. Back in 2007, Columbia University occasioned some controversy by inviting him to speak at its World Leaders Forum. Stinging from criticism of the decision, Columbia's president Lee Bollinger announced he would use the occasion to annoy his guest. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it:
"Mr. Bollinger said he would introduce the president by issuing "sharp challenges" to his denial of the Holocaust, stated goal of wiping Israel off the map, support for terrorism, defiance of sanctions stemming from Iran's nuclear ambitions, and suppression of human rights and civil liberties."
Bollinger has long been a champion of vigorous free speech (The Tolerant Society, 1986; Images of a Free Press, 1991; Eternally Vigilant, 2002; Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open, 2010)--at least in principle. His record in practice is a bit uneven. In 2006, for example, after a group of Columbia students violently interrupted and ended a scheduled talk by members of the Minuteman Project, he had trouble finding anything to say, but after a few months issued an anemic letter saying that Columbia had investigated and taken appropriate steps to discipline the students who had jumped the stage and assaulted the speaker. He didn't disclose the punishments, but eventually it came out that those found guilty were merely given "warnings" which were put on their transcripts temporarily, to be removed at the end of 2008. One of the students, Monique Dols, gloated, "It's a light punishment; it's a slap on the wrist. It's a victory for free speech and anti-racism."
When it came to Ahmadinejad's visit to the World Leaders Forum, however, Bollinger delivered what the Chronicle described as "a blistering critique." The event remains an odd milestone for the contemporary campus. By inviting Ahmadinejad, Columbia University bestowed a signal honor on one of the worst actors in contemporary world politics, and then tried to reverse the meaning of the occasion by turning the guest into the object of contumely. Bollinger earned both praise for being tough and criticism for being rude and undermining "his own ideals of free speech and academic freedom."
Ahmadinejad turned Bollinger's assault to his own rhetorical advantage. He began his speech by reproving Bollinger. The Washington Post's transcript noted the applause:
At the outset I want to complain a bit from the person who read this political statement against me. In Iran tradition requires that when we demand a person to invite to be a speaker we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment and we don't think it's necessary before this speech is even given to come in with a series of claims...
... and to attempt in a so-called manner to provide vaccination of some sort to our students and our faculty.
I think the text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here, present here. In a university environment we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed by all.
Certainly he took more than all the time I was allocated to speak, and that's fine with me. We'll just leave that to add up with the claims of respect for freedom and the freedom of speech that's given to us in this country.
Ahmadinejad, having presided over judicial murder of his political opponents and bloody suppression of public protest of his regime, is no one's idea of a friend of free speech or academic freedom, but he is a clever tactician. Bollinger played to his own audience of academics eager to hear a blustery put-down of a tyrant. But Ahmadinejad played to a world stage as a man witnessing against the hypocrisy of the West.
Which brings us back to the outing for Central Connecticut State University students. By this point, the Iranian president has perfected his pitch. He knows American college students have a tenuous grasp of history and world politics and that their deepest longing is to be "inclusive." And he serves up exactly that. The student newspaper reports that the students described him as kind to everyone who asked a question," "not as radical as the western media portray him," and--of course--"inclusive."
This was too much for one of my board members, Jay Bergman, who teaches history at Central Connecticut, and to whom I'm indebted for this glimpse into the vacancy of the soul of American higher education. Bergman recounted the affair in the Litchfield County Times, complete with a Bartlett's full of Ahmadinejad's venomous declarations.
Professor Ghassan El-Eid, who arranged the event, is something of a campus celebrity. According to the university he is a political consultant for MSNBC, has "granted numerous national TV and newspaper interviews," and "has also been heard on NPR and the Pacific Radio Network." Which I suppose is a way of saying that the honor granted the undergraduate Central Connecticut students to dine with the dictator was no accident.