Free-speech award

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation announced earlier this week that Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, would receive one of four 2008 Bradley awards for his work defending students’ right of free expression. (The link doesn’t seem to be working, but a Google cache is here).

I first encountered Kors when I was a grad student at the University of Minnesota, working for the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and was assigned a story about university speech codes (around 1990). Since people in favor of speech codes were thick on the ground, I needed someone who thought they were pernicious, and I called Kors because he was quoted in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

He was extraordinarily gracious to a student journalist calling him out of nowhere, and he was also passionate about the issue. So much so, that even if I hadn’t already agreed with him, I’d likely have been persuaded to change my mind.

I wasn’t surprised when I learned later that he’d emerged as the faculty advocate for a Penn student named Eden Jacobowitz, who was hauled before a kangaroo court for shouting at a noisy gaggle of drunken sorority women outside his dorm in the middle of the night, “Shut up, you water buffalo!”

The women, being black, took this rather improbable insult as racist, although at its source in Hebrew it’s about as racist as “dodo.” Well, I guess “dodo” is more closely African than “water buffalo,” although neither of them is black.

What Kors learned about campus judiciary systems during the water buffalo case eventually impelled him to write a book, The Shadow University, with co-author Harvey Silverglate, about the due-process violations implicit in many campus judiciary systems.

The examples the authors collected during the writing of the book led to the founding of an organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (here), dedicated to preserving the rights of students and faculty sucked into the gears of their university’s thought police. FIRE is not, you need to understand, ideological in choosing the people it defends. If the people it defends are more often on the right than the left, as seems to be the case, that is only because the right is mostly where the university thought police seek their victims.

The award is richly deserved (and it’s worth $250,000, which is not too shabby either). The intriguing thing is, why is what Kors has done — following his conscience, and damn the consequences — so rare among academics as to merit a prestigious and lucrative award?

University professors with tenure, after all, enjoy about as much personal and professional security as life affords anyone in this uncertain universe. Are they afraid that if they utter an impious truth, the president won’t invite them for tea again? Sometimes the truth is impious, but must be said.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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