I am an outspoken public atheist and critic of all faith-based religious beliefs and institutions. In particular, I unabashedly publish serious moral and intellectual objections to the very existence of the Roman Catholic Church and to some of its particularly appalling political stances.
Nonetheless, over the last 12 years, not a semester has gone by that I have not been enrolled at and/or teaching at a Catholic university. I have spent a significant portion of my ten years as a philosophy professor in the classrooms of Fordham University, Fairfield University, and St. John’s University. I earned my MA, MPhil, and PhD at Fordham. While at Fordham I wrote a dissertation that was unmistakably critical of Christianity. I recently accepted an invitation from one of the Jesuit priests in Fordham’s philosophy department to submit two encyclopedia articles on Nietzsche’s ethics for an upcoming supplement to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. Previously, by his invitation, I have reviewed books on Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion for the philosophy journal he edits.
In these 12 years of tight association with Catholic institutions of higher learning, I have never in any way been treated with hostility or disrespect or suspicion on account of my atheism. No one has ever wrung their hands that I might be an unfit influence on the students I teach. No one has ever tried to monitor or censor a word that I have said in the classroom or written publicly.
In other words, my experience of these Catholic educational institutions has been one of total academic freedom and intellectual inclusiveness and civility.
I have also experienced Fordham in particular to be a place that generally puts a high premium on values like social justice. While the university has its share of Catholic social conservatives there is genuinely ecumenical dialogue in which people of all faiths and none represent a wide range of philosophical, moral, and political positions. It is not a monolithic place. It is not a dogmatic place. It is not a hateful place. It is one of my true homes in this world.
So this afternoon when I learned that Ann Coulter had been invited by the College Republicans to speak, I was distressed. Fordham was inviting into my home someone who coarsens the public discourse by opposing all the inclusiveness, civility, and concern for the poor that make me proud of Fordham? In this country, religiosity and political conservatism are so closely associated in much of the media and the public mind that a religious school inviting a politically right wing pundit can all too easily lead to people assuming that that pundit is herself representative of the nature of the religiosity and intellectual quality and character of that religious institution. And since few right wing figures could worse represent the spirit and ethos of Fordham than Ann Coulter I worried the school’s reputation might be unjustly tarnished if they gave her a platform to speak.
A university’s reputation is an important thing, especially to its alumni like me. I am proud of Fordham’s reputation among universities in general and, more specifically, among Christian schools. And, from a self-interested point of view, I am personally invested in the university’s reputation. I don’t want Fordham’s name associated with pisspoor thinkers defined by their hatefulness, self-serving cynicism, intellectual dishonesty, moral hollowness, and incendiary public trolling.
So it was for this reason that I reposted on Facebook a petition someone e-mailed me that called for Fordham to rescind the College Republicans’ invitation to Ann Coulter. I explained the link with one simple sentence that summed up my opposition to her speaking at Fordham: “Ann Coulter does not represent Fordham values.”
Then the following letter from Fordham President Joseph McShane was called to my attention and I could not be more pleased with it.
The College Republicans, a student club at Fordham University, has invited Ann Coulter to speak on campus on November 29. The event is funded through student activity fees and is not open to the public nor the media. Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus.
To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative — more heat than light — and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.
As members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion, not to sling mud and impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree or to engage in racial or social stereotyping. In the wake of several bias incidents last spring, I told the University community that I hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.
“Disgust” was the word I used to sum up my feelings about those incidents. Hate speech, name-calling, and incivility are completely at odds with the Jesuit ideals that have always guided and animated Fordham.
Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement. Preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a university, and I fully expect our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff to voice their opposition, civilly and respectfully, and forcefully.
The College Republicans have unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter’s (and the student organizers’) opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy — and one another — stronger? We have chosen the latter course, confident in our community and in the power of decency and reason to overcome hatred and prejudice.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President
I was thoroughly satisfied with this repudiation of Coulter by the president of the university. His letter made unequivocally clear that Fordham did not endorse her toxic contributions to the public discourse and that her presence would be accommodated only as an expression of Fordham’s admirably genuine commitment to academic freedom, civil debate, and (implicitly) the autonomy of student groups who hold unpopular opinions. I could accept her speaking at Fordham on these grounds.
The College Republicans have since done even better and rescinded the invitation altogether:
From the College Republicans:
The College Republicans regret the controversy surrounding our planned lecture featuring Ann Coulter. The size and severity of opposition to this event have caught us by surprise and caused us to question our decision to welcome her to Rose Hill. Looking at the concerns raised about Ms. Coulter, many of them reasonable, we have determined that some of her comments do not represent the ideals of the College Republicans and are inconsistent with both our organization’s mission and the University’s. We regret that we failed to thoroughly research her before announcing; that is our error and we do not excuse ourselves for it. Consistent with our strong disagreement with certain comments by Ms. Coulter, we have chosen to cancel the event and rescind Ms. Coulter’s invitation to speak at Fordham. We made this choice freely before Father McShane’s email was sent out and we became aware of his feelings – had the President simply reached out to us before releasing his statement, he would have learned that the event was being cancelled. We hope the University community will forgive the College Republicans for our error and continue to allow us to serve as its main voice of the sensible, compassionate, and conservative political movement that we strive to be. We fell short of that standard this time, and we offer our sincere apologies.
Ted Conrad, President
Emily Harman, Vice President
Joe Campagna, Treasurer
John Mantia, Secretary
Good for Fordham and good for the Fordham College Republicans.