Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A university faculty speaks its mind

Sandy Levinson

Approximately 80% of the faculty of the George Washington School of Law, including several of its former Deans, signed an extremely strong statement criticizing William Barr.  To describe it as simply a "statement" is misleading, for it sets out an extensive bill of particulars lamenting the reality of William Barr as Attorney General.  What makes the statement so striking, though, is the institutional connection between George Washington and William Barr.  He received his law degree from that institution; he received an honorary degree twenty years later upon serving George H.W. Bush as Attorney General.  He is also described as someone who has given generously and otherwise raised significant money for the Law School.

I have on other occasions indicated by deep and abiding respect for Michael Gerson, whom I've never had the honor of meeting.  This former speechwriter for George W. Bush, an Evangelical Christian, has consistently and courageously criticized not only Donald J. Trump, but also many of his fell Evangelicals for in effect selling their souls to that truly despicable charlatan.  Why I admire him is not only his views; I can find them articulated by, say, David Remnick in the New Yorker or Paul Krugman in the New York Times.  But I'm confident that neither Remnick nor Krugman has lost any friends by their militant criticisms of Trump.  That is surely not the case with Gerson, or other never-Trumpers like George Will, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, Bill Kristol (whom I used to despise because he was simply a lackey for the Republican Party, and, of course, George Conway.  They have undoubtedly paid real personal costs that liberals have not paid in their criticisms of Trump.  That is something worth honoring in these parlous times.

Similarly, the George Washington statement is powerful for reasons going beyond its words and de facto indictment.  Many law professors, across the country, would no doubt agree with it and be willing to sign it if asked.  But none of us would be making the same kind of powerful institutional statement, i.e., denouncing an illustrious alumnus and benefactor "simply" because he had disgraced the idea of how to live an honorable life as a lawyer.  All universities have alums we are proud of and those that should make us cringe.  It is not unthinkable that the 2024 race within the Republican Party will boil down to Harvard Law School alumnus Tom Cotton and Yale Law School graduate Josh Hawley, just as the Harvard Law School gave us both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.  Although individual faculty members of these (and other institutions) will no doubt express vigorous views, I would be astonished if a collective effort were made similar to that of the George Washington folks.  Quite frankly, it represents a breach of modern decorum with regard to eminent--and monied--alums.

It is one thing for Oriel College at Oxford to take down its statue of Cecil Rhodes (assuming that finally happens).  It would be quite another for the University to denounce its alumnus Boris Johnson for his mishandling of the Corid-19 virus or, for that matter, his rank dishonesty and mendacity with regard to arguing in behalf of Brexit (and lying to the Queen about proroguing Parliament).  "Speaking truth to power" is not for the faint of heart--or university administrators seeking funds.  But the signatories of the George Washington statement will be able to look in the mirror and know that they have stood up in defense of whatever the "rule of law" might actually mean in this post-Realist world.  (See, e.g., Robert Jackson's opinion in Youngstown Steel, which I continue to believe is the best single opinion ever written as a truly "adult" discussion of the concept.)

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