Saturday, March 11, 2023

Hamline, Stanford, etc.

Jason Mazzone

Like most observers, I found outrageous Hamline University’s decision earlier this year to terminate Erika López Prater’s contract after students in her art history class complained she showed in class a 14th-century painting depicting the prophet Mohammad. At the same time, I had only limited sympathy for López Prater because I thought she was part of the underlying problem. In warning her students in the course syllabus they might encounter works depicting religious figures (and to reach out to her if they had concerns about that) and, on the date in question, in giving her students an opportunity to step away while the Mohammed image was screened, López Prater evidently subscribed to—and, through her own actions, reinforced—the notion that, in delivering education, universities should take steps to ensure students are not offended. That notion is inconsistent with responsible pedagogy and the truth-seeking function of universities (in part because (as López Prater herself discovered) it eschews any sense of proportion and it has no end point). Hamline is a small and unremarkable undergraduate college. Stanford Law School is a quite different institution. But if the video recording of a Stanford associate dean’s loopy conduct at a recent student-sponsored event is representative, Stanford has a Hamline problem of its own. 

The scene is familiar: noisy students shouting unintelligible (and likely unintelligent) things so that an event cannot proceed. But here’s a twist: a motherly administrator arrives and students are instantly silent while she scolds the speaker (a federal judge) at length for his views; asks whether what he has to say is worth the harm his presence is causing (“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” she ponders); reassures him she nonetheless welcomes him; and says she hopes he might learn something from his visit. Students cheer loudly as this intervenor dean takes a seat. Putting aside the fact that the dean has no business taking over the platform to deliver her own message, students at Stanford Law can surely listen to what somebody has to say and then, if they object to what they hear, respond with tough questions of their own. If they cannot, this is not the profession for them. The final moments of the video are, to me, the most telling: after the dean has finished her scolding and before the invited speaker speaks, the protesting students file out the room--satisfied, I suppose, but having learned nothing that will help them in law or life.  

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