The Sheldon -- it's baaack

John Leo

11/3/2003 12:00:00 AM - John Leo

to this column’s annual Sheldon award? Well, it’s back. As all Sheldon fans know, the
prize goes to the university president who does the most to look the other way when free speech is under assault on campus. The Sheldon is a statuette that looks something like the Oscar, except that the Oscar shows a man with no face looking straight ahead, whereas the Sheldon shows a man with no spine looking the other way. It is named for Sheldon Hackney, former president of the University of Pennsylvania and a modern legend in looking the other way. After minority students in 1993 stole the entire press run of a campus newspaper, Hackney refused to discipline the thieves. But the guard who pursued them was reprimanded, a nice touch.

Emulating Hackney is like setting out to be the new Babe Ruth, but many try. A strong contender this year is William Cibes Jr., chancellor of the Connecticut State University system. One professor, fed up with one-sided seminars and guest lectures at CSU, asked the university to endorse airing a full range of views in these programs. Cibes said no, on the grounds that such a statement could justly be seen as “invading academic freedom.” He is believed to be the first college administrator to oppose intellectual diversity as a threat to academic freedom.

More recently, when the newspaper at Hampton University in Virginia was about to run an article on health violations at the cafeteria, acting university president JoAnn Haysbert asked for space on Page 1 to give her side. The editors put her article on Page 3, so she seized all copies of the issue, which was then reprinted with her piece on Page 1. Haysbert may be a bonehead, but she is ineligible for the Sheldon, which requires looking the other way, not making off with a whole press run yourself.

A furor erupted at the University of Nevada -- Las Vegas when the student newspaper ran an abrasive Columbus Day article celebrating Columbus and rejecting both Indian cultures and the multicultural notion that all cultures are somehow equal. Nearly all copies of the paper were stolen, and the author of the article, Alexander Marriott, was fired from the staff of the paper on a charge of plagiarism, since discredited. No word yet from UNLV president Carol Harter, who is believed to be busy looking the other way.

Also emerging from the pack of Sheldon contenders is Warren Baker, president of California Polytechnic State University -- San Luis Obispo. A number of black students were offended when a white student at the Multicultural Center attempted to post a flier advertising a speech by black writer Mason Weaver, author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, an argument that dependence on government harms black Americans. The student, Steven Hinkle, offered to discuss the flier but was met by threats to call police. The Cal Poly judicial affairs office
found Hinkle guilty of “disruption of a campus event,” although five of the seven complainants said the meeting had not yet started and all seven said Hinkle entered quietly and conducted himself civilly when challenged. So the “disruption” seemed to be in the minds of the complainants: They were offended by the content of the flier. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) entered the case, sending two letters to President Baker explaining his legal and moral obligation to the First Amendment and academic freedom. No dice. He refused to act.

Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, has made one of the strongest bids for the Sheldon by allowing subordinates to shut down a student bake sale that mocked the unfairness of race and gender preferences: Identical cookies were offered at different prices for whites, minorities, and women. The director of the student center said the issue wasn’t free speech but “a hostile environment being created that was potentially volatile.”

Campus satire about affirmative action is greeted in much the same way that jokes about Allah are welcomed by the Taliban. Hostile-environment charges are a traditional campus way of saying “I am offended, so silence those who disagree with me.” And if violence is threatened, says University of California -- Los Angeles law Prof. Eugene Volokh, a university should respond “by protecting the speakers against the would-be thugs, rather than by shutting up the speakers and letting the thugs win.” President Turner, however, declined to intervene, letting the censors win.

The presidents of SMU and Cal Poly are clearly way ahead of their Sheldon-seeking rivals. Since there is little difference between them, the Sheldon judges are awarding two trophies this year. Congratulations to Gerald Turner and Warren Baker, Sheldon laureates of 2003.