With campus conservatives—spurred in large part by David Horowitz—becoming more vocal in their fight to attain academic freedom at colleges and universities nationwide, the academic Left has had to conjure new ways to mask its radical agenda.
A case in point: Almost one year has elapsed since its debut, yet the mission of Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice remains unclear. Is the controversial committee a good-faith attempt to instruct the campus community in the virtues of disinterested dialogue, as university officials insist, or is Brown flirting with yet another politically correct, Leftist-inspired fad, as many conservatives suspect?
Last March, The New York Times reported that Brown had convened a committee to undertake “an exploration of reparations for slavery and specifically whether Brown should pay reparations or otherwise make amends for the past.” In support of this claim, the article quoted Brown President Ruth Simmons: “If the committee comes back and says, ‘Oh it’s been lovely and we’ve learned a lot,’ but there’s nothing in particular that they think Brown can do or should do, I will be very disappointed.” This statement appears to suggest that Simmons is very open to the idea of reparations.
Contrast that quote with a comment she made to The Boston Globe the following month: “The committee’s work is not about whether or how we should pay reparations. That was never the intent nor will the payment of reparations be the outcome. This is an effort designed to involve the campus community in a discovery of the meaning of our past.” Yet the committee would appear to be more than a grand historical inquest. It is, after all, designated as the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Does not the word “justice” suggest some sort of corrective action—such as reparations?
Simmons’ column in The Globe seems to exclude the possibility that the final committee report will specify how or to whom Brown should pay reparations. But there is also no doubt that the committee will examine the idea of reparations even if it does not actually recommend that Brown itself pay reparations. As Simmons herself conceded in a recent unpublished interview with The Brown Spectator, “As to whether the committee will consider the idea of reparations, I am sure that it will.”
The committee schedule confirms the centrality of reparations to its work. During the first semester, the committee will review the history of slavery in America, then turn to comparative studies of how other societies have addressed their own legacies of social injustice. In the fall of 2005, the committee will culminate its work with an entire semester dedicated to the topic of reparations.
Cynics suggest that the committee is actually a pre-emptive move by Brown to avoid paying reparations. They point to the nine reparations lawsuits filed against FleetBoston, Aetna, J.P. Morgan Chase, and other companies in 2002. Attorneys involved in these cases listed Brown as a probable defendant in future lawsuits.
Yet there is much more than mere self-interest at work here. Consider the recent history of the reparations movement. In 1988, Congress authorized reparations payments to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. This emboldened civil rights radicals to demand reparations for slavery.
In 1989, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill that acknowledged the cruelties of slavery and mandated an investigation into its consequences for American slaves' descendants. And then in 1998, President Clinton offered a quasi-apology to Africans for America’s culpability in the slave trade. Two years later, activist Randall Robinson published a reparations manifesto, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
Then came two climactic events: In 2000 Aetna Inc., a Connecticut company, apologized for its role in slavery. The barrage of nine reparations lawsuits came two years later. But in January 2004, a federal judge in Chicago dismissed one of these lawsuits, and less than two months later a similar lawsuit seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa race riots likewise failed due to the statute of limitations. The reparations movement had collided with legal reality; the threat of a lawsuit against Brown, therefore, was minimal. If anything, the Brown’s Committee on Slavery and Justice has rehabilitated the idea of reparations, endowing it with a measure of academic credibility.
In all fairness, I feel compelled to note that President Simmons, Associate Provost Brenda Allen and committee chairman Professor James Campbell have all repeatedly asserted in interviews with The Spectator that the work of the committee is an affirmation of the principle of intellectual diversity. As Simmons put it, “The Committee’s creation was actually recommended by the deans who correctly saw this as an opportunity to educate students about how to address complex questions.”
Likewise, in perhaps the most concise formulation of the mission statement to date, Campbell told The Spectator that the purpose of the committee was to “open up space for people to start reflecting in comparative and contextual ways” on the question of how societies deal with “legacies of historical injustice.” He also expressed interest in inviting conservatives such as John McWhorter to be speakers.
But there is one inescapable fact that spoils any reasonable hope that the committee will produce intellectually diverse programs for the campus: There is not a single conservative member nor even an outspoken moderate on the committee itself. In a university in which more than 95 percent of the humanities professors are registered Democrats—as Campbell himself pointed out—this should come as little surprise, but still it is disconcerting that the one committee member who had publicly criticized reparations, historian James Patterson, has since resigned because of conflicts with other academic commitments. It is further discouraging that the initial student representation on the committee ranged from the radical president of the College Democrats to the president of the Young Communist League at Brown.
In her interview with The Spectator, President Simmons explained that all committee members were chosen primarily on the basis of their “professional and academic expertise.” There is no evidence that consideration was also given to ensuring that the committee reflect a diversity of social and political philosophies. Indeed, the committee is not even diverse when it comes to expertise, as there is no an expert on political theory and justice.
Lest we forget, Brown is the same place that exploded in a perfect storm of racial animosity after David Horowitz published a polemical advertisement opposing reparations in The Brown Daily Herald. How are the lessons of the Horowitz controversy being applied to the current situation?
When this question was posed to her in The Spectator interview, President Simmons tersely replied that the “Horowitz ad that appeared in The Brown Daily Herald dealt only with the narrow legal issue of reparations. The controversy that ensued was largely about the rights and responsibilities of community members and newspaper editors.” In fact, the Horowitz ad—not to mention the book he subsequently wrote about the controversy—dealt with the moral and economic issues of the reparations idea as well.
President Simmons’ response indicates that she misunderstood the question in other ways. For conservatives, the debate over freedom of speech reflected a more pervasive problem: the dearth of intellectual diversity on campus.
So unaccustomed were students to expressions of conservative thought, such as the Horowitz ad, that they could not even consider its merits without first addressing the very meaning of freedom of speech. Thus, 60 Brown professors signed a statement supporting the theft and destruction of the paper the ad appeared in. So severe was the situation that the only expression of contrarian opinion on reparations was the ad itself. And radical students did everything in their power to smother even this whisper of dissidence. As for the university administration, it joined in chiding The Herald editors.
Brown has not yet proven itself capable of sustaining a rigorous dialogue on a topic as volatile as slavery reparations. This lack of intellectual diversity, in turn, makes a healthy academic environment highly unlikely.