Marc Jongen of the Alternative for Germany party in 2015. (Photo: Robin Krahl/Wikimedia Commons)
Contributor, PostEverything

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of PEN America, an international literary and human rights organization.

At bucolic Bard College, overlooking the majestic Hudson River, a dispute is raging. The reason: a decision by the college’s esteemed Hannah Arendt Center to host Marc Jongen, a leader of Germany’s ascendant right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD). Jongen’s party won 94 seats in the Bundestag this year based on a platform of hostility to immigrants, anti-Muslim sentiment and climate change denial.

Jongen was among 20 speakers at a conference called “Crisis of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.”His appearance prompted a group of more than 50 academics, including notables like Yale’s Seyla Benhabib and Brown’s Bonnie Honig, to publish an open letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing Bard for affording the conservative politician and philosopher “legitimation and normalization.” The letter noted that Jongen had touted the invitation on his Facebook page as a positive sign the party wasn’t simply being shut down in elite academic circles.

Arendt Center Director Roger Berkowitz has defended the invitation, arguing that it conferred no legitimacy, but rather “opens a space for critical engagement with [the AfD’s] ideas.” He cited the AfD as “a real-world example of the crisis facing wobbling liberal democracies. The only way to respond to this crisis is to listen to, engage, and reject these arguments. That is precisely what happened at the conference.” Bard President Leon Botstein went a step further, excoriating the letter of protest as evoking “the public denouncements of the Soviet era … [that] put terror in the hearts of young musicians and writers, and deterred them from speaking and acting against a group consensus.” Author Masha Gessen weighed in a few days later, judging Botstein’s denunciation as hyperbolic and pointing out that even Hannah Arendt had certain ideas that she thought deserved to be “called out” rather than debated.

There is inherent tension between the university’s role as a bestower of authority and prestige and as a forum open to all ideas. The university’s mission in fostering unfettered inquiry and intellectual exchange is fundamental. For public colleges, First Amendment jurisprudence makes clear that virtually no speech – no matter how noxious – may be excluded from campus on grounds of viewpoint.

Most elite private universities have voluntarily adopted similar operating principles. Indeed, the university’s role as an arbiter of excellence and legitimacy is predicated in large part on that very commitment to openness; all ideas are welcomed so that the best among them can be elevated in the curriculum, showered with prizes and research funds and otherwise acclaimed. The opportunity for unbridled exploration and exposure to the widest array of thought attracts great faculty and students who, in turn, produce the scholarship, teaching and community that allow a campus to excel.

This doesn’t mean that the university should confer its legitimacy wantonly, nor should it be oblivious about how it grapples with potentially dangerous ideas. Not all campus engagements are created equal: a faculty appointment, commencement address or distinguished lectureship are far weightier tokens of esteem than an appearance at a policy conference amid a long agenda of speakers. When Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas Elmendorf professed surprise that an invitation to Wikileaks conduit Chelsea Manning to be a “visiting fellow” might be construed “as an honorific,” he evinced implausible obliviousness to the currency of academic prestige.

Yet if the prospect that an unsavory speaker might later trumpet his appearance on campus were grounds to deny invitations, the range of acceptable campus speakers would narrow sharply. If any speaking engagement implies endorsement, then universities would need to vet not just a speaker’s professional attainments and proclivities, but also interpersonal conduct. Moreover, to the Twitterverse, an invitation from the Arendt Center may look very similar to one from a student organization or academic department; either way, Jongen would have made it to Bard. Subjecting all such campus speakers to a strict litmus test of legitimization would unavoidably implicate political, ideological and moral views about what ideas and individuals do and don’t merit elevation, impairing open thought on campus.

While the imperative of open intellectual exchange outweighs the risk of conferring undeserved institutional legitimacy, the university does owe a duty of care in exercising its legitimizing power. The best approach, which the Arendt Center’s critics touch on in their letter, is for the university to embrace a dual role in relation to repellent speakers: that of both open forum and of moral voice. That a campus may offer a forum for abhorrent views does not require it to be silent on the content of those opinions. By speaking out forcefully to repudiate noxious beliefs, the university can affirm its values and prevent a campus appearance from being taken as a seal of approval.

While the Arendt Center’s decision to pair Jongen with historian Ian Buruma was aimed at ensuring that his assertions did not go unanswered, this was not a substitute for Bard, as an institution, making its own convictions known. Berkowitz and Botstein claimed it was self-evident that the campus rejected Jongen’s views – to New York intellectuals, probably. To Jongen’s Facebook audience, not so much.

Masha Gessen writes that just because a set of ideas is gaining favor somewhere doesn’t entitle them to a hearing everywhere. She’s right, of course. The Arendt Center didn’t have to invite Marc Jongen. But given that they saw reason to invite him, fears of according unjustified legitimacy should not have stood in the way.