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Two old campus antagonists find themselves neighbors.

By Michael Brus

The following appears on page 330 of the recently published book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses: “Sheldon Hackney’s career is perhaps the embodiment of the ‘not on my watch’ concept and its resulting double standards … [As president of] Penn, he imposed speech codes, double standards, and thought reform.”
   In the University’s history department are two offices: One is occupied by the book’s co-author, Dr. Alan Charles Kors, and the other, just down the hall, by the subject of the excerpt above, former University president and now professor, Dr. Sheldon Hackney, Hon’93. And therein lies a tale.
   When Kors began writing The Shadow University with attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, Hackney was comfortably distant in Washington, D.C., presiding over the National Endowment for the Humanities. In mid-1997, though, tired of doing battle with conservative critics of federal subsidies, he resigned his post and returned to Penn to “try and become a historian again,” as he puts it.
   The Shadow University describes dozens of “politically correct” prosecutions of students and faculty at colleges and universities. The book’s tone is shrill, but it does contribute to the national debate on PC. Unlike previous attacks on higher education, such as Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Kors’s book comes from inside the academy and is based not on anecdotes but on detailed research and, in some cases, first-hand experience. It devotes about 60 pages to incidents at Penn.
   The campus reputations of both Kors and Hackney are well- and long-established. Kors is the libertarian troublemaker, the maverick intellectual- history scholar on whom DP reporters can always call for a soundbite against the administration. Hackney is the Pope of Political Correctness, the waffling, jelly-spined former University president who made Penn a national laughingstock in 1993. But the strange thing about this public tiff is that it has nothing to do with these caricatures. Instead, it has to do with how two decent, generous, and (largely) honest intellectuals became such ideological and personal foes.
   Hackney’s views on race and free speech — of which his behavior during the “water buffalo” affair is perhaps the most notorious emblem — are, rightly, controversial. In early 1993, a Penn judicial officer charged freshman Eden Jacobowitz, C’95, with racial harassment for calling a group of rambunctious black sorority sisters “water buffalo.” By July, Hackney was taking a beating from both liberals and conservatives in the national news media for letting the University conduct a “witch trial” of an undergraduate. Simultaneously, he was recanting his belief in speech codes in front of the U.S. Senate panel reviewing his appointment to head the NEH.
   In his book, Kors persuasively argues that Penn’s judicial process was riddled with loopholes that denied defendants due process, that Penn knowingly prosecuted Jacobowitz with false evidence, and that Hackney hid behind a stance of impartiality until the time of his Senate testimony, when he privately brokered a settlement from Washington to defuse the crisis. For his part, Hackney persuaded me that he was acting out of a noble impulse to keep debate civil. “It is very difficult to get it right the first time around,” Hackney said, “[which is] perhaps the price for higher education being out on the social frontier on this issue.”
   To some extent, calling Hackney’s philosophy “politically correct” is misleading, for it implies that Hackney arrived at it casually or expediently, which is not the case. Reared in Jim Crow Alabama, Hackney encountered the inequities of racism at an early age. He married into a family of white Montgomery radicals sympathetic to the bus boycott. His in-laws employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress, and when Parks was thrown in jail for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Hackney’s father-in-law helped post bail.
   While teaching at Princeton University from 1965 to 1972, Hackney spearheaded the establishment of an Afro-American studies program. He realized that he had a knack for organizing people and began to see university administration as a way to deal with racial inequalities directly. He spent three years as Princeton’s provost and six as president of Tulane University before he became Penn’s president in 1981.
   Twenty-six years have passed since Hackney had last been a practicing historian, and in some ways it shows. The contrast between Hackney the historian and Hackney the administrator can be seen clearly in his two books: From Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969) and One America Indivisible, published last year. The first book is a scholarly analysis of the role of race in turn-of-the-century Alabama politics, written right before Hackney left scholarship for administration. The second book is a kind of manifesto on multiculturalism written in Hackney’s last year at NEH. Decorated with a textbook-like montage of patriotic photos, it reads like a 236-page political speech.
   Kors has never felt the pull of administration. He knew from his undergraduate days that he wanted to become a teacher and scholar, and he has done just that. He is a renowned intellectual historian of the 17th and 18th centuries, having written respected books on witchcraft in Europe and on the Enlightenment.
   If One America Indivisible is the product of an administrator reduced to platitudes, The Shadow University is the product of a historian certain of his enemies. Among other things, the book betrays Kors’s penchant for hyperbolic rhetoric and melodramatic narrative. It is also not given to subtlety. “After reading this book,” Kors and Silverglate instruct, “no one — academic or nonacademic citizen — should be able to doubt the reality and moral urgency of [PC].” That said, the book is meticulously argued, well documented, and often convincing.
   In some ways, the philosophical debate between Kors and Hackney has been fought before. For several decades now, political science and philosophy departments have been debating the merits of “communitarianism” as an alternative to classical liberalism. As Hackney explains it, “There’s a difference [between me and Kors] in his radical individualistic way of looking at the world. He thinks that society is simply an aggregation of individuals, a war of all against all. [In my view,] I am an individual, but I am also a social being. That idea of [socially-constructed] individual identity is something I don’t think Alan has. He has a much more classically liberal, I-am-an-individual-apart-from-all-other-influences” worldview. Kors, who calls himself a libertarian, agrees with Hackney’s characterization of him as a fierce individualist.
   The nation’s foremost communitarian philosopher, Michael Sandel, has described eloquently the practical difference between classical liberals and communitarians. “For example,” he writes, “the civil-rights movement of the 1960s might be justified by liberals in the name of human dignity and respect for persons, and by communitarians in the name of recognizing the full membership of fellow citizens wrongly excluded from the common life of the nation.”
   If you were to summarize the thrust of Kors’ and Hackney’s worldviews, you could scarcely do better than that. Still, it is questionable if Hackney’s institutional remedies — whether speech codes or less-intrusive forms of race-based “education” — are in the communitarian spirit.
   Kors and Silverglate’s book documents in minute detail the practical result of attitudes like Hackney’s. Yet the arguments they make are undermined by their hectoring tone. And Kors’s apparent obsession with Hackney leads to important mischaracterizations.
   Here is one of Kors’s most unflattering portraits, detailing a phone conversation Hackney had with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Dorothy Rabinowitz at the height of the water buffalo case: “When [Rabinowitz] called Hackney, she pressed him for serious answers about what was going on at Penn. Apparently thinking that she was some inconsequential staffer, he said, ‘I don’t need to take this from some reporter,’ and hung up the phone on her.” Later, Kors writes that “Hackney’s slamming the phone on Dorothy Rabinowitz could have been a metaphor for Penn’s entire handling of the case” and credits Rabinowitz for being “an investigative reporter and editorialist with courage and a will of steel.” Kors footnotes his account of the phone conversation to an “interview with Rabinowitz.”
   Here is Hackney’s version of the conversation: “I called her — she did not call me — and I went through my spiel [defending Penn’s judicial procedure], and there was this silence on the other end of the phone, and then she said, in this absolutely chilling voice, ‘This is the darkest moment for freedom in the history of Western civilization. And you, Sir, are complicit.’ I was so taken aback that I think I said, ‘Are you a journalist, or what?’ Because I had never heard a journalist say something so absolutely, penetratingly ideological. Then she said something else, and I think I did hang up, actually.” Rabinowitz told me that an exchange similar to this had in fact taken place, although after a “substantial [two-way] conversation.” When I related this to Kors, he simply stated that he trusts Rabinowitz “100 percent.” “I’ll stand by my description of things in the book,” he said. “I know they’re true.”
   The irony of Kors’s book is that, for all his persuasiveness about the lack of due process on campuses, he did not extend the same due process to Hackney — by offering him a chance to “meet his own accuser” in a formal interview. “I don’t think Sheldon Hackney has any interest in discussing the water buffalo case with me,” Kors protested. He noted that at a lunch with Hackney in late-1993 he had suggested they discuss the water buffalo case, but Hackney had demurred.
   When I told Kors that Hackney thinks he has trivialized the feelings of the women whom Jacobowitz called “water buffalo,” he bristled. Angrily citing controversies over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Louis Farrakhan’s appearing on campus, in which Hackney had been “explict” in defending freedom of speech over the offended feelings of some others, he added, “I have defended more black than white students before the judicial system. I do not need a lesson in ethics from Sheldon Hackney. I am not impressed by selective moral empathy.”
   “One of the interesting questions,” Hackney told me, “is why he goes out of his way to demonize me. What do I represent? Why me?” It is a good question, and one I posed to Kors repeatedly. “Of course it’s uncomfortable” to work two doors away from Hackney, Kors told me. “But the issues are larger than personal issues. The last possible thought in my mind when I wrote the book was that we would be two office doors away at Penn. I mean, he was in Washington, and I was here,” he said. “But I would have written the book, anyway.”

Michael Brus, C’99, is a political science major from Madison, N.J. He has been published in The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, Philadelphia Forum, and other publications and was a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian for three semesters. Last year, he won the DP Alumni Association’s annual award for “outstanding news writing.”

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