12 March 2008

Political Correctness at SUNY Buffalo

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 1, 2008

Recently, there has been an uproar over the presence of a philosopher, Michael Levin, who spoke at a philosophy conference in Buffalo. The history to the fight and the behavior of the SUNY Buffalo philosophy department is a window into political correctness in academia. I should note that I have worked closely with two of the persons involved in the case: Michael Levin and Randall Dipert.

Michael Levin is a well-known and extremely accomplished philosopher who teaches at the City College of New York (CCNY). His publishing record exceeds that of any philosopher in Western New York, although others such as the SUNY Buffalo’s Randy Dipert and SUNY Fredonia’s Raymond Belliotti also have impressive records. Levin has a sea of publications, including a significant number in the best philosophy journals in the world (for example, Journal of Philosophy and Philosophy and Public Affairs) and a book with Oxford University Press, the field’s best.

Michael McDonald of the Center for Individual Rights, between 1987 and 1990 recounted how Levin wrote three non-scholarly articles in the New York Times, Quadrant (an Australian journal), and the American Philosophical Association Proceedings arguing that (1) white store owners may take rational steps to avoid being victimized by black criminals and (2) that there is evidence in support of the claim that racial groups differ in IQ. In the 22 years in which he taught at CCNY, McDonald pointed out, Levin had taught more than 3,000 students. No one had ever complained to the university authorities that his speech, conduct, or grading patterns were discriminatory. In addition, his teaching evaluations were strong.

Mcdonald described how over the objections of its own Faculty Senate and many academic organizations, the College formed a committee to determine whether to revoke Levin’s tenure (protected status given to veteran faculty). In 1990, the Dean (Paul Sherwin) created an alternative section to Levin’s introductory class for students who did not want to take his class. This had never been done before at CCNY. The department chairperson (Charles Evans) protested the creation of this shadow class on the grounds that it was immoral, unethical, and an unwarranted interference with his powers as a department chairperson. The District Court enjoined both policies because they infringed on Levin’s First Amendment rights. This case received nationwide attention because it was a clear instance how the politically correct in academia were trampling on free speech. As a side note, campus speech codes (including the one at Fredonia) are another indication of this problem.

McDonald pointed out that the case was made even more absurd by the college’s refusal to go after Dr. Leonard Jeffries, the chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at CCNY. In class, McDonald noted, Jeffries gave out booklets arguing that the skin pigment melanin gives blacks intellectual superiority over whites. He also taught his students that white persons are “ice people,” who are greedy and materialistic, while black people are “sun people” who are loving and communal. Outside of class, he argued that the Jews financed the slave trade and in Hollywood had teamed up with the Italian mafia to portray blacks in a degrading manner in the movies.

Levin was invited to participate in the October 2007 Philosophy of Biology Conference that was held at the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo. On Friday, September 28, 2007, three SUNY Buffalo graduate students (Bethany Delecki-Earns, Christopher Buckman, and William D’Alessandro) wrote a letter to the SUNY Buffalo paper, Spectrum, saying of Levin’s position that it is “immoral, philosophically and scientifically without value, and aims directly to underwrite the unhappiness of countless human beings.” They further claimed that Levin’s books “do not swell the sea of honest scholarship by a drop” and that “he did not deserve an invitation to speak.” That day, Professors Dipert and Smith were worried enough about protests enough to hire Amherst police officers to monitor the conference. Their fears were not without warrant. During the CCNY uproar, the district court found that people disrupted Levin’s class with intimidating and bullying behavior. The conference took place the day after the letter appeared in the paper.

Three days later (October 2, 2007), the philosophy department chair at the SUNY-Buffalo, John Kearns weighed in. He said, “[Levin’s] demeaning and inflammatory remarks don’t represent scientific knowledge or sound scholarship, and constitute a sufficient reason for leaving him out. I am entirely in sympathy with the letter published in last Friday’s Spectrum …” Jorge Gracia, the Samuel P. Capen Chair and SUNY Distinguished Professor, at SUNY Buffalo also noted that “[G]iven Mr. Levin’s history, it should not have been surprising to them that objections to the invitation were voiced.” On one account, the philosophy department divided on the issue of whether Levin deserved an invitation. Against his presence were some of the tenured faculty and four graduate students (including the three who wrote the letter). For his presence were Dipert, Smith, Baumer, some of the untenured faculty, and some of the other graduate students. The difference between the older and newer faculty is an interesting one, although I’m not clear what explains it.

The position of the opposed graduate students and tenured faculty was poorly thought out. First, regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions, Levin’s work on race and gender is unquestionably excellent and some of the most interesting philosophical work on this topic in the last thirty years. It is probably the best philosophical discussion of the claims that racial differences are in part genetic, that the well-documented differences in IQ are at least in part genetic, and that this has implications for policy and behavior. Some graduate students might lack the sophistication to follow Levin’s arguments but more is expected of senior faculty at a large research university.

Second, the notion that organizers of a conference on the philosophy of biology who invite a speaker endorse all the speaker’s views is silly. In philosophy, it is standard operating procedure for faculty to invite speakers to present arguments with which they disagree.

Third, the graduate students’ letter was weak. In addition, to underestimating Levin’s work, they pointed out that his proposed talk on innateness gives arguments for “ontogenetic fixity” of major human traits. They then noted that “at great reduction,” this is “used to explain the supposed inferiority of women and non-whites …” It is hard to follow their points because “ontogenetic fixity” just refers to genetic inheritability and this is a common notion in biology (for example, this is why some persons have blue eyes). Because it is not clear if Levin is alleged to have committed the sins of reduction or explaining inferiority, the graduate students manage to defame Levin while still having wriggle room. In any case, Levin’s talk was well done and interesting (I heard it).

This pattern is a common one in academia. The radical left who dominate the faculty and administration at many state universities use an array of techniques, including discrimination in hiring, promotion, and speaking-invitations, to silence opposing views. To sort this mess out, the SUNY-Buffalo faculty and administration should have a public debate between Levin and a senior SUNY-Buffalo philosopher on whether genetics plays a role in explaining the physical or mental differences between races. I am sure that that it would be both informative and good theater. Let’s see whose ideas survive robust debate.


zenithmbr said...

Hmmmmm, maybe it has something to do with the fact that he is notoriously associated with the New Century Foundation, a racialist group that publishes a magazine that Levin often contributes to. In 1997 this magazine took a poll of its readers to decide who 'had done the most for the white race,' to which the readers astoundingly responded 'Adolf Hitler.' Also it may have something to do with the fact that he believes that homosexual sex is somehow less pleasurable than heterosexual sex, an ominous claim at best. It doesn't seem that you have to be 'radically left' or 'politically correct' to see that this is not the type of person that some would want tax-payers' dollars sending to a school event.

The Objectivist said...


These are some very strong points.

But let's consider a hypothetical involving a raving racist named Gerbils (as in Goebbels) who wanted to present at a philosophy conference and was known to say very interesting and important things to say about the nature of certain philosophical issues (e.g., some part of modal logic).
Further assume that his presentation was almost undoubtedly going to be much better (in terms of substance and presentation) than the person who might otherwise speak in his place.

Wouldn't we want him to speak? We might not like his other positions, but still on the topic of modal logic he is certainly worth listening to.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Z:

More good points and much appreciated.

However, as far as Levin's argument against homosexuality goes, he argues that the homosexual lifestyle is less satisfying than the heterosexual one, not that the sex is less satisfying (although perhaps I missed where he makes the latter claim).

He bolsters this view by data that sheds some light on the happiness of gays and heterosexuals.

I find his argument unsound, but it is certainly an excellent discussion and easily the best criticism of the homosexual lifestyle.

It is a serious and plausible argument (although in the end I think unconvincing) and in sharp comparison to the ridiculous attacks on the gay lifestyle found in the Catholic Church.

zenithmbr said...

Well I agree, gerbils should present so long as he is excellent in his field, and so should Levin, but you can imagine the politicians squirming when they get asked about tax dollars going into these people's pockets. Conservative or Liberal, I doubt either would want to have to own up to that.