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Monday, May 06, 2024

Is Boycotting a University the Best Means of Criticizing it? Is it Even a Good One?

The federal district court judge who served as the speaker at my law school's graduation ceremony yesterday--congratulations to our newest alumni!--gave a speech that was in turns funny and moving. In the latter category, he shared a couple of incidents from his life, including serving as a bone marrow donor, to remind our graduates to look for those moments when your gut is telling you to do something and seize them as opportunities to do the right thing. I appreciated his sharing the recollection and admired him for his donation. But I don't recall him issuing a press release about his donation; his goal at that moment, I'm sure, was to help someone and not to self-aggrandize. That is a good quality in a judge, since for the most part judges, like pets and children, are at their best when they're fairly quiet and avoid calling attention to themselves. It's a classic judicial trait, partly as a matter of disposition and partly as a matter of office and ethics. 

Then there is Judge James Ho, who once again is co-signing and, of course, trumpeting a boycott announcement. This one says that he and other co-signers "will not hire anyone who joins the Columbia University community—whether as undergraduates or law students—beginning with the entering class of 2024." The boycott shares several things in common with the current demands of student protesters. One is the letter's overwrought prose, and its self-seriousness--which always risks becoming a form of self-regard. Another is its sweeping nature, which embraces the guilty and innocent alike. A third, perhaps, is its assumption that there are no innocents, because any students who choose to become members of that institution are ipso facto guilty. Another is a ready willingness to attribute motives to others. There is also the fact that it makes demands vague enough that there is no clear gauge for their satisfaction, so that one can continue one's boycott for as long as one wishes and end it just as easily (although probably much more quietly). 

Yet another is an imperfect regard for accuracy. As Josh Blackman notes at the Volokh Conspiracy, Justice William Brennan did not "refuse[ ] to hire law clerks from Harvard Law School because he disliked criticisms of the Supreme Court by some of its faculty." Rather, as Blackman helpfully points out, quoting Owen Fiss, Brennan "decided to end his practice of hiring his clerks, as a matter of course, from Harvard." The key language is "as a matter of course." Brennan, like some justices before him, had previously effectively contracted out the job of clerk selection to a professor at a single school, in this case Paul Freund at Harvard. After he "became somewhat disillusioned with his alma mater," he changed his practice. He no longer selected Harvard graduates "as a matter of course," but began looking at clerks from other schools, while still also hiring Harvard graduates, although at a slower clip. (The "somewhat disillusioned" quote is from Stephen Wermiel's article on Brennan and his law clerks. Wermiel agrees with Fiss's explanation that faculty reactions were at the root of Brennan's disillusionment. Illustrating that recollections like Fiss's are not history and should not be taken as the whole story, however, Wermiel notes other bases for dissatisfaction on Brennan's part, and adds that Brennan had faced pressure for some time not to select his clerks from one school only.) Judge Ho is still a young man, and so we might excuse a little inaccuracy here and there just as we excuse it for feckless young student protesters: by saying "they're just kids" or "it's just a little exaggeration for effect." I prefer to think that people of legal age who come from fancy schools are responsible for their own words and actions, and that if you're going to close a statement with a flourish, you'd better stick the landing.     

Finally, there is the simple fact of seeing the boycotts of institutions, and specifically the application of that boycott not to institutional leaders or the institution qua institution, but to its members--including, say, 18-year-olds rendered guilty by choosing to attend that institution--as a useful approach. I can't say I agree. For one thing, at least in this context, it's rather elitist in its treatment of elite schools. I not concerned, for present purposes, about some thoracic surgeon's kid who ends up choosing among Columbia, Stanford, and Penn. But I don't begrudge the decision to go to a school like Columbia to a smart kid who got into only one such place, or a smart kid with no means who only got into one that would offer enough scholarship money to make it viable to go there. And it gives short shrift to the other reasons people choose particular schools, even fancy-pants ones, beyond their general elite status. It doesn't really make much difference what law school you go to: a smart, hard-working young man or woman can fail to learn the Rule Against Perpetuities all across this great country of ours. But it matters for other sectors of university education. It does matter when a particular program is only offered at some schools (maybe the student wants to study at a school where freshmen still have a Great Books requirement!), where there are qualitative differences in approach or focus between schools in particular departments, and so on.

But these are secondary concerns. I simply doubt that boycotting a school is the best means of either criticizing it or reforming it, and a good deal of the time I doubt whether it's even a particularly good one. People who care--actually care--about institutions would much rather see them meaningfully strengthened and steered back onto the right path than withered and gone, or given over to those who would remake them in ways that would further detract from the core functions of that institution. That requires involvement, not the back of the hand. And that's especially true for students. Their exercise of voice will be much more powerful coming from within that institution, and their use of exit will be of limited importance. And, however much the letter may be addressed to the president of Columbia, it's the prospective students the boycott is addressed to in its effects. Even now, some students are choosing to attend Columbia not because of, but despite, the tents or the cops or any other distractions, and for sound academic reasons. I would just as soon not put them on some list by virtue of guilt by association, or treat their choice as necessarily tainted because of it.

Ultimately, the letter seems to me to be much closer in spirit to those student protesters who do seem to reject the idea that institutions, and nations, are varied and complex, and that individual decisions to participate in them are varied and complex, and instead prefer to slather the concept of moral complicity on everything with the gusto of a starving man with a jar of peanut butter.

(What justification those students--or faculty--can claim for continuing to be associated with these schools is another matter. Given some of the views that have been enthusiastically expressed on the topic of moral complicity, and given that the protests merely called attention to features that they claim are longstanding and persistent, the choice to attend or teach at such an institution rather than withdraw or resign from it is much more morally dubious for individuals holding these views. One wonders at the fact that there has not been a much larger faculty exodus from Columbia and other similarly “complicit” universities, or that students at elite universities who hold such views do not balk at attending them.) 

Although I agree with Josh that the letter writers close their announcement with an inaccuracy, I can't say I agree particularly with him that it was "fitting" that the announcement was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Since there is no single Jewish view on this (or just about any other) question, I don't begrudge him a different view. As a Jew, though, I will note that although anti-semitism is mentioned in the letter, twice, on the whole it barely figures in it. I don't question the letter writers' sincerity. But given the passel of other issues it raises, and the general sense that it's just another routine salvo in the culture wars, I can't help but feel that--despite the fact that it happened to be issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day--Jews occupy a wholly familiar role in the letter: an incidental and convenient one, in which we are mere objects and not subjects. Thanks all the same, but I'll pass.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 6, 2024 at 04:24 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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