American education needs a revolution

Originally Published on UnHerd
11 November 2021

A new university will end the climate of fear

Perhaps I was naïve, but when Brandeis University offered me an honorary degree in 2014, I accepted it in good faith. Brandeis’s motto, after all, is “Truth, even unto its innermost parts”. Yet what followed proved the very opposite: that, at Brandeis, the innermost parts of truth don’t count.

After a bit of encouragement from my usual critics, the Council of Islamic Relations, followed by a petition from a motley array of faculty members, Brandeis rescinded their offer. Frederick Lawrence, who was then the university’s president, rang me just hours before the university issued a public statement.

At the time, I dismissed it as a one-off incident; an anomaly that could simply be brushed off. How wrong I was. That same year, a group of Muslim students tried to cancel my study group on the political theory of Islam at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, part of the Kennedy School. First, they complained to the university’s administration. When that didn’t work, they sent a letter to the funders of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. Then they suggested that I should install an imam in my class to counter my arguments. Unlike at Brandeis, the university authorities didn’t capitulate.

In both incidents, the challenge to academic freedom and free speech was posed by Islamists. But that didn’t disturb me: as an apostate who has spent many years criticising them, and received death threats in return, I was used to their antipathy.