The prospect of a lively exchange of ideas across the political divide attracted about 500 students, faculty, and visitors to Kaul Auditorium in November for what the Parent & Family Weekend schedule called “A Debate on Academic Freedom.”
At one rostrum: provocative radical-turned-neoconservative author/lecturer David Horowitz proposing an “academic bill of rights” to shield collegians from liberal bias. At the other: Peter Steinberger, dean of Reed’s faculty and Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities. Moderating: Charles Hinkle, Portland civil liberties attorney and ordained minister.
But it all unraveled with Horowitz the provocateur protesting that he had been insulted by a “personal, vicious . . . totally mendacious attack,” Steinberger the academic countering that he had been tough, not disrespectful, and the moderator storming off the stage after excoriating both speakers for ignoring the rules.
That is when the real debate began—in campus hangouts, email, and the ensuing four issues of the Quest.
Was the dean fair in labeling Horowitz a “political pornographer” prone to “citing technical truths in order to tell substantive lies”? Was Horowitz’s spontaneous (and ranting) 20-minute rebuttal to Steinberger’s blistering 40-minute opening statement over the top? Should a provocateur and an intellectual have been matched in the first place?
A sophomore from Hawaii, Dustin Freemont, took both speakers to task in a November 8 Quest story headlined “Academic Debate Descends into Chaos,” citing Steinberger for playing to the audience and “pulling quotes out of context,” and Horowitz for “exposing his conservative bias for everything from race to gender to class.”
A week later in “Reflections on Kaul,” Adam Goldstein found perverse pride in the chaos. “It was nice to see Reed engage political issues that inhabit ‘mainstream discourse’ but to do so on our own boisterous and unconventional terms,” wrote the senior from North Carolina, adding that he thought the dean had won the debate. “As anyone who has ever taken a class with Steinberger well knows,” wrote Goldstein, “he is surgical, he is thorough, and he is damning. The charlatan was thus no match for the Philosopher King.”
But an op-ed by Peter Tweig, a senior from Ohio, protested that Steinberger’s approach had breached Reed’s honor principle. “I believe that ad hominem attacks of the sort employed by our dean on Horowitz are fundamentally incompatible with the aims of a liberal education and the kind of dispassionate inquiry which it seeks to promote,” Tweig wrote.
A week later, Leslie Zukor, a sophomore from Washington State, asked in an op-ed “why events degenerated as they did,” answering that “the Left and the Right both hold beliefs . . .that are not amenable to contrary evidence . . . Even if we don’t change our opinions, we could all do better, myself included, to step back and take a moment to comprehend the other side.”
Finally, Steinberger weighed in with an essay reiterating that Horowitz’s advocacy of an academic bill of rights is “the antithesis of serious, rational, intellectual discourse,” and denying that his own presentation had amounted to an ad hominem attack.
“I was candid,” the dean wrote. “I called it the way I saw it. I tried to focus not on Horowitz’s person or character but on his published words. I tried to do my homework, I tried to support every claim with evidence—and in doing so I believed, and continue to believe, that I was showing respect for the audience, for the event, for the organizers and, yes, for Mr. Horowitz himself.”