Safe but Not Sound

The March issue of Reed offered an interesting juxtaposition of statements.

In the feature on Emilio Pucci ’37, “Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” we read how 78 years ago President Dexter Keezer accepted Pucci as a student in return for his coaching the ski team and other duties, despite Pucci’s espousal of Italian fascism, which he defended in his thesis. In Keezer’s view, however, an outspoken fascist woud “enliven our campus in an intellectually stimulating way.”

Meanwhile, an editorial response to letters in the same issue proclaimed Reed’s new commitment to “a safe and supportive educational environment.” But anyone who has worked in academia, as I have, knows that the word “safe” today does not mean just physically safe but increasingly means “safe from provocative and challenging ideas.”

Poor naive President Keezer! In today’s academic world he would be ground down like hamburger. This is the world in which a respected liberal arts school such as Brandeis can invite as commencement speaker the activist for Muslim women Ayaan Hirsi Ali, only to disinvite her after a few students protested that she was “offensive.”

Let’s imagine a reborn Emilio Pucci, stranded in Portland and approaching Reed College for admission. Imagine him as an enthusiastic member of the Northern League (Lega Nord), a controversial Italian political party often accused of fascist leanings.

Would his presence be seen as “intellectually stimulating” in 2014? Or would the admission door be slammed in his face?

—Chas S. Clifton ’73

Wetmore, Colorado

Editor's Note: You raise a vital point that is the subject of much debate on campuses nationwide: what kinds of statements cross the line from offensive to unacceptable? I will not venture an answer, except to say that in this particular case I used the word “safe” in its boring, conventional sense. Based on the conversations I overhear in the Quad, Reed students still encounter (and generate) provocative and challenging ideas by the barrel. As to Pucci, I think the answer would depend more on his essay than his dossier.