Ethics Quote Of The Week: Former Princeton President William G. Bowen

“I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”

—— William G. Bowen, former Princeton President and last-minute substitute 2014 Commencement speaker at Haverford College. Bowen’s predecessor as Haverford’s designated graduation VIP, former Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, had withdrawn in response to Haverford student protests that he had been too tough on the Occupy Berkeley protesters.

"Honored graduates: My advice is that when faced with determined opposition, if you know you are right, run away. Thank you."

“Honored graduates: My advice is that when faced with determined opposition, if you know you are right, run away. Thank you.”

Yes, bravo. Many pundits have commented on the epidemic of anti-free expression attitudes on campus, as various groups on campuses across the country have effectively vetoed speakers at Commencements and other forums that threatened to disturb their unshakeable belief in the infallibility of their judgment and analysis of the world before their 22n’t birthday. Yes, students are arrogant, immature, intolerant, easily misled and often ridiculous; we knew that. Thus it is up to the adults to set them straight and teach them some useful life lessons. One such lesson should be to refuse to back down in the face of criticism and opposition just because it will require character, fortitude and courage to do what you have every right to do.

Birgeneau, who withdrew as Haverford’s speaker after Haverford students insisted that he issue a prisoner of war-style admission of wrongful acts before he spoke, was a weenie. He is not alone. Condoleezza Rice refused to face down Rutgers protesters who objected to her involvement in the Iraq war, so she withdrew as that school’s speaker.  International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde  did the same at Smith, in response to stereotypical student petition protesting the IMF’s “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

Bowen is not a weenie. Taking the role of dispenser of wisdom to the newly minted Haverford grads, he told them off:

“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of demands. In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments….I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”

Speech policing, censorship, punishing thought-crimes and political correctness bullying and the stifling of dissent are becoming common and accepted tools of ideological  domination by, of all people, liberals. These un-American tactics can only be opposed effectively by men, women and organizations possessing character and courage. We have recently seen little of either of these qualities, especially from the worst offenders, corporations that instantly jettison any high-visibility employee who dares to upset an activist mob with unfashionable political or social views.

Birgeneua, an educator, had an opportunity to teach; instead, he ran. That response teaches too: in one respect, it teaches capitulation and conflict avoidance as the path of least pain and resistance, a false lesson that our current leadership in Washington appears to have embraced completely. On the other hand, it teaches those who despise a free exchange of ideas, and who deride not just non-conforming positions but the virtue of all who hold them, that coercion works.


Sources: Washington Post 1,2,3

Graphic: Wellyousaythat

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11 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Former Princeton President William G. Bowen

  1. Bowen was absolutely right to tell the students off, but his admonishment frankly means nothing of substance. Those that were not too drunk to notice or care what he had to say probably just shrugged their shoulders and said “but the other guy’s NOT here, so we win, we can take a dressing down from some second-stringer.”

    The fact is that the very word “liberal” which previously was identified with freedom and openness, is rapidly headed toward joining “peace” in the moral gloss container. It’s just a title that’s applied to decidedly illiberal actions to make them seem right or at least palatable.

    I’m a long-time booster of the military and things military, and I think the absolute pacifism embraced by some fringe folks, i.e. Berrigan and his followers, and the followers of his followers, is idiotic and unworkable. Time and again those folks engaged in what they called “plowshares actions,” usually involving breaching a base fence, pouring blood, displaying a banner with some pat slogan and maybe some minimal amount of damage, and time and again otherwise reasonable people said that they should be cut a break because they were for peace, instead of the Federal judges throwing the book at them, or, even better, base guards actually using the deadly force they are authorized to use. When you strip away the moral gloss of these people being for peace, in the end what are they? Burglars and vandals, that’s what, and burglary and vandalism are generally not actions society can or should tolerate.

    By the same token, the students at these colleges who demonstrate and gather in disorderly mobs at the slightest whiff of any activity that is not in line with the leftist/progressive agenda are caved in to and given a pass because they say they are for peace in the case of Rice, for vulnerable women in the case of Lagarde, against the p0lice state in the case of Ray Kelly, whose speaking engagement at Brown “they wouldn’t cancel so we decided to cancel for them,” all liberal causes, expressed by anything but liberal actions. This is mob rule and bullying, generally also not actions society can or should tolerate.

    It wasn’t yet a hundred years ago when the autocracy of the Romanovs was thrown down in Russia and Kerensky’s attempt at some kind of transition to democracy was shunted aside by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who proclaimed “peace, bread, and land” but in almost the same breath frankly admitted they were “in the business of state terror.” Somehow that last part got ignored by fellow travelers like Walter Duranty and John Reed, who in turn polished it up with moral gloss and sent glowing reports west.

    You know the rest, but I can’t not mention how the wounds that started there became the vile tissue of lies, lawlessness, and mob rule that was much of the Vietnam anti-war movement, half of it cowardice on the part of young people who didn’t want to be drafted for a war that was admittedly not being too well handled (but that’s a separate discussion), half of it licentiousness on the part of young people who just wanted an excuse to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Still, almost 50 years later, some still put the moral gloss of “but they were for peace,” or “but they were just kids reaching out for a cause” or any number of other excuses on a movement that gave us mob protests, bombings, arson, and bank car robberies. But hey, when you’re right, you’re right, whatever anyone says, right?

  2. A former university president of an ivy league school with “a pair”. A rare commodity these days. Of course he is a former president so he has much more leeway than current presidents of prestige schools. He is also President Emeritus of the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation so that may effect his views. Mellon was subject to intense investigation by the FDR administration for his personal income tax returns. He was exonerated after his death and posthumously won the case.

  3. It’s so hard to have sympathy for Birgeneau about this. There’s a bit of schadenfreude in seeing an indisputable member of the left be the receptive of the censorous tactics of the left. That doesn’t make it right of course.

  4. Concur with your conclusion but torn in regards to Condoleezza Rice, you may be right but I think she was honest in her desire not to disrupt the entire student body during such an important (student) event. I think her standing up would have been ethical, but I am not sure her actions were unethical. Tough call.

    • I don’t think its ever ethical to give in to a heckler’s veto. If she thought she was in the right, she should have given the speech.

      • Exactly. Giving in to the heckler’s veto makes it stronger, validates it as a tactic. Condoleeza is the epitome of a shining image with little substance, a disappointment in every way, famous for what she is, without having done anything to justify the accolades. The Kardashian of public servants.

      • True, Tiggy. Likely, she didn’t want the occasion to be marred by screaming fanatics. Still, if you surrender the initiative to these societal rejects, they may wind up as our masters someday. In fact, they all but have! The coddled radicals of the 1960s are creeping all around the ivy halls these days, still trying to vindicate their worthless existence.

        The best thing would have been to go anyway… with the assurance of the college that any disorder or personal threat to the speaker would be dealt with immediately and sternly. Neither Mrs. Rice or any featured speaker at a graduation should have to put up with this sort of thing. If some students can’t handle the presence of a certain speaker, they can either walk away or sit through it in silence. That’s the civilized thing to do. Unfortunately, it seems that this is no longer taught… along with civics, English and God.

  5. “Speech policing, censorship, punishing thought-crimes and political correctness bullying and the stifling of dissent are becoming common and accepted tools of ideological domination by, of all people, liberals.”

    I understand the point here that it takes courage to face a critical audience. But what’s glossed over in the case of Birgeneau is the students weren’t protesting ‘thought crimes’ or ‘political correctness.’ They were objecting to acts – the arguably heavy handed and violent response to student protests on his own campus. Similarly, Eich at Mozilla didn’t merely have ‘unacceptable’ opinions about homosexual marriage. He supported and contributed money to an effort to forever prohibit same sex marriage. His critics were protesting acts, not thought crimes.

    It’s also unclear to me how protesting a commencement speaker is a ‘stifling of dissent.’ Any protest is, by definition, an expression of dissent. What ‘legitimate’ method is available to students to express their strong disapproval of the choice of speaker and recipient of honorary degrees? Or do we expect those who do not approve to politely accept the choice of administrators? Perhaps the students should limit expressions of disapproval to means/outlets that don’t inconvenience the target of their protests?

    • You don’t see how a protest that consists of “Don’t let him talk!” is stifling dissent? And the protest is directed at the university’s invitation, not the acts of the speaker before he speaks.

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