Wednesday, March 01, 2006

YDN Ekphrasis

I usually only comment on topics about which I've formed an opinion after at least some reflection, so I was going to wait until my reflection-precluding bafflement subsided before I devoted a word to the news that a former member of the Taliban is now a Yale freshman. Jamie Kirchick's got a fairly comprehensive piece on it in today's YDN, however, that raises some tangential points that would be worth getting into right now. First, he refers to this letter from yesterday's paper:
To the Editor:

In his article on Rahmatullah Hashemi and the media attention he has recently attracted, Josh Duboff says that Harold Koh, the dean of the Yale Law School, believes "a greater investigation into the specifics of Hashemi's background will be necessary before the University allows him to enroll for a full degree" ("Ex-Taliban gets media attention," 2/27). Koh says, "It would be good to know more about how [Hashemi] came to work for the Taliban … and whether he's fully repudiated their views, which are, of course, notorious for their human rights-abusing practices."

I hope Koh does not mean to imply that Hashemi's views regarding the Taliban and its practices are relevant to the University's decision whether or not to admit him. I was not aware that ideology could disqualify a Yale applicant. If it can, the University should publish a list of guidelines. Which views make admission impossible? Which are merely undesirable? Will any opinions result in expulsion?

Yale should not be in the business of policing the political orthodoxy of its students. The hypocrisy of the suggestion is especially galling, given our recent military intervention in the Middle East and all of our country's foolish rhetoric about spreading democratic values and free speech.

Eric Knibbs GRD '10
Jamie, on the specific question of whether ideology should be a factor in admissions decisions, responds: "I believe it should not. But an applicant's employment as an agent for a declared enemy of the United States that abetted a terrorist attack that took the lives of some 3,000 civilians is another matter." Well, right. Assuming all the reports are accurate, there's a bonafide Taliban in old blue's class of '09---and he wasn't responsible for water distribution in the greater Kandahar region; he ran PR and flak, or to be more accurate but less neutral, he was a propaganda minister. Seems like perfectly sufficient warrant not to recruit the lovely fellow.

But I don't know how to reduce ideology out of this. Establishing a rule of denying admissions to applicants who've held positions in regimes that violate some defined set of human rights protocols might sound promising, but there'd be problem cases. E.g., what about somebody who's employed by the regime to drive a delivery truck? So there needs to be an exception for trivial positions. And what about the guy who actually does organize water distribution in Kandahar? No matter how bad the Taliban is, it's better for people to have water than not, and since we're committed to ruling out ideology as a factor, it won't do to say we can admit the water minister who's not on board with regime's ideology but deny the one who is on board even though it's not an intrinsic part of his job. So should we modify the rule to screen out only applicants whose CV includes a position that presumes its holder's agreement with the regime's governing practices? That doesn't really get anywhere, since you don't necessarily eliminate ideological factors by paraphrasing the term "ideology" out of the rule.

So you've got ex-minister X who had a middle-rank job in the vile government of Blankistan that involved say, enforcing laws that oppress males (the first line of Blankistan's constitution defines men as 7th class citizens without defining classes 2-6; Blankistan's treatment of men makes the Taliban's politics look like Loren Krywanczyk's). Whatever conditions you come up with for determining when a position is intrisically tied to the regime's governing principles, X meets them. But X wasn't a policy maker; she got caught up in a movement and wound up way over her head; she didn't like her job and did her best to resist it. If, on every other metric, X was an astoundingly qualified applicant, should she still be denied admission? And more to the point, does just formulating the rule by recourse to the nature of a position held really get at what the rule is supposed to be screening out? In addition to X, Blankistan's water minister, Y, also applies to Yale. (What now, Harvard.) Y's only activity as an official in the Blankistan regime was to distribute water to the female residents of Blankazille equitably. But Y was not the least bit conflicted about working for the regime; she supported it in every single one of its actions; if she'd been permitted to do more, she would have; if that more included throwing acid in the faces of unveiled men, she would have been only too happy to answer the call.

Well Mr. Dean of Admissions, you've got one spot left for two applicants. X and Y's credentials are both first-rate; in fact they're identical. The only difference publicly available difference between them is in the roles in the Blankistan government and their feelings about the experience. Do you admit X or Y? Probably X. So ideology is a factor. So maybe you admit neither.

What I guess I could have started off with and maybe finished with too is that, if we get an application from some neo-Nazi with a 4.0 gpa and a 1600 SAT score, no criminal record, and no disposition to start conflicts---he never talks about his politics unless asked, but displays Nazi insignia on himself all the time, and if he is asked, just lays out his views about the subhumanity of all races but the Aryan calmly and sciency sounding---Yale is absolutely within its rights not to admit him. Freedom of conscience doesn't entail freedom from criticism---is there any paraphrase that makes such an entailment sound remotely plausible?---and the boundaries of an individual's freedoms are those of others. A private institution can't be compelled to associate with views it finds objectionable; the Yale admissions committee having a rule that they'll deny admission to adherents of Taliban ideology is perfectly legitimate: no one's rights are violated, because the Talibanista's freedoms of speech and thought are respected, and he (yeah, it's a he) has no right to a Yale education; at the same time Yale simply exercises its own freedoms of conscience and association.

What worries arise from this view? For one, what's to stop someone with an unpopular ideology from getting denied admission everywhere he applies? Answer: nothing. That's not likely to happen in a society with an academic system anything like ours, but I'd be the last one to deny that it's possible. And then what? Well, it's rotten luck for the person involved. But for it to be true that anyone has a right to admission to university simpliciter, it has to be true that that there exists a university such that that person has a right to admission there. And the antecedent conditional is false; there is nothing such that anyone has a right to be admitted there, both before and after we plug in values for the variable. So there's no general right to be admitted to a university.

Worry #2: What if Yale, to pick a random example, just starts denying admission to people who have perfectly legitimate ideologies? Answer: Those people don't go to Yale. If Yale decides to exclude all and only political moderates from admission on ideological grounds, because it finds all non-extreme positions repugnant and offensive, that's Yale's right too. If it was just Yale that behaved that way, there'd be a marginal gain for every other university. And if every university behaved that way, well, moderates are just S-O-L.


At 4:47 PM, Blogger Tom said...

“A private institution can't be compelled to associate with views it finds objectionable; the Yale admissions committee having a rule that they'll deny admission to adherents of Taliban ideology is perfectly legitimate: no one's rights are violated, because the Talibanista's freedoms of speech and thought are respected, and he (yeah, it's a he) has no right to a Yale education; at the same time Yale simply exercises its own freedoms of conscience and association.”

This is handwaving, Finn. Sure, the First Amendment does not “compel” private institutions” to associate with views they find objectionable. However, I’m not sure how this implies that Yale can do whatever it wants w/r/t the ideologies of its applicants. If Yale starts excluding perfectly legitimate ideologies, you are perfectly happy letting its sole punishment be loss of market share?

Two reductios for you to consider:

1) A private institution is not (constitutionally) compelled to associated with RACES it finds objectionable. If Yale refused admittance to all Blacks, we should be fine letting diminished market share be its only punishment? Of course not. Even if no legal sanctions existed, I’m sure you would protest on the grounds that Yale has a moral obligation not to be racist.

2) A private institution is not (constitutionally) compelled to allow all viewpoints to be expressed. If Yale expelled a student for publishing an editorial critical of the administration, we should be fine letting diminished market share be its only punishment? Obviously not—Yale’s status as a private institution does not exempt it from its moral obligation to free expression and debate.

I don’t see how either of these examples is different from the ideology case. Though I do believe that Yale should be able to exclude those who have particularly heinous pasts, and that figuring out a principled way to do this is difficult, this is no reason to conclude that the university can rightly do whatever it pleases.

Surely you don’t disagree with the statutes that make situations like 1 illegal?


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