09/26/2007 03:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ahmadinejad and Columbia's Critics

Why all the fuss about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University? Critics of Columbia's decision to invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak maintain that, because he is a "cruel and petty dictator," in the words of Columbia President Lee Bollinger, Columbia should not have invited him to speak. In their view, a great American university should not lend its name and prestige to a man who denies the Holocaust, threatens to destroy Israel, promotes terrorism, and routinely violates human rights. Columbia's critics argue that by providing Mr. Ahmadinejad a forum, Columbia implicitly dignified his views and betrayed its own values.

It would be difficult to be more wrong. A fundamental mission of a university is to educate. A university does this not by taking positions on political, social, moral, economic, medical, or international issues, but by creating an environment in which all perspectives on all issues are open to robust and lively debate. The central responsibility of a university is not to decide who is right about the war in Iraq or the moral legitimacy of terrorism or the meaning of human rights, but to create and nurture an intellectual environment in which faculty, students, staff, alumni and others have the complete freedom to explore such questions without constraint or intimidation.

When a university invites a speaker, it does not in any way "endorse" or "dignify" his views. It simply allows him to express his views to the university community so members of that community can evaluate them for themselves. When a university invites a speaker, it uses him as a resource. His ideas may be wise or foolish, admirable or odious. The issue is not whether the university agrees with the speaker, but whether his presence will further the educational mission of the institution.

Some speakers further that mission because they are brilliant, some further it because they are knowledgeable, some further it because they are provocative. But in no event is the university ratifying the merits of the speaker's views, other than to attest that having him speak promotes knowledge, understanding, curiosity, interest, and education.

Did Mr. Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia further the university's educational mission? You bet, it did. Anyone who saw the response of the audience to his statements about Iran, the Holocaust, terrorism, and homosexuality could not fail to note that the audience left with a sharper sense of who he is, why Iran is in the position it is in, and why this poses a serious challenge for the United States.

A university does not bring deadly microbes to campus because it is "dignifying" or "endorsing" the microbes. It brings them to campus in order to study and to understand them. Even if Mr. Ahmadinejad is in fact a "cruel and petty dictator," it was completely legitimate for Columbia to invite him to speak.

More troubling than Columbia's invitation are the attacks on Columbia, which profoundly misunderstand the inherent nature of a university. The critics seem to think that a university's function is to present only those ideas that a majority of trustees, or donors, or faculty, or students think are responsible, reasonable, and moral. Whatever such an institution would be, it would not be a university.

One of the great figures in the history of American higher education, Robert M. Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1950, personified the true spirit of a university. In 1932, a student organization at the university invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party's candidate for President of the United States, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from some alumni and local business leaders. Hutchins responded that "our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself." He rejected the call for "censorship," arguing that the "cure" for bad ideas "lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition and taboo."

In 1935, the Hearst newspapers launched a nationwide attack on Communist propaganda in American universities, focusing on the University of Chicago. Hutchins responded: "The answer to such charges is not denial, nor evasion, nor apology." Rather, he explained, it is "the assertion that free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, that without it they cease to be universities, and that such inquiry and hence universities are more necessary now than ever."

Shortly thereafter, Charles R. Walgreen, the drugstore magnate, wrote Hutchins that he was withdrawing his niece from the University of Chicago, explaining, "I am unwilling to have her absorb the Communistic influences to which she is assiduously exposed." Walgreen accused several professors, including the English professor Robert Morss Lovett, of being Communist sympathizers. Lovett, a member of the Chicago faculty since 1893, was a venerable teacher with a penchant for left-wing causes. An Illinois legislative committee, fired up by Walgreen's charges, demanded that the University fire Lovett. Hutchins refused. Indeed, when a faculty member confronted Hutchins with the threat, "If the trustees fire Lovett you'll receive the resignations of twenty full professors," Hutchins replied, "Oh no I won't. My successor will."

Columbia University did not need to invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak. But in doing so, it was acting in accord with what President Bollinger described as the "norms of . . . the American university." It invited him not to endorse his views, but to enable them to be heard, tested, and challenged in free and open debate. That is why American universities exist.