Soundings

Roger Kimball
Still Revolting
A college president can’t tell the difference between liberty and libertinism.
Summer 2001

Back in 1997, the State University of New York at New Paltz made headlines with its day-long conference "Revolting Behavior: The Challenge of Women’s Sexual Freedom." Sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program, the event boasted workshops like "Sex Toys for Women," at which the owner of a New York sex boutique illustrated the uses of various sexual appliances (all helpfully on sale later that day), and "Safe, Sane, and Consensual S/M: An Alternative Way of Loving," at which interested students could "explore society’s perception of [sadomasochism] and find out what it means to the people within the S/M community." Ah those bright college years! "Revolting Behavior" provoked harsh words from many critics, including Governor George Pataki. SUNY trustee Candace de Russy, among others, called for the dismissal of New Paltz president Roger Bowen, who in turn vigorously defended the conference.

Bowen remains unrepentant. In May, he publicly blasted the Pataki administration for politicizing the university and endangering academic freedom. He fretted over the effect the administration’s pressure was having on "critical thinking" on campus and cautioned that the meddling threatened to upset "the genteel world of the academy."

Who knew Bowen had unexploited gifts as a stand-up comedian? To describe today’s academy—obsessed with outlandish sexual practices, awash with programmatic anti-Americanism, and deeply hostile to the values of Western civilization—as "genteel" is, if not comic, then foolish or hypocritical. And what critical thinking does Bowen have in mind? Perhaps "How to Get What You Want in Bed," an "interactive group workshop" at the "Revolting Behavior" conference? Please.

More seriously, Bowen invokes academic freedom as "the lifeblood of the academy." He’s right, of course. But such freedom isn’t the same thing as its perverted caricature. It no more gives a carte-blanche to sell dildos in the groves of academe than the First Amendment guarantees the right to receive public funds to celebrate sadomasochism. Academic freedom isn’t a talisman transforming the campus into a zone beyond good and evil. It is the assurance that professors pursuing truth are safe from interference.

Sadly, these crucial distinctions escape Roger Bowen. Knowing that dark warnings of the academy under siege can nearly always cow liberals, he’s managed not only to remain head of a large public university but also to transform himself into an icon of the left. SUNY New Paltz’s trustees should do some genuine critical thinking and remove a president who has become one of American higher education’s biggest embarrassments.

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