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Racism's Guises

THE latest twist in the saga of Dr. Leonard Jeffries shows the muddle many colleges are in on issues they are supposed to best deal with: scholarly standards, rigor, and inquiry.

Dr. Jeffries is the City University of New York professor who made disturbing anti-Semitic statements at a 1991 arts conference in Albany - leading to his dismissal as chair of the CUNY African American studies department (though he kept his tenure).

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This week a federal jury found Jeffries' dismissal violated his right to free speech. (City College says the dismissal is for poor administration - though in 20 years Jeffries never got a bad rating.)

The case is ironic. While campuses seek to restrict and punish forms of hateful speech, Jeffries argues on grounds of academic freedom that he is entitled to freely express his views.

This is clearly true - though in the context of speech on campus today, it seems a double standard. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in defending a professor who claims the Nazi Holocaust never occurred, free speech - even if abhorrent - must be protected. If Jeffries was dismissed solely for his 1991 speech, the federal jury made a correct ruling.

The real case, however, is one of scholarly malfeasance - and colleges' inability to enforce accountability. Jeffries is responsible for several racist theories about black superiority. His department promotes, for example, a book titled "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," which Henry Louis Gates, head of Harvard African-American studies, calls "one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled." Until recently, Jeffries did not allow white students into his classes. It is interesting that this advocate of free speech has barred reporters from covering his academic talks.

Colleges are responsible for monitoring the vital tension between free inquiry and the direction impressionable minds are led. Racism can flourish in many guises - and among many races. Professors in Nazi Germany proved this. As Leon Botstein, president of Bard College points out, free speech is only the beginning of the issue. The next needed step is a more serious scrutiny of scholarship and methods, and a reexamination of standards.

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