CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CBSNewYork/AP) — In his commencement speech at Harvard University Thursday, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused the political left of engaging in the same kind of censorship on college campuses as the political right did back in the 1950s.
Bloomberg told students not to “major in intolerance,” and to uphold freedom of speech no matter how much they disagree with another person’s viewpoint. If they do not, he warned, students are endorsing the kind of ideological gridlock that plagues Washington politics.
In the speech, which was reprinted in an adapted version by BloombergView, the former mayor said the campus left is now engaging in censorship, in a 180-degree turn from the days of McCarthysism in the 1950s.
“Today, on many campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg argued that freedom of speech and free flow of ideas should prevail no matter what – beginning with an argument against those who tried to stop the mosque near the World Trade Center site.
The Park 51 project, a proposed Islamic community center, became a lightning rod when opponents claimed a ground zero mosque would be disrespectful to 9/11 victims. But Bloomberg said while opponents had every right to protest, government had no right to block the mosque based on opposition to a religious faith.
“The idea that government would single out a particular religion and block its believers — and only its believers — from building a house of worship in a particular area is diametrically opposed to the moral principles that gave rise to our nation and the constitutional protections that have sustained it,” Bloomberg said.
But on college campuses today, Bloomberg argued, students are likewise trying to censor views with which they disagree – on principles that lean to the political left. At universities, Bloomberg said, “the forces of repression appear to be stronger now than they have been since the 1950s.”
Bloomberg singled out the Ivy League in particular. He said in 2012, 96 percent of all campaign contributions went to President Barack Obama – and given that figure, “you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a university should offer.”
He said the purpose of giving faculty tenure is “to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms.”
At one time, Bloomberg said, tenure was intended to protect liberal professors from running afoul of conservative norms, but now, it must also protect the opposite.
“A liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism,” he said.
Bloomberg expressed particular disappointment at the fact that commencement speakers this year have been forced to withdraw for political reasons at multiple universities, “after protests from students and — to me, shockingly — from senior faculty and administrators who should know better.”
Earlier this month, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out as the commencement speaker at Rutgers University. Her decision came after protests by some faculty and students over her role in the Iraq War while she served in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Also this month, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a champion of students in the country illegally, had been scheduled to speak at Haverford College’s ceremony in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but was opposed over the use of force by university police during the Occupy movement. He also backed out of the speech.
International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde also pulled out of the Smith College Commencement after protests, and Brandeis University withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim women’s advocate who has made comments critical of Islam.
“In each case, liberals silenced a voice and denied an honorary degree to individuals they deemed politically objectionable,” Bloomberg said.
He added that as former chairman of Johns Hopkins University – where a similar outcry happened last year – “I believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.”
If the faculty fails to do so, Bloomberg said, students may “graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.”
He went on to call Washington politics an example of that failure in action.
In Washington, Bloomberg said, political decisions are not made through bipartisan engagement, “but by trying to shout each other down, and by trying to repress and undermine research that runs counter to their ideology.
“The more our universities emulate that model, the worse off we will be as a society,” Bloomberg said.
He pointed out multiple instances of partisan gridlock – including the U.S. Senate delaying a vote on surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy because he called gun violence a public health crisis.
Bloomberg also attacked state politics — noting an instance in the South Carolina where the state Senate supported an 8-year-old girl’s idea to make the wooly mammoth the state fossil – but also passed a bill mandating a religious definition — saying the mammoth “created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field.”
Bloomberg urged the students to rise above ideological gridlock.
“On every issue, we must follow the evidence where it leads and listen to people where they are. If we do that, there is no gridlock we cannot break, no compromise we cannot broker, no problem we cannot solve,” he wrote.
Bloomberg received an honorary degree at the commencement. Former President George H.W. Bush and Aretha Franklin were also honored.
Harvard awarded more than 7,300 degrees and certificates at its 363rd commencement.
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