As many of you probably know, Steven Landsburg is a professor of economics at the University of Rochester who's famous/notorious for making controversial observations about social and political issues from basic economic principles. He is now under severe attacks and threats from university administrators and certain student groups for criticizing Sandra Fluke's position on subsidized contraception. Here are the details.
Last Friday, Landsburg voiced in on the Limbaugh/Fluke debate with a blog post (see the end for the link) in which he laid out the economic principles behind whether the government should subsidize contraception. He concluded that, while the words "slut" and "prostitute" are unfair descriptions of Fluke, Limbaugh got the basic logic correct: Unless Sandra Fluke lays out an argument explaining why society should subsidize her and her classmates for contraception, there is no obligation for the rest of society to pay for her contraception, without demanding something in return.
It is clear that Landsburg's blog was written purposefully provocatively, and perhaps tastelessly. But what he was trying to express is a basic principle - if you want the state to subsidize something, you need to justify the costs. Landsburg explicitly made clear that he was NOT criticizing the position that the state should subsidize contraception, and stated that "[he] expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception"; the problem was that "Ms. Fluke made no such argument."
In the following days, Landsburg proceeded to follow up with two more blog posts in which he responded to comments on his first post that laid out possible rationale for subsidizing contraception. He expressed his disagreement with some of the arguments and agreed with others. In particular, he explained why it could be justifiable to tax men to pay for contraception, but why it is not particularly justifiable to tax infertile women, and so on.
What happened next is an absolute travesty. On Tuesday, the president of the university, Joel Seligman, sent an email to all faculty members and staff in which he lambasted Steven Landsburg for his initial blog post. In the email, he deliberately misrepresents Landsburg's position by saying that Landsburg was "praising Rush Limbaugh for a “spot-on analogy” with respect to his offensive remarks about Georgetown student Sandra Fluke". Seligman further states:
"I am outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion. To openly ridicule, mock, or jeer a student in this way is about the most offensive thing a professor can do. We are here to educate, to nurture, to inspire, not to engage in character assassination."
It is incredible that Seligman somehow believes that criticizing a student in a law school located a thousand miles away is unacceptable behavior for Landsburg simply because he is a professor. Furthermore, Landsburg's series of posts were not meant to demean the particular student Sandra Fluke, but to ridicule the notion that society somehow has an obligation to subsidize certain goods SIMPLY because some people (allegedly) can't afford them. In fact, at the very beginning of his post, Landsburg stated that "Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being."
On Wednesday, after the memo was widely publicized, a group of around 30 anarchists and feminists stormed into Landsburg's Principles of Economics class, blocking the auditorium and preventing the regitsered students from getting into the classroom. They did not say a single word, nor attempt to initiate a discussion with Steven Landsburg. The student activists remained in the front of the classroom for an entire 60 minutes, forming a line between Landsburg and the rest of the class. Shortly before the class ended, the students went around distributing flyers before they marched out of the hall. The flyers "denounced" Landsburg's views and said that he does not deserve to be a tenured professor in the university.
There are currently rumors floating around in several departments that Landsburg's position in the university is in fact being threatened. Apparently, there are worries among the administrators that his controversial remarks would affect donations from alumni and the appeal of the university to parents of college applicants.
The position of President Seligman and his supporters is clear: You have the freedom to voice your opinions only if they are politically popular. Any speaker who expresses an unpopular opinion (even if it on his personal blog) shall expect to be publicly humiliated and have his classes interrupted and his entire career threatened - without any attempt to initiate intellectual discourse.
Despite these threats, many university faculty in Rochester have spoken up in strong support for Steven Landsburg's freedom to state and defend his opinion. And while many of us in the wider academia might not have sympathy for Landsburg's particular position in this case, this is about much more than the Limbaugh/Fluke controversy. If a university president could lead a mob attack on a faculty member simply for criticizing a form of state subsidy, it is unfathomable what could happen next if we were to criticize a popular war, or excessive protectionism, or to argue for any other policy that is unpopular with the public.
Let your voice be heard.
Office of the President
240 Wallis Hall
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
Phone: (585) 275-8356
Fax: (585) 256-2473
Landsburg's initial post: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/02/rush-to-judgment/
Landsburg's second post: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/05/contraceptive-sponges/
University President's memo on Steven Landsburg: http://www.rochester.edu/president/memos/2012/landsburg.html
Landsburg's third post: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/07/a-contra-conception/
Landsburg's fourth post: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/08/aftermath/
Ann Althouse, law blogger, sharply criticizes Seligman's remarks and defends Landburg:
News article on activists' disruption: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20120307/NEWS01/303070022/University-of-Rochester-Rush-Limbaugh-Steven-Landsburg