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Does Stephen Cohen Have the Right to Be Outspoken? Does the ASEEES Board Have the Right to Remain Silent?

I am a member of ASEEES, a historian of the Russian Empire and the USSR, and I direct a center that is an institutional member of ASEEES. Surely I can...

Anyone connected with l’affaire Cohen will tell you it’s complicated by sequences, and who-said-what-to-whom and when. Yet it's the silence of the board about its motivations that should concern us. On the other hand, those protesting the decisions of the board are focused on the accomplishments and eminence of Cohen, which in my opinion are real but beside the point. The same issues would have been at stake if the donor had been a ship owner with only primary education and with opinions about geopolitics.


Procedures Are Supposed to Make for Better Outcomes.

The exchanges between Cohen, the colleagues who protested the board’s decision (which I signed), and the board are obsessed with procedure, as if good procedure makes any result ok. To wit, during these exchanges, the board drafted new procedures for rejecting gifts, which can be obtained by writing to ASEEES. My favorite guideline is the seventh (‘g’), which requires someone to decide what could “damage the reputation of ASEEES” or result in “unacceptable consequences.” Defining “damaging” and “unacceptable” really depends on who is sitting around the table, which leaves us where we started. Had procedure been the core of the problem, fewer of our colleagues would have become involved.


Let’s skip to the outcomes and their significance.


1. Individual expression and a diversity of views.

The board did ask Cohen to remove his name from the gift. We are guessing it is because of his views on the Ukrainian war, but no one can say for sure (see no.4). One wonders which is worse: an institutional stand against a minority view, or the sanctioning of an individual because he is outspoken. There is such a thing as “beyond the Pale,” but we are not agreed as a profession that this qualifies. Some who protested the board’s decisions stand on the principle of free expression, some are sympathetic to Russia’s position, and very many are Russians who feel beleaguered no matter what they think of Cohen, Ukraine, or Russia. The last group may be a majority in Russia, but over here they’re a minority, both demographically and on the spectrum of opinion. If Cohen was insensitive, then it cuts both ways.

2. Money is speech?

I know, speech should be speech, but there you have it. One might think of the Supreme Court on Citizens’ United in 2010, but the academy has a much longer tradition of accommodation. Never mind the usual philanthropic gifts; whole universities are named for persons who are or were considered unsavory in one or another quarter. But who would turn down a job at Rockefeller, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Chicago, Pratt, Vanderbilt, Carnegie-Mellon, or Stanford on moral grounds? I am the founding director of a center funded by a major donor, and we can now do things that were once impossible. On another continent the government may have funded it, but we no longer have that option. The cardinal rule is that the donor will not interfere in the running of the venture, and I do not know whether this was at issue in the case of Cohen; see no.4 again. The possible implication for those who object to the board’s decisions is that individuals have the right to express themselves in money, and to refuse a gift because of the views of the donor is to violate her or his rights of free speech. Cohen intimated as much when he cited his First Amendment right. I am not sure this argument will move that many of us, and it does not move me at all: money is power. The common denominator is that we are desperate for the money for our students. More compelling is the idea that Cohen was censured rather than censored. The board intoned (back to splitting hairs) that Cohen can say anything he likes, but the board told him in not so many words that there is a price to pay. One might say that there is a limit to what money we can accept, and I agree, but that brings us to point no.3, how do we decide? and to point no.4: the secrecy surrounding the board’s reasoning. So far as I understand, the board members agreed not to speak to the membership.

3. What is “clean money”?

This question is neither sarcastic nor rhetorical. I do not know what I would think of offers from Sheldon Adelson, Nikolaos Michaloliakos (look it up), a militant recycler of my acquaintance, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, and my neighbor who speaks on his cell phone in the elevator. I mention them together because they are odious to me personally but that’s the only thing they have in common; were I a board member, would I have the right to exercise a veto without explaining myself to the membership? And would my colleagues on the board feel obliged to indulge me in the interests of unity? Is Khodarkovsky money more virtuous than Prokhorov money? It depends on whether or not I am in the room. Is Michael Bloomberg damaging to our reputation? Yes, very, if I make the meeting, but probably not, if I miss the meeting. What if a denier of the Armenian genocide were to offer fellowships in anything we want, no strings attached other than the donor’s name? Many would say no, but there are whole countries where it is acceptable and advisable to deny the genocide. Surely we would need a full discussion, or someone should explain why the funds are being refused or accepted. Should Duke have accepted the Nixon library back in the 1980s? The faculty did have a public debate on the matter, after the university president tried to push it through with little faculty consultation, but we at ASEEES are still at that first stage. Which brings us to the main point:

4. Opacity.

The board has not explained itself and it really should. I don't mean sequences and procedures, but reasons. The board has not stated why it delayed receipt of the funds – exactly what was controversial – and why it proposed that Cohen’s name be removed. If someone were to insist that it was because of a dislike of men from Kentucky, I would not be able to prove them wrong. We can guess that the board wanted to prevent an exodus of a faction of ASEEES (one person on the executive committee? two on the board? a thousand in the membership?), and that this related to Cohen’s views on the Ukrainian war, or maybe Ukraine itself. I’m willing to listen but someone has to speak. I am a member of ASEEES, a historian of the Russian Empire and the USSR, and I direct a center that is an institutional member of ASEEES. Surely I can be trusted with the facts. One may insist that it is complicated, but I insist that it is that simple.


Debate Is Good

There’s nothing more disarming than candor. Clearly the board was having a hard time dealing with this matter, so it should say so. We do not expect the board members to be unanimous, they should not pretend to have a consensus when they do not, we expect and hope that they represent a variety of opinion, and we assume that the different positions are defensible. No need to name names, but do cite reasons. Set up a blog site to allow debate, appoint someone to police the inevitable bad language and ad hominems, and let us figure out if and why we disagree. It is indeed for the board to make the decisions, but it will be able to weigh a real record of opinion.


Disclosures. Two current colleagues at NYU were on the board that deliberated the Cohen gift, one of them the editor of this blog and we agreed that disagreeing is normal and good for the institutions in question; another is a past president of ASEEES; none of them discussed the board’s deliberations with me. Cohen is my colleague at NYU and I know vanden Heuvel socially; Cohen repeated to me the substance of the formal exchanges.

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