San Diego State University is quiet and nearly deserted while classes are not in session.
A quiet San Diego State University during the pandemic. Photo by Chris Stone

In Azerbaijan, “humiliating the honor and dignity of the president” will earn you several years imprisonment.

In Lebanon, publishing anything that “undermines the dignity of the president of the republic” is punishable by a minimum of one month and a maximum of two years imprisonment, plus a hefty fine.

In Bahrain, you can get up to seven years in prison.

In Iran, you can get 74 lashes. Which is not technically the death penalty, but I don’t see how you survive that.

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And China’s new security law for Beijing gives “the authorities extensive power to target activists who criticize the party.”

Apparently, the university senate at San Diego State wants to join this club.

On July 6, the Academic Policy and Planning Committee forwarded this proposal to the Senate Executive Committee for emergency consideration:

Emeritus status may be revoked for cause at any time by the President upon recommendation of a vote of the Senate. Revocation may occur when it is determined that an individual’s conduct, before or after Emeritus status has been granted, causes harm to the University’s reputation. Any member of the Senate, the Provost, or the President may initiate the revocation process through the Senate Executive Committee (SEC). The Emeritus faculty under review shall have the opportunity to defend their case in writing to the Senate though the SEC.

To be clear, emeritus status is not just honorary. It allows the recipient ongoing access to the library, an office, and a computer. Revoking emeritus status would mean cutting this person off from all means of continuing scholarship.

Leaving alone for a second the logical problem of how you can revoke a status before it is conferred, there are any number of problems to be unpacked.

Who determines when “an individual’s conduct . . . causes harm to the university’s reputation?” And even more importantly, what does harming the university’s reputation mean?

Publishing an op-ed revealing a foolish policy proposal will likely not enhance SDSU’s reputation. What about the op-eds I published about how SDSU nearly invited a vicious anti-Semite to campus? Or the one about President Adela de la Torre’s wasteful spending habits? Do these together put emeritus status out of reach for me? Will publishing anything critical of SDSU trigger an accusation? And note how anyone in the Senate, the President, and the Provst can “initiate the revocation process,” but the accused is limited to a written defense that is filtered through the Senate Executive Committee.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” thunders John Milton in Areopagitica. Just don’t harm the university’s reputation, squeaks the SDSU senate committee.

When queried, the Senate President Wil Weston blandly responded: “if members use this distinction to promote causes, make statements or commit acts that violate university values and professional dispositions, including hate speech or crimes that are clearly against the mission of SDSU, this new policy includes procedures that could revoke emeritus status.”

But that is not what the policy says. Weston omits harm to the university’s reputation. Still, this version is equally objectionable.  If you commit a felony, then yes, you probably should have your privileges revoked. But for promoting a cause that someone at SDSU might not like? Would reasoned opposition to a university action suffice? Has the First Amendment been revoked?

To be sure, this proposal participates in the larger problem of left-wing illiberalism. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg rightly notes how “a climate of punitive heretic-hunting” has become a mainstay of leftish politics. Publish something the new guardians of morality don’t like, and you risk your reputation and your job. If you don’t believe me that the scope of allowable opinion is getting narrower and narrower, ask Bari Weiss. Ask Andrew Sullivan. Ask the many distinguished artists, musicians and writers who signed on to the Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate.

Now, it seems, San Diego State’s Senate leaders want to join the fray by warning everybody to toe the line. Do or say something that harms the university’s reputation, whatever that means, and you can say goodbye to emeritus status. They want to join with some of the most vicious regimes on earth by making criticism punishable.

Even worse, nobody on the committee objected: “This proposed policy was approved with no opposition by an email vote of AP&P, with all current members of the committee participating.” No one stood up to say, this is madness, this goes against the whole purpose of a university. We’re supposed to encourage debate and dissent, not enforce conformity. Instead, there was unanimous consent to silence offending voices.

Something has gone very wrong when SDSU is on the same page as China, Iran, and Azerbaijan.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.