Letter to the Editor: Our experience challenging the hiring of Karl Eikenberry

Last Tuesday, we walked into the McCormick Foundation Center Forum to hear Karl Eikenberry address Northwestern about how the United States and its military have “drifted apart,” in a talk sponsored by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. After a seven-month saga of his appointment and subsequent withdrawal as the head of Buffett, Eikenberry spoke on campus for the first time. From the moment we walked in the MFC doors, we felt out of place — older, mostly white men in suits, including many powerful administrators, mingled in the lobby, and multiple police officers were present. This militarized space was unnerving and made us feel that our dissenting opinions would not be acknowledged, but we were nonetheless interested in the opportunity to hear Eikenberry speak.

During the talk, we were quickly frustrated that the discussion was framed around the assumption that the U.S. military is inherently a force for good, ignoring its continued violent and colonialist history. Much of the discussion centered on why millennials aren’t engaging with the armed forces, with Eikenberry suggesting that millennials have no “respect for hierarchy and large organizations.” He continued to lament the individualist nature of the millennial generation in both his own speech and responses to questions asked, never once addressing that many young people oppose the military’s engagement in devastating wars with questionable agendas and imperialistic politics. When Matt raised a question about NU President Emeritus Henry Bienen’s recent disturbing comments calling for increased drone strikes in the Middle East and North Africa, Eikenberry justified the claim by referring to “new existential threats of terrorism” and continuing to remind us that the situation was “more complicated” than we could realize. We have no doubt that if a foreign country was flying drones over the U.S., and 90 percent of those killed were innocent civilians, U.S. leaders would be up in arms. When Eikenberry was later asked directly about the criticism of his hire as the head of Buffett, he said it was the “worst stereotyping of the United States military,” once against simplifying the depth and nuance of our own concerns. We don’t accept this response, and remain frustrated by the continued and purposeful co-optation of our concerns.

Moreover, we were disturbed that Matt’s question was met with laughter and ridicule amongst a clustered group of NU administrators. Jay Walsh, vice president for research, scoffed and put his head in his hands, as Bienen jokingly warned Eikenberry to “be careful” with his response. The behavior from these administrators was alarming and uncomfortable, and was an inappropriate response to a very legitimate question. Throughout our time advocating against Eikenberry’s appointment, we have been met with resistance from these very same administrators.

As students, we have the right to speak out on contentious issues such as Eikenberry’s hire and broader U.S. foreign policy. We believe it is very unproductive and disparaging for administrators to behave in ways that suggest otherwise. The Northwestern mission statement cites “personal and intellectual growth of its students” as integral to the University’s priorities. In our time at NU, we have studied the colonial history of U.S. military exploits and the connection of the military to top academic institutions. We wish to address “critical global issues,” a key principle of the Buffett Institute, by questioning how to make institutions of which we are a part more socially just. We reject the notion that we as students should silence our concerns about Eikenberry’s hire, a claim we heard several times after we put forth a resolution at Associated Student Government Senate to call for Eikenberry’s withdrawal.

Eikenberry’s talk reminded us of several experiences we faced after our decision to put forth the resolution. On April 6, the day that the ASG Senate vote on the resolution was set to take place, administrators broke Faculty Senate rules by organizing a faculty vote to support former the former ambassador. That same evening, Provost Dan Linzer, along with more than five faculty members and administrators, came to the ASG Senate meeting, with the stated intention to influence the student vote. The unprecedented attendance of administrators and faculty at an ASG meeting clearly demonstrated that the stakes had been elevated.

Furthermore, we feel that Linzer’s decision to inform us of a potential defamation suit directly prior to the start of the debate was inappropriate. If conversations about defamation were truly occurring amongst NU administrators, we should have been contacted and informed directly by the administration in a professional manner. Instead, the situation felt to us in the moment to be a tactic of intimidation. Linzer proceeded to whisper loudly to colleagues during our presentation and to speak to Senate members for far longer than his allotted time.

We feel that the administration’s behavior throughout this experience reveals the very worst attempts to stifle dissenting student opinions and to save face in front of a powerful former U.S. official. These behaviors do not encourage students to engage in critical dialogue about their own university, but rather make them hesitant to speak out on potentially contentious issues. We believe this is not only unproductive, but directly in conflict with NU’s mission as a university.

We expect administrators to actively work with students and faculty moving forward to appoint a new Buffett Institute leader.

Neha Reddy (Weinberg ’16)
Matt Herndon (SESP ’17)