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Leopold’s Ghost

How one man’s mysterious past upended a college’s sense of purpose—and its president’s sense of its liberal mission.

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It was a dark December afternoon in 2008 when a young man called at my office. He was gracious, polite, and fashionably dressed, a representative of NBC News.

“This seems like a nice college,” he said, a bit condescendingly, of the bucolic Goucher campus, just north of Baltimore. “But you have someone working for you who has done terrible things.” I gulped, and my imagination ran wild—fraud, drugs, cheating, sexual misconduct? But he said he could not tell me more without consulting his senior colleague, a former CIA lawyer turned investigative reporter. They would be back in the morning, together with their crew, to tell me why our college would have the honor of being featured on The Wanted, a new series they were producing for NBC.

Goucher is a small, residential, coeducational liberal-arts college with all the values and sense of mission you’d associate with such a place. I had been president for seven years, since just a few months before 9/11, a career journalist who came from two years directing Voice of America and thought one of the most important things a small college could do in this era would be to introduce its students to the broader, changing world. We promised our students they’d become “global citizens,” and it wasn’t just rhetoric: Within a few years we had established the country’s only study-abroad requirement, and my colleagues and I began looking for ways to bring the world to us.

A young member of the philosophy department told me about the “scholar-at-risk” network—an appealing, increasingly fashionable way for colleges and universities to give shelter to intellectuals from around the globe threatened by government repression, civil strife, war, or the pinch of intellectual and political cultures less accommodating than our own. At its best, this could be a way for even the smallest schools to assert their role as progressive safe havens devoted to free discourse in a world disappointingly inhospitable to those values—and certainly it would make a nice contrast to the way some universities cozy up to foreign tyrants for financial purposes.

We didn’t have to work that hard to find our first guest scholar, as there were organizations devoted to the task of identifying and placing them. The Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), one of the most reputable, sent us information about a Palestinian chemist and a number of people from Iraq, Iran, and other places in turmoil. But the person we settled on was Leopold Munyakazi, a French professor from Rwanda whose application for political asylum in the United States had already been pending for four years. We needed an extra French teacher more than we did another chemist. And I was particularly drawn to the idea of bringing an African scholar to Goucher—especially from a place like tiny, tumultuous, and overpopulated Rwanda, where factions have often struggled over scant resources.

I had been to Rwanda several times, as a journalist and as a lecturer, and I felt a personal connection to the country—even a kind of obligation. On my first visit to Kigali, the capital, in the late seventies, I met Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu military ruler whose assassination would unleash the notorious slaughter of the Tutsi by the Hutu in 1994. He had given me a personal gift, a spear, which I never knew quite what to do with and eventually left to rust in my garage. In the eighties, I conducted a radio-journalism workshop for Rwandan broadcasters, and years later, when I heard that charismatic personalities on Radio Milles Collines had exhorted people to kill their neighbors, I privately worried whether I might have taught them a bit too effectively. I was personally acquainted with a few people among the hundreds of thousands of victims, and like many Americans who had watched the violence from a distance, I felt sorry that we had done so little to try to stop it.

A pointed, if mysterious, warning from the SRF staff that Munyakazi held “controversial views” only stoked our enthusiasm—we didn’t even stop to ask what was meant by it. If a liberal-arts college could not handle controversy, we thought, then who could? Perhaps he’d even attract attention and make a few positive headlines for the college.

That fall semester, Leopold—despite his rather formal manner, that’s what everyone called him—taught a small section of intermediate French. He lived near campus, in a Goucher-owned house, and his family became a part of our little community.

One former student remembers that Leopold talked a great deal in class about his own personal history, but no one else on campus really paid much attention. Dignified yet humble, shy, and sincere, one of the few faculty members who routinely dressed in suit and tie, Leopold became a familiar figure in the library and on the campus paths, almost disappointingly low-key and dull. But we flattered ourselves that we had done that rare thing, a purely good deed, striking a blow for the cause of intellectual freedom while bringing an honorable man to campus.


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