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'Academic Freedom After September 11'

March 7, 2006

Academic freedom is facing its most serious threats since the McCarthy era, according to essays in Academic Freedom After September 11, published this month by Zone Books. Essays in the book -- which come from scholars such as Joel Beinin, Judith Butler and Robert Post -- both focus on current issues and offer a historical perspective. Beshara Doumani, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley who edited the volume, recently responded to questions about its themes.

Q. How severe do you consider the attacks on academic freedom, post-9/11?

A: Academic freedom is facing its most serious threat since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Some of the repressive but short-lived measures imposed on U.S. population after previous crises makes the post-9/11 period look tame in comparison. But the Global War on Terrorism is distinct from previous wars in ways that do not bode well for the future of academic freedom. The unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties following the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001, the national "Take Back the Campus" campaigns of special interest groups, the changes in the grant language of major foundations, and the attempts to legislate political intervention in area studies programs are but some of the developments post 9/11 that have impacted academic freedom in structural ways. This comes at a time when the academy is in the midst of an economic and institutional transformation driven by the increasing commercialization of knowledge. Buffeted between the forces of anti-liberal coercion and neo-liberal privatization, colleges and universities are more vulnerable than ever to the myriad ways in which outside government agencies and special interest groups are reshaping the landscape of intellectual production.

Q: How would you judge the defense of academic freedom by college leaders, professional societies, and academic groups? Are there groups doing this well?

A: Systemic challenges require a systemic and collective response and that is not on the horizon (yet). Generally speaking, organizations such as the AAUP, the ACLU and the Union of Concerned Scientists have spoken loud and clear on the issues, as have some professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association and the American Anthropological Association. Opposition to Title VI legislation on Capital Hill and to attempts to introduce the Orwellian-named "Academic Bill of Rights" on the state level has been largely effective thus far, but those battles are far from over. With notable exceptions, university administrations have not defended their faculty and students as well as they should have. Increasingly dominated by a corporate managerial culture, most university administrations have reduced the number of tenure-track positions, undermined shared governance by faculty, fought attempts by graduate students who are bearing the bulk of teaching to improve their working conditions, and tightened their grip on student activities. They have also been too accommodating to some demands by corporations, donors, and government agencies that have a chilling effect on the free circulation of information and on the freedoms of research, writing, teaching, and extramural speech. By and large the press has not covered this story well nor undertaken the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that is needed.

Q: Do you think the war in Iraq has changed the state of academic freedom?

A: The war in Iraq is but a part of the Global War on Terrorism and its spinoffs on the domestic front. It is a truism that war and truth do not go well together, but we usually take comfort in the fact that wars end while the pursuit of knowledge is endless. Herein, however, lies the danger of this new and unique Global War on Terrorism. It is a war without end and it is a virulently anti-intellectual war in that terrorists are represented as irrationally evil and freedom is said to be a God given right. Both are located outside of history and society. The black and white warning by President Bush, "you are either with us or with the terrorists," not only asks other countries to surrender their foreign policy. It also asks academics to give up what they hold most dear: the use of critical reason in the free pursuit of knowledge.

Q: Professors who study the Middle East say that they have been particularly vulnerable to attacks. What should these professors and others do about that?

A: While coordinated attacks on specific scholars, course offerings, and programs of study have targeted a variety of fields of study, they have focused with greatest intensity in the post-9/11 moment on Middle East and Islamic studies. Students and faculty connected academically or culturally to Muslim and/or Middle Eastern countries tend to be identified as suspect both in their loyalties to the country and in their ethical commitments to the pursuit of knowledge. Racist profiling and scapegoating are common in Web sites that compile lists of "Un-American" professors critical of the U.S. war in Iraq, and charges of anti-Semitism are routinely leveled against critics of Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. These campaigns of surveillance, intimidation and control, if unchecked, will not remain confined primarily to scholars who study the Middle East. These scholars need the support of their colleagues and communities and academics in general have to explain to the public why academic freedom is fundamentally important to a democratic culture.

Q: How would you compare the state of academic freedom today to the Vietnam era, when many American campuses were also centers of dissent against American foreign policy?

A: It is of signal importance that the storms of controversy currently sweeping American campuses are not a result of internal activism or clashes. Compared to the 1960s, campuses have been unusually quiet despite the significant popular opposition to the war on Iraq and the domestic policies of the Bush II administration. Rather, the escalating tensions are a product of professionally organized external interventions by well-funded special interest groups intimately tied to the coalition of forces currently walking the corridors of power in Washington. In contrast to the McCarthy era, private groups, not the government, are playing the lead role in the campaigns to quarantine dissent, to dominate the framing of public discourse, and to re-channel the flows of knowledge production.

The release in 2002 of the report, "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can Be Done about It," by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is a case in point. Founded by figures such as Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, ACTA accused the universities of being the weak link in the war against terror and a potential fifth column. There are several other major differences with the Vietnam era. For instance, the amount of corporate funding of universities has increased dramatically since the 1980s and institutions of higher learning are undergoing a major transformation in terms of their mission in society.  Another example is the information revolution and specifically the Internet. Web sites, e-mail lists, and chat groups have proven to be effective vehicles of information transfer and political mobilization that are almost unfettered by volume, time and space. Many of the debates are taking place in cyberspace.

 

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