For a while, it seemed as if no professor could get more attention from the McCain campaign than William Ayers, the Weather Underground leader who became an education scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago and whose brief associations with Sen. Barack Obama have been repeatedly discussed by Republicans this fall. But with the campaign winding down, it may be that Ayers has been replaced by Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.
Prior to joining Columbia's faculty, Khalidi taught at the University of Chicago -- at the same time Obama taught there. Their children attended the same school. Khalidi helped raised some funds for Obama's early campaigns. The two faculty colleagues and their wives apparently dined out together, and Obama spoke at a farewell party for Khalidi.
While Khalidi has no role at all in the Obama campaign, he was the focus of attention Tuesday and Wednesday from both Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin. McCain demanded that the Los Angeles Times release a video it obtained of Khalidi's farewell party at the University of Chicago. McCain accused the Los Angeles paper of "intentionally suppressing" the videotape, even though it was a Times article that revealed its existence. (The newspaper said it obtained the tape on the condition that it not be released, and the newspaper is honoring its agreement.)
Then Wednesday, Palin focused on Khalidi in a speech in Ohio. "It seems that there is yet another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years," Palin said. "This is important because his associate, Rashid Khalidi ... in addition to being a political ally of Barack Obama, he's a former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organization." A CNN "Fact Check" on the Palin speech declared it "misleading," noting that Khalidi has had minimal contact with Obama for years, that the two men disagree strongly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Khalidi plans absolutely no role in the campaign, and there is considerable dispute over whether Khalidi ever worked for the PLO. (It is not disputed that Khalidi is a strong advocate for the Palestinian cause and a harsh critic of Israel.)
What does it mean that in the closing days of a presidential campaign, the Republican candidates are once again focusing on a "radical professor" over alleged ties to Obama? Does it matter that in addition to going after specific professors, the campaign has been mocking specific kinds of research, such as studies involving fruit flies? Does this raise concerns for academics, regardless of what they think about the campaign or the professors involved?
Some experts on academic freedom have been viewing the increasing use of professors by the GOP campaign with alarm. While anti-intellectualism is no stranger to American campaigns, the specific and repeated targeting of professors in such a prominent way is worrisome to them, and fallout is already taking place. The University of Nebraska at Lincoln called off a speech by Ayers, following demands to do so by many prominent politicians in the state, including the governor. (The university says that security issues required the event to be called off, but many professors and politicians in the state are dubious about that explanation.)
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he plans to raise the issue of these attacks on professors when the AAUP's academic freedom committee meets later this week. While "there is always a certain amount of insanity from all sides during a presidential election," he said he could not remember "such virulent" attacks directed at scholars in recent years.
"This fuels the notion that false claims about scholarship are an acceptable form of public discourse," said Nelson. And there is a connection between "these Republican castigations of two accomplished scholars" and efforts of politicians in recent years to intervene in tenure decisions. "You can plausibly start to worry about the impact of the notion that faculty can be evaluated on the basis of slander, innuendo and opportunistic claims," he said.
When the election is over, Nelson said, the AAUP would consider whether there are steps that can be taken to prevent such attacks in future races. Of course, he noted, the outcome of the election may itself have an impact. "Scandalous techniques that work are more of a problem than scandalous techniques that fail," he said.
Via e-mail, Khaladi said Wednesday night that he was "not speaking to the media at this time, and certainly not until this nonsense has passed." He has long been criticized by some pro-Israel groups, such as Campus Watch. But an article on that group's Web site notes that Khalidi has repeatedly disputed the claim that he worked for the PLO. The article quotes him as writing of the period when he is alleged to have worked for the PLO: "I was teaching full time as an Assistant Professor in the Political Studies and Public Administration Dept. at the American University of Beirut, published two books and several articles, and also was a research fellow at the independent Institute for Palestine Studies.... I often spoke to journalists in Beirut, who usually cited me without attribution as a well-informed Palestinian source. If some misidentified me at the time, I am not aware of it."
Obama's campaign issued a statement that said: "Ugly insinuations about Barack Obama’s relationship with a former neighbor and university colleague, Rashid Khalidi, are completely false." While much of the statement details Obama's support for Israel, which conflicts with some of Khalidi's views, the Obama campaign also makes a point of calling Khalidi a "respected scholar," and defends the right to talk to people who hold views one doesn't endorse -- and not to then be accused of sharing those views. "Smears, insults, and innuendo about the nature of Barack’s relationship with Khalidi are completely unfounded. Guilt-by-association is always a questionable tactic."
One irony of the attack on Khalidi is that McCain himself has ties to him. As The Huffington Post noted, McCain led a Republican institute that in the 1990s sent several grants to a Palestinian research center founded by Khalidi. "Of course, there's seemingly nothing objectionable with McCain's organization helping a Palestinian group conduct research in the West Bank or Gaza. But it does suggest that McCain could have some of his own explaining to do as he tries to make hay out of Khalidi's ties to Obama," the blog said.
Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University and a member of the Academic Freedom Committee of the Middle East Studies Association, also said he was troubled by the attacks. Khalidi is "a very distinguished scholar" who is both "passionate for the Palestinian cause" and "a moderate who talks to a wide range of people." To imply that he is a terrorist, Lockman said, attacks and distorts his ideas.
"This reflects a certain kind of anti-intellectualism rather than engaging with people and having a serious discussion, people are caricatured and reduced to labels and accused of being anti-American," he said. "It's dangerous. It's an assault on scholarly life and intellectual life and rational discussion."
For those with good academic jobs and/or tenure, such attacks aren't a personal disaster, Lockman said. But the attacks have an impact on hiring and tenure committees and send a message to those who don't yet have a secure position. "This affects younger scholars who are looking for jobs and who aren't tenured -- they see what can happen if you are singled out by politicians for your alleged views, even if it's part of your job to talk about your views," he said. "This tells people to shut up."