One indisputable fact about my new book The Professors is that it has upset a lot of people. Indeed a veritable army of detractors has formed to attack it. Thus it has been denounced by a coalition of left-wing organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, People for the American Way and George Soros’ children’s crusade, Campus Progress. It has been assaulted by the left-wing blogosphere and by radical sites like Counterpunch.org, 17 of whose contributors appear in my book.
The theme of these attacks is monotonously and in an oddly self-refuting fashion the same: “The book is a McCarthy blacklist and as a tenured radical I’m upset that I’m not in it.” The point of these attacks appears to be to dissuade other academics from reading The Professors or considering its argument. Therefore a principal tack of the attackers is to avoid mentioning its argument at all. Scott McLemee’s attempt at a review (“ D’Ho!”) in Inside Higher Ed conforms to this pattern.
You would never know it from McLemee’s article, but The Professors is not about any threat from left-wing ideas as such. It is about the intellectual corruption of the university, and the intrusion of political agendas into the academic curriculum. I know this statement will come as a surprise to those familiar only with the attacks themselves, so here is what the book actually says: “This book is not intended as a text about left-wing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom. But they also have professional obligations as teachers, whose purpose is the instruction and education of students, not to impose their biases on their students as though they were scientific facts.”
The “dangerous” theme, which has provided critics with a federal case is a marketing motif dreamed up by the publisher and is confined to the subtitle and the flap copy. The word “dangerous” does not appear anywhere in the 112,000 word text, and the notion that these professors are dangerous forms no part of the argument of the book. I will grant that since the book is marketed this way, and since the radicals portrayed are all on the left (are there any right-wing radicals left on university faculties?) the idea is fair game. But if left-wing academics think they can kill The Professors by focusing fire exclusively on this target (it’s a revival of Red Channels), they should think again.
The Professors was published on February 13, and at its present rate of sale, approximately 60,000 individuals will buy a hardback version of the book in the coming year. Among them will be students, parents, university administrators, faculty members of an independent mind, trustees, donors and politicians sitting on the education and appropriations committees of state legislatures and the federal government. They will recognize the attacks on the book as caricatures and will not be persuaded by all the noise.
To his credit, Scott McLemee, has actually read at least one page of the book, but unfortunately has failed to understand what he has read. The passage concerns my claim that using Harvard as a yardstick, about 10 percent of the faculty at any university probably hold the kind of radical views represented by the professors in my book, which would amount to 60,000 professors nationwide (I cut the figure in half in the book to provide the most conservative estimate). Says McLemee: “This statistic [the 10 percent radical representation at Harvard] rests upon a particularly subtle bit of accounting which I do not claim to follow.”
Allow me to explain it Scott. Larry Summers, the most powerful president in the history of the modern research university (now removed) was censured by 218 members of his faculty after expressing a view that the faculty left regarded as “politically incorrect.” Alan Dershowitz, a famous faculty liberal, has described the forced resignation of Summers as “an academic coup d’etat by one small faction … the die-hard left of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.” This die-hard left, which is powerful enough to fire a university president, is the subject of my book. I am confident that many people whose intellectual oeuvre is not (like McLemee’s) focused on an obscure Carribbean Trotksyist, will be interested in what The Professors has to say about them.
After failing to understand the fairly straightforward English of my text, McLemee resorts to ridicule and defamation. He cites Maurice Isserman, a leftist professor at Hamilton College who appears to want to eliminate me from the discussion altogether. “Why do we have to deal with him? This is someone with no credentials -- not just academic credentials, but no intellectual credentials. He’s never written a book that will still be talked about in fifteen years.” Brave commentary from a man who has not written a book that anyone talks about this year.
It is undoubtedly a futile exercise to dispute the meaning of my writings with a man like McLemee who has trouble understanding the plain meaning of words. But I will respond to his charge that I am an “ex-Communist” who has only one note to sing namely his conversion from the good old left to the bad neo-conservative right. By way of providing evidence for this silly claim, McLemee rehashes a bad joke from Michael Bérubé’s blog, which refers to my book “ Left Illusions, one of his six or eight of fifteen memoirs about his intellectual odyssey from far-left-firebrand to wing-nut crank.” Such elevated discourse from the literature professor. (I have replied here.)
In preparation for his Inside Higher Ed piece, McLemee wrote to ask me how many autobiographies I had written. I told him one. Refusing to accept the truth for an answer, McLemee suggests I have written four, including Radical Son, Left Illusions, Destructive Generation and The End of Time.
Radical Son is indeed an autobiography, the story of a life. Destructive Generation has only a single essay by me (the others are co-authored with Peter Collier) which is a letter to a former comrade on the left about why I have rejected the left. This is not an autobiography in any reasonable sense of the word (again I understand that McLemee has difficulty with both reason and words). Left Illusions contains a second letter I have written (in this case to my political mentor, the late Ralph Miliband) about why I rejected the left. It is also an argument and not an autobiography. Then there is the “memoir” The End of Time, which is a meditation on life and death that uses fragments of my life from the period after the completion of Radical Son. It is no more an autobiography than Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. But then McLemee concedes that he hasn’t actually read the book in order to comment on it (why does that not surprise me?).
Stanley Fish, who does not share my politics and is a literary man, has read the book and has this to say about and by implication about Maurice Isserman’s attempt to make me an unperson literarily speaking: “Most memoirs only mime honesty. This one performs it. Beautifully written, unflinching in its contemplation of the abyss, and yet finally hopeful in its acceptance of human finitude. And as a bonus, it gives us a wonderful love story.” Nor is he the only liberal to comment favorably on the intellectual quality of my work. Walter Isaacson has judged The End of Time “a poignant rumination on the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Horowitz faces his intimations of mortality with both emotional and intellectual depth. He has captured it all beautifully."
McLemee’s inclusion of some of my written responses to his queries and his ridiculous charges is commendable; his repetition of the false and malicious claims made by Bérubé and others about incidents like the Colorado exam is not so commendable. I have shown the shoddiness of these charges more than once and provided McLemee with references. Instead of letting readers know that these exist (one can be found here), McLemee links an article from Inside Higher Ed that was written in the middle of the controversy and was based on incomplete information, and of course reflects poorly on me. Par for the course. I would like one leftist to attempt to deal with the actual facts in this case and come out with the conclusion that McLemee and his friends do. But I’m not holding my breath.
McLemee’s attack on Discover The Networks is as lacking in intellectual seriousness as the rest of his piece. As I told him, I have written more than 20,000 words explaining the database, redefining it in response to critics on the left, inviting those critics into the pages of my magazine to explain their complaints and answering them. Discover The Networks is unique in allowing subjects to complain about their profiles and in making corrections where warranted (and posting them for all to judge). The complaints about Discover The Networks come from people who think the left should not be portrayed, defined or analyzed at all. As it happens, and as I pointed out to McLemee there are more than half a dozen leftist sites which exist only to smear conservatives and which refused to make corrections when these are pointed out. His outrage is hypocrisy and nothing more. And it will have no affect on visitors to the site who recognize its quality. In the last year the number of these visitors was five million.
In my correspondence with McLemee I explained that I was unaware of the comment on Holstun until he pointed it out to me. If he will give me the url, I will take it off the site. Will this change his attitude towards me? Hardly. But I will do it anyway. Perhaps he will remonstrate with his leftist friends who send e-mails to my editors to this effect: “Please tell David to slit his throat.” We live in rough times. And some people can’t resist making cheap political shots out of the material to hand.
McLemee ends his piece with the familiar wish -- shared by Isserman and Bérubé -- that I would just disappear. This is the wish of the inarticulate and the ineffectual, and it will not be satisfied.
David Horowitz is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
Recently, a New York Times reporter called me to discuss legal matters. He co-wrote a story about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the next day's Congressional hearing on domestic spying and other anti-terrorism matters.
The Times story briefly included mention of our conversation, outing me as a long-time friend of the AG, identifying me as one of his "supporters," and using a quip that I had used, that Gonzales was "one of my three Republican friends." He also printed one of several examples I had related concerning Gonzales' lawyering skills, and he accurately noted that he and I "disagree on almost every issue." Alberto and I came to Houston as professionals at the same time in 1982, and we have had many personal and professional activities in common, as young Mexican American lawyers in the same city will do.
The conversation had been nearly an hour, and the reporter accurately and fairly captured my answers to his many questions, which ranged from Governor Bush's DUI to whether or not the Geneva Convention covers al Qaeda. I get calls regularly from reporters, and thought nothing more of it. However, when I came into my office on Monday morning, I found about 20 e-mail messages from fellow faculty members across the country, condemning me in one way or the other about the remarks I made. The story had been posted on several faculty-driven listservs, along with public and private remonstrances and notes of support. One said, " Este buey no merese tu apoyo" (This mule doesn't deserve your support), while another was headed: "What are torture and war crimes against Muslims/Arabs/Asians of Color between friends?" Thinking that I could not address each one, I posted this note on a law professor listserv:
"All I have to say is that I have many friends, including most who wrote me. I have never required loyalty oaths of my friends, nor they of me. I disagree with many people about many things, but have never set as a precondition of friendship that we agree on social or political issues. I am not about to start doing so now."
We were off to the blogging/listserv races. Since then, I have received dozens of faculty responses, public and private, mostly along these lines: "Hell, Michael deserves this because he in effect endorsed Gonzales" to "Man, I disagree with his choice of friends but he clearly has the right to choose his friends" with all the degrees along this spectrum. The most vociferous have accused me of war crimes, guilt by association, and the like. The most cutting mistook my reluctance to respond further to each iteration as thin-skinned aloofness: "And it is really too bad that some people can be talked into shutting up or walking away just because their feelings get hurt."
A few lawyer friends and family members weighed in, uniformly positive, and reminding me how much they always disagreed with me on various matters. A few whose voting behavior I did not know revealed themselves as Republicans, and assuming I was counting them among the three I had thought I had; overnight, my Republican posse doubled.
After a week of this, I am astounded that people do not see the difference between friendship and politics. It is not often I need to guard my left flank; this whole thing has me baffled, and somewhat amused. I feel like I am in a Mark Twain novel, looking down at my own funeral from the church balcony.
In an odd way, this whole thing has been salutary -- being slimed by some of these folks in public actually helps (such as the "war criminal" calumny from one bozo who has kept carping), but some of the scorchers I have received (in English and Spanish) were of more interest to me. For example, a professor whose work I have always admired wrote me: "Michael, for what it's worth, I think that you are you entitled to have whatever friends you want to have, and to maintain your friendship despite some political disagreements. But further, such disagreements can deepen real friendships, and when the one or both of the friends are important political actors, maintaining the friendships can also improve national politics by giving those actors access to different information and opinions than they might get from their toadies."
That is my story and I am sticking to it. I am the oldest of 10 children, and we disagree all the time. How could it be otherwise with friends and colleagues?
At the end of the day, I have come to believe that Al Gonzales is probably more worried than I am about our friendship ruining reputations, now that he has been outed as my friend. The whole imbroglio with the nomination of Harriet Miers shows that Republicans can be fickle with friendships and affiliations, but I work hard to keep my friends. And as a postscript, the then-University of Houston president who hired me and with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, Barry Munitz, was in the news this week over the situation at the Getty Trust, where he resigned as president. I do not know Barry's political affiliations, but it has been a tough week for my few friends in high places.
But I will say this: when he returns to Houston, it is Al Gonzales' turn to buy.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.
It should not be the case that a victory for the Department of Defense is a defeat for academic freedom, but such is the outcome of Rumsfeld v. FAIR, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday in an 8-0 ruling favoring the government.
FAIR is the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, a group of prominent law schools whose policies forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. FAIR sought to restrict, not prevent, military recruitment because the military’s discriminatory policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is aimed at gays and lesbians.
The U.S. military, on the other hand, supported by the Solomon Amendment, claims that its rights to see potential recruits in law schools and, indeed, in all other components of the university, trump the rights of universities to be true to their mission. The Solomon Amendment was first passed in 1995 by Congress and has been revised three times since, with each revision placing greater pressure on universities to give military recruiters less restricted access to students or face the prospect of losing all federal funding.
FAIR’s mission is “to promote academic freedom, support educational institutions in opposing discrimination and vindicate the rights of institutions of higher education.” This is “starry-eyed idealism,” according to one Congressman who supported the Solomon Amendment that “comes with a price” -- lose all federal funding unless you support the military’s discriminatory policy.
In some circles, such threats are called extortion, but coming from the government they are called “funding leverage.” The roughly $35 billion in federal money now going to universities would be lost if any component of the universities -- e.g., law schools or medical schools or education schools -- defied the Solomon Amendment.
For Chief Justice Roberts extortion is not “compelled speech” because all the government seeks to regulate is “conduct.” I liken this to my mother’s threats of denying me dinner following my making a reasoned objection to some unjust parental rule: it is your conduct, son, not the logic of your argument that offends; obey or no dinner.
As a child, I lacked the autonomy that universities have traditionally enjoyed in the United States. Institutional autonomy was described by the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, which met a year ago at Columbia University, as “the guarantor of academic freedom.” Institutional autonomy includes “the right of the university to determine for itself, on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
The Roberts court ignores this tradition of academic common law and instead asserts that universities are “free” to determine their mission, including one that forbids discrimination, but only if they are willing to forgo access to the people’s money, the very funding that subsidizes new knowledge, new discoveries, and new policies, all for the purpose of assisting the public good.
The not insignificant crumb the Court did offer the academy in its Solomon [not Solomonic] ruling is the right of the academy to protest when military recruiters visit campus. Campus communities should vigorously exercise that right until such time as the US military changes its anti-discrimination policies to accord with the more enlightened of the academy.
Roger W. Bowen
Roger W. Bowen is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, which filed an amicus brief in support of FAIR.
The University of Colorado committee investigating Ward Churchill has found him guilty, guilty, guilty. And on some level, they’re right: Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of "research misconduct" far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of "research misconduct." According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of "research misconduct" and can be suspended or fired.
The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that "professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas." ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”)
ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses. Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.”
Compelling action is also the goal of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights legislation. In March, Horowitz testified before the Kansas legislature. He denounced women’s studies programs as a violation of academic freedom and standards. According to Horowitz, because the University of Kansas Women’s Studies program express a goal of educating students about “how and why gender inequality developed and is maintained in the United States and in our global society,” it should be banned. Since Horowitz thinks there may not be any gender inequality in the world, women’s studies programs “can in no way be justified as taxpayer-supported programs.”
Considering how effortlessly Horowitz misreads the meaning of academic freedom under the AAUP standards, one can only imagine how effectively he could distort "research misconduct" to pursue his crusade against left-wing professors like those in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If Horowitz fails to get professors fired for talking about politics in their classes, he could try to have them fired for expressing controversial views in their research.
That's the harrowing possibility raised by the irresponsible claims of the Colorado committee. They claim to be following the University of Colorado’s statement on Misconduct in Research and Authorship, which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other forms of misappropriation of ideas, or additional practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted in the research community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research."
Because Colorado’s policy explicitly exempts "honest error," the Colorado committee turned into a kind of character police. Noting their dislike for Churchill’s "attitude," the committee members seem to have concluded without the slightest evidence that Churchill intentionally deceived readers with his footnotes.
For example, the Colorado committee concluded, “Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.” This logic is repeated in four out of the seven charges against Churchill. The Colorado committee’s basis for the claim of fabrication depends upon a fundamentally narrow-minded view of what a footnote should be.
However, footnotes serve many purposes. A footnote is not always definitive proof of the sentence being noted. It is common practice for footnotes to be used in order to refer readers to general works related to the period being discussed (as Churchill does), and even to cite works which provide a different or contradictory view of the era.
In my forthcoming book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I include a quote by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer admonishing Americans to “watch what they say.” I have a footnote listing a news report about the statement. But I also include in the footnote a reference to a letter to The New York Times by Fleischer explaining why he is being misinterpreted. I do not comment on this claim, because every word in my footnotes counts against the word limit for the book, and I don’t want to waste precious space scrutinizing some political hack’s line of bullshit. But I thought readers might want to look at a different view.
According to the Colorado committee, I have committed "research misconduct." My footnote includes a source contradicting my interpretation of the comment. On the other hand, if I simply omitted the reference to Fleischer’s letter, and deprived readers of a chance to find a view disagreeing with my perspective, I would be a perfectly fine scholar in the committee’s eyes.
There is no reputable source for the Colorado committee’s claim that footnotes cannot include sources who disagree with the author. In order to evaluate the charge of research misconduct, the Colorado committee proclaimed that it would use the American Historical Association “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” as “a general point of reference.” However, the AHA statement is not intended to be a basis for punishing professors. Indeed, if anything the AHA justifies Churchill’s approach by urging scholars to be “explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one’s intellectual debts.” Nor does the AHA statement include anything about the proper use of footnotes which would justify a charge of falsification.
The Colorado committee provides a footnote quoting the AHA statement that “historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.” But there a vast difference between saying that lousy footnotes will affect your credibility and claiming that lousy footnotes can justify revocation of tenure.
In other words, the Colorado committee “proved” that Churchill was guilty of research misconduct for providing footnotes that did not support his claims by citing a footnote which did not support its claims. It seems strange that a committee which provides a thorough and fascinating account of the historical minutiae surrounding an 1837 smallpox epidemic would somehow fail to do any research on the meaning of fabrication and research misconduct. The Colorado committee’s shoddy work on the meaning of fabrication and misconduct stands in sharp contrast to its extensive research of the charges against Churchill.
The problem is that when a policy largely developed to address scientific misconduct is applied to the humanities, it must be properly interpreted. For example, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dismissed a professor last year for research misconduct, it was because he literally fabricated data. No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.
There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.
Last week the University of Colorado panel investigating Ward Churchill found that the controversial professor of Native American studies committed serious acts of research misconduct and plagiarism. It’s now up to the university to decide on an appropriate punishment for the tenured professor, who could be fired or suspended without pay. I don’t know enough about the situation to support or challenge the panel’s unanimous findings, or to suggest what the university should do about them, but one aspect of the committee’s 125-page report signals a chilling warning to academics: If you want to stay below the radar, keep your politics and your scholarship to yourself.
The Colorado investigation was prompted by the strong public reaction against an inflammatory essay in which Churchill called the people who died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 “little Eichmanns.” Prior to that, the university had ignored complaints about Churchill’s scholarship, and it had already concluded that his 9/11 essay was protected political speech. But the committee, which includes two law professors, justified proceeding with the politically-motivated investigation into allegations of research misconduct with this legal analogy: “A motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker ... is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer’s motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder’s exercise of her right to free speech.”
Maybe. But the courts have questioned selective enforcement of the law in First Amendment cases, and the motivation behind prosecution is hardly irrelevant in the case of racial profiling, an all too common cause of traffic stops. But even if the speeding-ticket analogy holds, how is this any different from Richard Nixon ordering the IRS to audit the tax returns or people on his enemies list, or J. Edgar Hoover shoring up his own power by compiling files on persons of interest?
The committee went on to suggest that Churchill might have been fine if he had just kept his head down: “Public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate.”
Ward Churchill certainly never kept his head down. He’s the kind of person that everyone has an opinion about, and that can be a good thing for drawing attention to issues, or a bad thing when the attention backfires. The University of Colorado hired Churchill as a strong political voice who would shake things up, and the investigative panel is right when it concludes that the university shouldn't be surprised to get what they paid for.
Perhaps Churchill shouldn’t be surprised at the scrutiny he’s received either. Every academic field has research standards, and we are always reviewing and evaluating one another’s résumés. That’s how we find the flaws in our arguments, and how we uncover the occasional fraud. I’m sure that the University of Colorado, like my own institution, wants faculty members to explain their work to the public. Sometimes that public doesn’t like what it hears. When I write about language and literacy in the press, topics that would seem to be pretty tame, I occasionally get angry letters, even threats. But now a select university investigative committee reminds professors: If you stray from the library, you’re fair game not just for the anonymous crazoids, but for the governor and yes, for your colleagues as well.
The University of Colorado investigation is not just about professional malpractice. It’s also about academic freedom. We’re experiencing a new wave of McCarthyism in this country, and academics who take unpopular political positions can expect to have their scholarship as well as their politics scrutinized. Two members of the Colorado select committee came out against firing Churchill because it would discourage other academics from conducting their research “with due freedom.” Whatever one thinks of the Churchill case, these concerns are well placed. Ideologues everywhere are trying to shape curriculum to match their particular orthodoxies. State legislatures are being encouraged to rein in liberal faculty (Pennsylvania has already established a Select Committee for that purpose). Now the distinguished members of the Colorado panel warn us not to step out of line or they’ll take yet another look at our résumés.
Dennis Baron is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report "How Many Ward Churchills?" has caused an uproar in some corners of the Internet. Criticism has centered on two issues: method and message. The report’s principal critics, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke and The Myth of Political Correctness author John K. Wilson, have attacked it, respectively, as a “casual, lazy, cherrypicking survey of whatever materials the author(s) were able to access on the Web,” and as part of “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses.” Both critiques share confused and erroneous assumptions about the report’s message and about ACTA’s right to criticize academic culture.
Burke complains that the report’s criticisms are ill-founded: They “see what they want to see,” they “ignore context or specificity,” and they “avoid REAL argument of the kind that scholars routinely engage in,” he grumbles. “The report talks about the need to guarantee that students have unrestrained rights to the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. Seriously, unless you bother to get off your ass and stop reading catalogues online, you have no idea what happens in classrooms.”
Setting aside Burke’s contemptuous tone, let’s examine the gaps in his reasoning. Burke’s initial objections are throw-away examples of faulty logic. The first, in which he accuses ACTA of post ergo propter hoc thinking, is itself an example of that logical fallacy: Burke sees ACTA seeing what ACTA wants to see because Burke wants to see ACTA that way. But the course descriptions ACTA cites are hardly unique or isolated. There are hundreds of similarly tendentious descriptions published by institutions across the country. They were chosen for their utter typicality, not their uniqueness.
Burke’s second objection is remarkably solipsistic -- context and specificity are whatever he defines them to be. ACTA quotes course descriptions verbatim, working from exactly what students (and interested parents) read to select a class. The reason? Course descriptions are designed to stand alone -- if they are all a prospective student needs to know about a class, then they are also all tuition-paying parents, taxpayers, and concerned citizens need in order to form a preliminary judgment.
This objection is part of Burke’s larger criticism of the report’s reliance on course descriptions. But his claim that these documents -- the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class -- do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. If true, this charge would mean either that professors routinely engage in false advertising or that the process by which students choose courses is a charade that fools no one but students themselves.
In so arguing, Burke has chosen to stretch a point ACTA freely concedes -- that course descriptions are neither courses nor perfect windows into the curriculum -- in order to avoid ACTA’s more fundamental argument about why course descriptions matter. They matter because they are professors’ own public representations of what happens in their classrooms. That so many professors describe their pedagogical aims in ideologically loaded ways raises entirely legitimate questions about accountability and balance.
Of course, ACTA has never claimed to know exactly what is happening in classrooms, and does not assume authority to determine whether a class is pedagogically sound. All ACTA’s report does is to urge college and university presidents, deans, and faculty to examine the issue themselves. ACTA has already outlined ways campus leaders can review departments and programs while still being fair, respectful, and sensitive to academic freedom and academic autonomy. Our 2005 report, "Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action," was praised for its sensitivity to academic freedom and self-governance. Burke’s hasty and intemperate critique studiously evades these points.
Burke’s other criticism, that ACTA avoids “REAL” argument because it does not argue in the same manner as scholars do, is self-servingly dismissive: ACTA’s argument need not be considered, Burke implies, because ACTA has not made its argument as Burke thinks arguments should be made. But the truth is that ACTA’s report is expressly not an academic paper. It is a report designed to initiate dialogue about the college curriculum by outlining some of the dominant terms and patterns displayed in course offerings across the country. To condemn it, as Burke has, for failing to maintain scholarly standards of data analysis is like damning an apple for not being an orange.
Burke thus badly misunderstands ACTA’s report. He both thinks ACTA isn’t qualified to judge the academic curriculum and complains that ACTA has not framed a satisfactory program of reform. But ACTA stresses that academics should address the problem of self-regulation, and that they should do so now -- in the face of mounting legislative interest in controlling the curriculum. ACTA’s report is as friendly to institutional self-governance and academic freedom as it is possible for a watchdog organization to be.
Now for Mr. Wilson.
Writing at Inside Higher Ed, John K. Wilson treats ACTA’s report as Exhibit A in “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses”: “The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom,” Wilson writes. “ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban [courses that mention social justice, sex, or race].” But Wilson’s scaremongering misrepresents the report to an audience who, he seems to expect, will not check his sources.
Nowhere does ACTA advocate censoring professors or banning courses. The report urges academic officials to address -- voluntarily, and in institutionally appropriate ways -- professors’ obligation to respect students’ academic freedom to learn about controversial issues. The report recommends institutional self-study, hiring administrators committed to intellectual diversity, careful vetting of job candidates’ work, review of personnel practices, post-tenure review, and -- most importantly -- fostering robust debate on campus.
Here are the study’s concluding paragraphs, which follow directly from the sentence Wilson quoted to argue that ACTA is endorsing censorship:
Ultimately, greater accountability means more responsible decision-making on the part of academic administrators, more judicious hiring on the part of departments, and more balanced, genuinely tolerant teaching on the part of faculties. It also means acknowledging--openly and unapologetically--that education and advocacy are not one and the same, that the invaluable work of opening minds and honing critical thinking skills cannot be done when professors are more interested in seeing their own beliefs put into political practice.Finally, it means defending the academic freedom of even the most militantly radical academics. Our aim should not be to fire the Ward Churchills for their views, but to insist that they do their job--regardless of their ideological commitments. We must insist that, in their classrooms, they teach fairly, fostering an open and robust exchange of ideas and refusing to succumb to a proselytizing or otherwise biased pedagogy. Only then will their ideas be subject to debate; only then will they and their students learn to defend their positions in the marketplace of ideas. Only then will other views challenge, complicate, and even displace theirs. Only then can we hope to create a truly diverse academy.
Far from calling for censorship or the banning of classes, ACTA urges transparency about what professors teach; far from trying to silence politically engaged professors, ACTA defends academic freedom while at the same time noting that 1) academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism or freedom from accountability; and 2) students have academic freedom too. Also worth noting: When the Ward Churchill scandal broke in 2005, ACTA defended Churchill from those who sought to fire him for his speech.
Wilson mistrusts definitions of research misconduct that include egregiously misleading citations -- and no wonder. His own argument about ACTA depends on the willful manipulation of sources.
Neither Burke nor Wilson reads ACTA’s report objectively, choosing instead to see it as proof of that worn professorial complaint, that no one outside the ivory tower understands academics. But what neither grasps is that it is not the public’s job to intuit the special worth of professors. Insofar as Burke and Wilson represent an academic consensus that outsiders are not qualified to judge -- or scrutinize, or question -- higher education, they signal the depth of the complacent insularity ACTA’s report takes to task.
If ACTA’s report has a take-home message for academics, it is that they urgently need to justify to a skeptical public why their work deserves special protections. Only then, ironically, will they have a chance of preserving the independence they cherish. With transparency comes respect; with accountability comes autonomy. That’s the paradoxical point of "How Many Ward Churchills?" -- that the more open one is about one’s practices, the more willing one is to allow one’s work to be scrutinized, the more responsive one is to legitimate criticisms, the more likely one is to be allowed to carry on without undue interference. What a pity that Burke and Wilson could not take off their ideological blinders long enough to see that.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Last fall in the section I teach of introductory microeconomics, I asked a student a simple question about the demand and supply of gutters. Nora had a blank expression, one that said, “I haven’t a clue of what you’re talking about.” If Nora had been struggling to understand economics, I wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. But Nora is a star, one who shines brightest when asked really tough questions.
Then it occurred to me. Nora didn’t know what the word “gutter” meant. It is easy to forget that Nora is Bulgarian -- her English is that good. I asked her whether she knew what the word meant, and looking embarrassed, she replied that she didn’t. How do you explain what gutters are without using the word gutter? It’s not easy, at least not for me. So, I broke into pantomime, with my fingers simulating raindrops heading for a cliff where they were caught by an invisible gutter.
Suddenly, her face lit up, and she quickly answered my original question. But it had taken her longer than I would have expected, even adjusting for my pantomiming skills. Still puzzled, I asked her, “How do you say ‘gutter’ in Bulgarian?” She said she didn’t know. Amazed, I said, “You’re pulling my leg, right?” She wasn’t.
Are there gutters in Bulgaria? I don’t know; I’ve never been there. Everywhere I’ve lived, gutters are ubiquitous. Are they common elsewhere, or are they just an American thing?
One student disliked my treatment of Nora, saying on her evaluation of the class: "Something that bothered not only me but other students (and I know this from talking to my classmates) was the way Professor Harrington picked on the international students. We had about five international students in the class, and one day Professor Harrington did a problem about gutters. The student he asked to answer the question was Bulgarian and did not know what the word ”gutter” meant, and Professor Harrington made a big deal out of this. He asked her how you would say “gutter” in Bulgarian."
She says, “He continued to [quiz international students about their understanding of English] in other classes, singling out the international students and making them look inferior to the rest of the class.”
If the student had listened to the quality of her international classmates’ answers to my questions, she would have realized that they were academically superior to the vast majority of their classmates. Indeed, their median grade was 4.0; they all spoke English fluently; and, their essays had fewer grammatical errors than most of their classmates. It seems implausible to me that any rational observer would infer that they were inferior based on my questions about their knowledge of a few English words.
But even Nora looked embarrassed when she “confessed” that she didn’t know what gutters were. She had no reason to be embarrassed, yet she was. Why?
Perhaps, it has to do with the power of gut feelings, which allow people to quickly categorize experiences without having to think too deeply about them. Following them can even save your life in situations where you need to make quick decisions, implying that gut feelings are probably hard-wired into us via evolution. Hence, gut feelings probably can’t easily be turned off, implying that Nora could have been embarrassed by the gutters episode regardless of whether it was justified. And this is a shame -- because good class interactions should be full of professors and students going in any number of directions, some of them uncomfortable, without worrying about appearances or comfort levels (or whether some comment is going to make you a poster child for the Academic Bill of Rights).
I was in a gray area with Nora, one that I did not perceive as being gray until I thought about the comments of this student. I feel badly that I might have embarrassed Nora -- it was certainly not my intention. Nevertheless, asking Nora whether she knew the word for gutter in Bulgarian was the highlight of the course for me. My intuition screamed at me to ask it and her answer rewarded the impulse -- not because I was happy to discover that she didn’t know the word, but because it made me think more deeply about the way in which languages compete with one another for survival. Indeed, many languages face extinction because they are cluttered with words that people no longer find useful. For example, some languages have dozens and dozens of different words for ice, which may not be a selling point in the coming age of global warming.
Nobel laureate Robert Solow argues that the most difficult thing to teach students is how to be creative in economics, followed closely by critical judgment. It is much easier to teach tools, such as demand and supply, than how to use them creatively, or critically. The first step in using economics creatively is to ask interesting questions, ones that naturally arise during genuine conversations sparked by observing differences like those concerning the acquisition of language. While these conversations are crucial in teaching students to be creative, they are also likely to tumble into gray areas and sometimes produce dry holes, two things that make some students uncomfortable.
Another way to be creative in economics is to apply economic reasoning to topics commonly thought to lie outside the realm of economics. Hence, I want my students to learn that there are no boundaries to the usefulness of economic reasoning. I mean NO boundaries, absolutely none. Boundaries smother creativity because they encourage students to turn off their economic reasoning skills whenever they cross them.
Last semester, I described how a San Diego abortion cartel in the late 1940s charged women different prices depending on the quality of their clothing and the characteristics of the person accompanying them, a practice that economists call price discrimination. For example, a young woman who was brought to the clinic by an unrelated, well-dressed Sacramento businessman was charged $2,600 for an abortion. If the woman had come alone, she would have paid something closer to $200. Four students have come to my office or e-mailed me with concerns over the use of examples like this one. For example, one student argued that abortion is too morally charged to be used as fodder for examples, especially ones that are so narrowly drawn.
Crossing the border into conversations about race is especially dangerous, because the border is patrolled by guards searching for insensitive comments. It takes courage and tolerance on the part of both students and professors to have genuine conversations about race. However, no topic is more important to discuss in economics courses given the glaring disparities in economic outcomes between African-Americans and whites. For another course I teach, students are required to read an article about the controversy that erupted when members of one middle-class community proposed naming a “nice street” after Martin Luther King Jr. The proponents wanted to weaken the correlation of his name with poverty and crime, while the opponents feared that naming a street after him would cause their neighborhood to decay. I admire the proposal yet empathize with the opponents. Since streets bearing his name are more commonly found in poor neighborhoods, (even unprejudiced) people might rationally "steer clear" of the area if they name a street after Martin Luther King Jr., a phenomenon economists call statistical discrimination.
Teaching students to use economics creatively requires having conversations that are not smothered by fears of saying something wrong or of stepping over some boundary beyond which economic reasoning is prohibited. But genuine conversations require that students have done enough of the reading to participate with intelligence -- and checking on that may also make students uncomfortable.
A student last fall accused me in his or her course evaluation of picking on students, saying that “if it was obvious a student was unprepared or had not done the assigned reading [Professor Harrington] would call them out on it.” It’s true. I admit it. Failing to read the assigned articles imposes spillover costs on other students that can be corrected by imposing penalties on unprepared students. For example, one student could not answer straightforward questions about the readings in two consecutive classes, prompting me to ask him whether he had ever heard of the expression, “three strikes and you’re out.” At the beginning of the third class, he joined the conversation, easily answering my initial questions and making a few comments of his own.
David E. Harrington
David E. Harrington is the Himmelright associate professor of economics at Kenyon College.Â
Two years ago -- before David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights, and other pressure points on political and ideological bias made the topic such a hot one -- we were speaking at a national conference in Washington about a study that we are now just finishing. The study is called the Political Engagement Project and examines 21 undergraduate courses and programs that aim to strengthen the understanding, the skills, and the motivation needed to be politically engaged citizens.
As a way to make the work in these courses and programs come alive, we told what we thought was a compelling story about a Duke University student in one of the programs, called Service Opportunities in Leadership. The student interned in a New York City textile workers union, and subsequently helped organize Students Against Sweatshops at Duke, which led to a new code of conduct for Duke licensees, the first in the country.
We finished the talk at the national conference that included this tale, turned to questions, and were faced with this one at the outset. “What,” the questioner asked, “does the Duke program do to ensure that conservative students have opportunities if they want to work in businesses or with conservative political or Christian organizations for their summer internships? Why,” the questioner went on, “did you refer only to a liberal group and not a conservative one?”
The question was a good one, and it forced us to stop and think, not just on the podium, but for some time thereafter. Fortunately, the program leader was in the audience, and she was able to say that she did make special efforts to ensure a range of internship opportunities, including some with conservative organizations. The question caught us off guard, however, and caused us to reflect hard on issues of ideological and political bias. Without intending to do so, we had implied that working in a union and protesting sweatshops were ideological prototypes of the kinds of political engagement that we were promoting. We should have used some other examples as well, and we should have explicitly addressed the issues involved in encouraging student political engagement without promoting particular ideologies or political positions.
We have come to see those issues as critical, and we are addressing them at length in a book on educating for political engagement, to be published by Jossey-Bass. In that book, we encourage colleges to make education for political development an explicit goal for undergraduate learning and suggest ways to accomplish that goal. We underscore that, in order for this agenda to be legitimate, it is crucial to create a harmonious relationship between the political development goals we are advocating and the special character and core values of higher education. These values include academic freedom, norms of faculty professionalism, standards of intellectual discourse, open-mindedness, and civility.
Academic freedom implies that, within the boundaries of departmental and institutional needs, it is up to professors to determine the specific goals and content of the courses they teach and to decide what material and assignments will best accomplish those goals. This includes making judgments about whether and how to address controversial issues in whatever domains are relevant to the course, including political and public policy issues.
But academic freedom is not unlimited. It is bounded by another central cluster of academic values, which establish standards for both scholarship and teaching. These standards represent a shared understanding of academic discourse as requiring reasoned justification of claims, presentation of evidence, and consideration of plausible alternative explanations of the evidence and of objections to proposed interpretations. When education for political development is introduced into academic coursework, it must conform to these standards -- just like any other subject matter is.
In this way, academically based education for political development contrasts sharply with political advertising and with much informal political discourse in everyday life. Often those non-academic forms of political “education” use all available means to achieve their goals, whereas education for political understanding in the academy has to be shaped by reasoned argument, warrant or evidence for one’s views, consideration of alternative points of view, and a knowledge base that is as free of ideological bias as possible. In good teaching, faculty members back up their claims and assertions and take seriously alternative points of view for which a credible case can be made. In a course on U.S. immigration policy, for example, a professor may offer evidence that undocumented workers in this country do not take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal aliens, but he or she should also expose students to the views of economists who have a different view. The responsibility to teach in conformity with standards of academic discourse also means that students are free to put forward ideas that conflict with positions taken by the faculty member, and those ideas will be judged on their merits.
Open-mindedness and respect for multiple (credible) points of view are important in all teaching and are especially critical when teaching for political understanding and engagement. Faculty members ought to help their students develop a quality of openness to new ideas as well as the capacity to make and evaluate arguments and justifications for their own and others’ positions. These two goals are linked, since students need some basis on which to make judgments about the new ideas they are considering.
When courses involve serious engagement with provocative ideas and multiple perspectives on controversial topics, students’ views are likely to differ sharply from each other or from the teacher’s point of view. Maintaining a respectful and civil tone in this kind of discussion is another hallmark of the best academically based political communication, which unfortunately contrasts boldly with much political communication outside (and even sometimes inside) the academy.
Leaders at every university agree that educating students in the practice of open-minded inquiry is a key component of undergraduate education, and most recognize that political issues cannot and should not be excluded from the mix. But creating a classroom and wider campus climate that is truly open to multiple perspectives on contested political issues is not easy to accomplish. One strategy for achieving this that has received a great deal of media attention in the past year or two is a call for legislation that would require colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights." We believe this legislative strategy is seriously misguided. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of legislation threatens the time-honored freedom of academic institutions from outside political interference. Furthermore, we do not believe that a legislative solution will work. The problem with a legislative approach to ensuring open inquiry is that it casts the issue in negative terms, as a matter of policing the faculty -- and the campus more broadly -- to stamp out “indoctrination.” Given the complexity and ambiguity of both political and academic discourse, this kind of policing would be impossible to implement objectively. And cast in negative terms, the effort itself would be destructive to the goal of civil discourse across ideological boundaries. By contrast, a positive approach, in which administration, faculty, and students from different political perspectives join together to develop strategies for the positive pursuit of open inquiry, can itself contribute to a climate of open mindedness, respect, and cooperation.
On the campus level, faculty and administrative leaders should be self-conscious in raising the values of open-mindedness, civility, diversity of perspective, and judgment grounded in intellectual standards, fostering conversation about what these values mean, why they are important, and what they imply for higher education both inside and outside the classroom. Conversations should address the implications of these values for political discourse on campus, as well as for academic discourse more broadly.
Campus life offers many opportunities to foster political understanding and engagement in ways that embody these key values of the academic enterprise. Materials sent to newly admitted students, for example, should set an expectation that the campus will be a community of discourse and that students will be exposed to diverse opinions about many issues, including political issues.
Another place for establishing a campus-wide respect for diversity of opinion is in the choice of campus speakers and in guidelines for their treatment. Depending upon the issues being addressed, it can be particularly useful to sponsor sessions in which participants engage in deliberation about important issues, addressing not “both sides” of the issues but multiple sides. It is often valuable for these events to draw attention to the fact that many issues, such as immigration policy generate many different perspectives within as well as across political parties. Invited guests should also include those who represent positions and accomplishments that are hard to classify on a simple left-right dimension. If campuses want to foster respect for diversity of perspective, speakers should also include respected exemplars of open-mindedness and civility who (despite their own convictions at one or another point on the political scale) truly believe that effective, engaged citizens need to be skilled at communicating and forming alliances with people whose perspectives are different from their own. This might include, for example, a conversation among Democratic and Republican elected officials about the importance of bipartisanship. In a recent radio interview, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy talked eloquently about the productive collaborations he has pursued with Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. He points out that “even though you differ one time, you try and find ways of working [together] at another. And I think unless you have that kind of temperament, if you’re just going to get upset with somebody that’s going to oppose you, you’re in the wrong business.” Surely Senators Hatch and McCain would agree.
As important as it is to strengthen norms of open mindedness, intellectual pluralism, and civility at the campus level, if faculty members who address political issues in their courses do not ground their teaching in those norms, the wider invocations will ring hollow. This is not easy to accomplish, and seldom happens without conscious effort. Even the best teachers can sometimes be unaware of ideological biases that limit the breadth and openness of discourse in their courses. Professors should plan ahead to ensure that students encounter a wide array of credible perspectives in assigned readings on the political and public policy issues addressed by their courses. Bringing invited speakers into the classroom is another engaging and vivid way to represent and stimulate discussion of diverse political perspectives that may not otherwise be represented.
In deciding the range of perspectives needed, much depends on the particular course and its context. We see nothing wrong with a course on the Marxist interpretation of history, but it should not be the only history course open to students. It is not surprising to find pro-business courses in business schools and pro-labor courses in labor-studies departments. But students should understand clearly what those courses are about and what perspectives are being offered, and faculty should root their analyses in reason and evidence not in unexamined political or ideological assumptions. Especially in general education courses, care should be taken to ensure multiple ideological lenses are used and that none are championed as having a monopoly on truth.
Of course, diversity of opinion can come from students as well, and professors need to be mindful to draw out and support students who express minority positions. Faculty members should also establish standards for civility, while acknowledging that some degree of conflict is unavoidable when talking about issues that evoke strong emotions. Establishing a sense of community in the group can be extremely valuable in allowing students to engage vigorously without causing or taking offense. In the process of engaging across differences of opinion, students can learn to overcome the polarization and demonization of the opposition that often seem to characterize contemporary electoral politics.
Faculty members who teach for political understanding and engagement often struggle with the question of whether concealing or revealing to students their own political beliefs would best uphold norms of professionalism, including the careful avoidance of even the appearance of proselytizing. Some feel that it is preferable for a number of reasons for them to tell students where they stand on the issues and why. This decision is based in a desire to model the process of taking and justifying a position and to be honest about their own beliefs and possible biases. Others prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves, believing that neutrality on their part will be more conducive to a climate that is open to multiple points of view. We believe that either choice is consistent with an open classroom climate as long as faculty members provide and encourage multiple perspectives, including those with which they personally disagree, and take care not to impose their views on students.
The key is to teach students to engage differences of opinion, to evaluate arguments, and to form their own opinions based on the best available evidence. To develop their own critical judgment -- and judgment is key -- students need the freedom to express their ideas publicly as well as repeated opportunities to explore a wide range of insights and perspectives. But students do not have a right to be free from troubling questions that may challenge the assumptions and beliefs they bring to the class. To the contrary, that tough questioning of unexamined assumptions is an essential part of a good undergraduate education in all domains.
These are difficult challenges. It is absolutely essential that we not take the easy road and eliminate or even dampen discussion of political issues on our campuses. To the contrary, we need to promote thoughtful inquiry about those issues. We need to prepare our students to grapple with complex public-policy concerns. They will be the stewards of our democracy.
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich are senior scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.Â
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative advocacy group founded 10 years ago by the nation’s second lady, Lynn Cheney, recently released a report with the provocative title, “How Many Ward Churchills?” The answer, according to this unscientific “study” is offered early: “Ward Churchill in not only not alone -- he is quite common.” “Churchill” serves here as a metaphor for professors who allegedly use their classrooms for “push[ing] political agendas”; and also refers to the controversial activist professor of the University of Colorado who was found guilty by a faculty panel of egregious unprofessional behavior just days before the ACTA report was released. It is a safe guess that even if Churchill had been found innocent on all charges, ACTA’s report would have borne the same title. For ACTA, the professoriate is a beehive of swarming left-wing radicals.
ACTA says that the purpose behind its report is to “expose” professors. Hence it is an exercise in outing that, imitating David Horowitz’s recent book [sic] identifying “101[sic] dangerous [sic] professors,” tries to identify left-wing professors and attempts to shame their employers -- Vassar, Duke, Stanford, Swarthmore, and Yale among other privates, and Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State among other publics -- into forcing faculty members to cease their “political advocacy and sensitivity training” and instead offer “objective and balanced presentations of scholarly research.”
The ACTA report lists no author(s) but Ann Neal, a lawyer, president of ACTA, and wife of influential conservative Congressman Tom Petri, is the author of record of the “Foreword.” For Neal academic freedom “is as much a responsibility as a right” and adds it “should end at the point where professors abuse the special trust they are given to respect students’ academic freedom to learn.”
But who should decide what the students learn and the criteria used to determine “learning”? By all customary standards of academic freedom, faculty professionals alone are qualified to determine curriculum and faculty alone are qualified to judge whether students have learned the material assigned.
The ACTA report avoids such issues. The report instead reads as a piece of political propaganda, built atop some anecdotes about courses bearing racy titles; and written by non-educators who object to college courses that deal with the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, globalization, capitalism, American hegemony, oppression, and the destruction of the environment. For ACTA such courses betray an unacceptable “political stance” because they are taught by “scholar activists.” ACTA objects to courses that, in one example, stipulate that students “respect cultures and traditions that are not their own”; and it excoriates all courses dealing with “justice,” whether environmental, social, or racial. ACTA warns that “’Justice,’ in all these examples, is synonymous with a specific social agenda,” an agenda that clearly differs from ACTA’s own. The upshot, says the report, is that many students are “not receiving a sound education” and students “are being exploited by professors…” All Americans, says ACTA, “have a right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.” OK, but ACTA will not like what the public thinks about such calls for action.
The American Association of University Professors recently commissioned a public opinion survey with the support of the Spencer Foundation and Harvard University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. One thousand Americans aged 18 and older were chosen at random to participate; and the findings have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent. The focus of the survey is on public perceptions of political bias in the academy, but we also ask about the public’s views on tenure, academic freedom, and on higher education more generally.
The survey shows that nearly 90 percent of the public -- across all age groups, party identification, gender, ideology, religion, ethnicity, and state location -- have a lot or some confidence in higher education, ahead of the public confidence levels in organized religion, the White House, and the press, trailing only the public’s confidence in the military. An equal percentage of the public highly ranks the occupation prestige of college or university professors, well ahead that of lawyers and stockbrokers, a bit ahead of elementary school teachers, and only behind physicians. Most Americans believe “political bias in the classroom” should be of less concern than the high cost of college, binge drinking, and low educational standards. Almost 77 percent of all Americans agree that tenure is a good way to reward accomplished professors and 70 percent agree that tenure is essential to the faculty’s freedom to teach, research, and write without concern. About 80 percent of the public is opposed to government control over what is taught in the classroom or what faculty research. And, 71.5 percent of those polled say that most professors are respectful when students voice political opinions different from the professor’s.
ACTA’s message, according to our survey results, will appeal primarily to the elderly, those with low levels of educational attainment, conservatives, and Republicans: these groups all have markedly less confidence in higher education and in the professional integrity of faculty. Although only 8 percent of all Americans say political bias in the classroom is the “biggest problem” of the academy, 37.5 percent nevertheless say that it is a “very serious” problem; broken down by party, 27 percent of Democrats think this, 39 percent of independents agree, and 48.5 percent of Republicans say political bias is a very serious problem. Moreover, the public’s support for tenure and academic freedom is soft. While a good-sized majority of the public does not favor government control of the classroom, 75.7 percent of all conservatives believe that professors who are communist or who support Islamic militants should not enjoy tenure and that taking such positions should be grounds for termination.
“Churchill,” as metaphor, resonates, then, with unreconstructed Cold Warriors, with conservatives, Republicans, and people who have not attended college or university. ACTA hopes this situation will change: “As public awareness of the problem mounts -- and as a movement for legislative intervention gains momentum -- it’s important to explore just how widespread the ‘Ward Churchill Phenomenon’ really is.” But if the AAUP public opinion survey is an accurate representation of public opinion, then ACTA’s campaign to force faculty to alter teaching and curriculum in a direction acceptable to cultural conservatives will fail. The public generally likes the professoriate as it is and believes that professors should be left alone to teach, and that “legislative intervention” into the classrooms is a very bad idea.
Roger W. Bowen
Roger W. Bowen is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
The case was brought by Richard Ceballos, an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles, who wrote a memo recommending dismissal of a prosecution because the affidavit that police used to obtain a search warrant was inaccurate. Supervisors were openly unhappy with the memo and went forward with the prosecution in spite of it. Ceballos alleged that afterwards they penalized him by reassigning him to a different job and by denying him a promotion. While lower courts found that no retaliation had occurred, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, further ruling that Ceballos’s unwelcome memo was protected under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the grounds that the memo was not protected speech, and remanded the case for reconsideration.
In the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, the Court noted that the First Amendment would have protected Ceballos had he been penalized for articulating an unpopular view as a citizen, commenting on politics or other matters of public interest that any citizen might be concerned about, even if they were matters that fell within his particular expertise. Since he was expressing an opinion not as a concerned citizen but as part of his job as a government employee, and in a 5-to-4 decision, the justices concluded that on-the-job speech and writing of public employees are excluded from First Amendment protection.
In his dissent, Justice Souter expressed the fear -- voiced by a number of faculty groups once the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case -- that the ruling could dilute the academic freedom of instructors at public colleges. Addressing this concern, the Court’s opinion specifically sidesteps the issue of academic freedom, leaving it for another day, and another case: "There is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by this Court's customary employee-speech jurisprudence. We need not, and for that reason do not, decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching."
This apparent exception is being viewed both as a victory and as a challenge for academic freedom -- a victory because it specifically separates academic expression from the broad doctrine of work-related speech being laid down; a challenge because it leaves academic freedom hanging by what may prove to be a slender thread.
After reading Ceballos, instructors at public institutions could easily conclude that academic speech retains the special protections they have come to expect under the principles of academic freedom articulated by the AAUP and subscribed to by most public and private colleges. But to a less optimistic observer the academic freedom exception is a typical Court hedge: we’re not asked to decide whether academic speech is protected today, so we won't. Furthermore, the carefully qualified, almost skeptical, wording -- "there is some argument" that academic discourse "implicates additional constitutional interests" -- would seem to invite a test case to resolve the matter.
We may not have to wait long for such a case. Conservative activists are urging states to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights" aimed not at protecting academic speech but at ridding colleges of left-leaning faculty. The American Council of Alumni and Trustees has published a report critical of liberal faculty who replace traditional curricula with multiculturalism, Marxism, godlessness, and evolution. David Horowitz has published a list of the 100 most dangerous -- that is, liberal -- professors in the United States. And the Pennsylvania state legislature has set up a select committee to investigate the tyranny of the liberal elite who supposedly control that state’s public colleges.
With all this hoopla, so far there’s no evidence of a liberal plot to control academia and deny students an education, and so far there have been no prosecutions. But in such a climate -- one we haven’t seen since Senator McCarthy and HUAC took on the universities in the 1950s -- faculty can expect to be challenged, whether they are outspoken liberals or conservatives, or they go quietly about their teaching and research without making many waves; or they belong to the growing group of untenured, temporary, and part-time instructors afraid to say anything even with the protections of academic freedom, for fear they won’t be reappointed.
If a test case involving academic speech does arise, a Supreme Court already unwilling to extend First Amendment protection to public employees ranging from ADA’s to office clerks to medical personnel in state-run facilities could easily extend the doctrine espoused in Ceballos to the classroom.
But applying Ceballos to academic discourse produces unexpected results. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of speech. Both public and private employees, when acting as ordinary citizens rather than employees, enjoy First Amendment protection when they express opinions. Protections on employee speech are different. Employers have always been able to control the on-the-job discourse of workers, and the courts have typically supported them in that effort.
The Supreme Court’s new conservative majority ruled against Ceballos -- Justice Alito cast the deciding vote -- because he is an employee. That he is a government employee simply does not matter. Were Ceballos expressing a political opinion, his speech would be protected, but memos written as part of his job were not.
Using the same reasoning, the Court could just as easily decide that the political speech of academics is protected when it is not part of their job, but that anything academics say or write when they’re at work -- not just memos or e-mails to students, but their scholarship and their teaching -- actually falls outside the umbrella of the First Amendment.
Adding Ceballos to the mix of what’s protected and was isn’t could let whimsy and prejudice play a significant role in regulating academic speech, just as it now plays a role in regulating what happens to a district attorney who suggests that the police are fabricating evidence in order to get a search warrant. A department head, a dean, a provost, a president, even a trustee who doesn’t like what a faculty member says for any reason, academic, religious or political, could discipline the faculty member for it in the same way that Ceballos’s supervisors didn’t like his criticism of the police, and disciplined him.
Worse still, if a parent, a state legislator, or a watchdog group exerts pressure on the institution because of a faculty member’s professional positions on multiculturalism or postcolonialism, on evolution or the big bang, as stated not in letters to the editor or at town meetings, but in published research or in the classroom, the institution could decide to remove the pressure by silencing the speech.
Of course all of this is conjecture. There is no test case. The Supreme Court has not imperiled academic speech. Even the "Academic Bill of Rights" insists that its goal is to defend academic freedom, though the AAUP, whose principles of academic freedom are liberally co-opted in that document, is skeptical of that claim. But academics and Court watchers would do well to anticipate the chilling impact that the Ceballos decision will have, both in the district attorney’s office and beyond, effects that could eventually affect those of us who work in public institutions of higher education.
Dennis Baron is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.