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.
By all objective measures, the dawning of the 21st century should be a golden era for American higher education. A recent issue of The Economist described America’s system of higher education as “the best in the world” and provided convincing documentation for its claim. A recent review article by Jonathan Cole, provost at Columbia University, meticulously documents the preeminence of U.S. higher education in the world today as an established fact.
Perhaps sensing the current domestic political climate, however, Cole uses his analysis as the basis for sounding a strong cautionary note. “The United States paid a heavy price when the leaders of its research universities in the 1950’s failed to defend the leader of the Manhattan Project J. Robert Oppenheimer; the double Nobel Prize chemist Linus Pauling; and the China expert Owen Lattimore. But a wave of repression in American universities today is apt to have even more dramatic consequences for the nation than the repression of the Cold War.”
This broad-based and even global acclaim for higher education in the United States is strangely at odds with the concentrated political attacks that Cole warns us about and that the academy is currently experiencing. It is particularly out of step with the dark and dysfunctional picture of the academy painted by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. If Horowitz were simply a disaffected political crank, as many have hitherto regarded him, then his views on the academy could be easily dismissed. Such dismissal would seem to be all the more in order following his disastrous testimony before the legislative subcommittee in Pennsylvania in which he was forced to recant as unsubstantiated several of the cases that he had been widely circulating as documentation of alleged malfeasance in the academy.
Oddly, however, his campaign goes on. Horowitz, with assistance from Karl Rove and the former House majority whip, Tom DeLay, has briefed Republican members of Congress on his Academic Bill of Rights campaign and DeLay has even distributed copies of Horowitz’s political primer The Art of Political Warfare: How Republicans Can Fight to Win to all Republican members of Congress. Rove refers to Horowitz’s pamphlet as “a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield."
In a more recent development, last fall, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings appointed a Commission on Higher Education. Spellings, described as a protégé of Rove, gained considerable attention as the principal architect of President Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Among the proposals being discussed by Spellings’s new commission is one that calls for scrapping the current system of accreditation, which is done by independent regional bodies, in favor of a National Accreditation Foundation that would be created by Congress and the president.
The current system of institutional review through independent accreditation boards is one of the hallmarks of American higher education and is one of the most important structural safeguards of the academy’s ability to ensure academic quality and intellectual excellence. The introduction of oversight by an inherently partisan political body in lieu of the currently independent accreditation process is a peculiar remedy if the perceived ailment in the academy is political bias. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has said that “the commission is sending out firebolts, one after another." To chair this extraordinary committee Secretary Spellings chose Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and, historically, a large contributor to the President’s election campaigns.
The question of why the academy is under such focused and persistent attack by individuals like David Horowitz and his political supporters despite the fact that it appears to be an extraordinarily successful enterprise and an unrivaled resource for the nation is a question that many Americans are asking. In understanding the origins, scope and staying power of this attack it is crucial to understand not only the political relationships that Horowitz enjoys, but the sources of funding that created and sustain his Center for the Study of Popular Culture and its Academic Bill of Rights campaign. It is also critical to understand that the same funding sources that brought Horowitz’s organization into being, also created and sustain a large and integrated network of ideologically defined think tanks and centers both outside of and within the higher education establishment.
When Michael S. Joyce died in February 24, his death received scant attention in the mainstream press. Although very few people in academic circles are familiar with his name, he was, nonetheless, one of the foundational pillars of the current ideological attacks on the academy. A tribute to him by Peter Collier was published in FrontPage, Horowitz’s Web site. Joyce and his intellectual muse -- the late University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss -- would have been pleased by the level of anonymity that he maintained during his lifetime. Joyce's ability to maintain such anonymity despite the enormous influence that he wielded in shaping and developing the infrastructure of the neoconservative movement in this country is quite remarkable.
Although The Atlantic Monthly, as early as 1986, was describing Joyce as "one of the three individuals most responsible for the triumph of the conservative political movement," he nevertheless adhered rigorously to the secretive and profoundly antidemocratic principles advocated by the enigmatic Strauss. As characterized by Jeet Heer in The Boston Globe, Strauss held that "the best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind. Such a philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption.... For Strauss the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity."
In 1979, Michael Joyce entered the world of large-scale philanthropy with assistance from his mentor Irving Kristol, when he assumed the reins of the John M. Olin Foundation from the retiring president, William Simon. At Olin, one of Joyce’s first projects was to organize support for the launching of the Federalist Society. Joyce’s work in creating and fostering the development of the Federalist Society is instructive and foreshadows the role that he has played in current efforts by neoconservatives to restructure American higher education. The Federalist Society, with Joyce’s ongoing support, not only fostered the development of ultra-conservative legal scholars and politicians such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Samuel Alito, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Kenneth Starr (all of whom are members) but organized them into a powerful force for reshaping American jurisprudence in support of a larger neoconservative agenda.
Also significant in this regard is a report by Jerome Shestack, former president of the American Bar Association, that the Federalist Society is being increasingly being used as a platform from which to launch ideological attacks on the mainstream legal community. Through the device of the Federalist Society publication, ABA Watch, the society has launched a vicious attack on the ABA. In a special edition of the Watch, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), co-chair of the society, announced that he would no longer invite the ABA to participate on a pro forma basis in the Senate judicial confirmation process. Employing rhetoric eerily parallel to that being used in the current attacks on the academy, Justice Clarence Thomas openly denounced the ABA, declaring “I am doubtful that the ABA can ever reform itself.”
In her testimony before Pennsylvania's Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education, which convened in Philadelphia, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, expressed a similar sentiment as to the ability of the academy to reform itself. “Faced with growing legislative pressure on this issue, the higher education establishment issued the American Council on Education statement, figured it would pretend to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual diversity, get those yahoo legislators off their backs and go back to business as usual. DO NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS CHARADE.”
In 1985, Michael Joyce left the Olin Foundation to assume the presidency of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee. During this time, he not only built the Bradley Foundation into the largest and most influential right-wing foundation in the country, he also forged a formidable alliance among a small group of the nation’s largest, far right-wing foundations so that their resources could be more strategically deployed in support of the developing neoconservative agenda. Included in this alliance are the Koch Foundation (either directly or through its subsidiary the Claude Lambe Foundation), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors) and the Sarah Scaife Foundations (either directly or through its subsidiaries the Carthage Foundation and the Alleghany Foundation) which, together with Olin and Bradley, have collectively financed the rise of the neoconservative movement in this country and have done so with an impressive display tactical precision.
It is a telling marker of the ideological cohesiveness and extremism of this core group of philanthropies that three of the five founding members, Joseph Coors, David Koch and Harry Bradley, were members and financial supporters of the John Birch Society. The Scaife foundations, headed by Richard Mellon Scaife, are also involved, albeit in less direct ways.
The absence of formal organizational linkages between the entities within these networks creates an illusion of independent analytical voices reaching similar conclusions about strategic policy issues, a technique known in the public relations industry as “astroturfing.” This network has developed an enormous capacity to generate “data” consistent with the targeted political agenda and world views of its core group of funders to quickly and redundantly represent these issues in the mainstream press by what appear to be the voices of independent analysts and to translate these viewpoints into public policy that serves the focused ideological agenda of this core group of funders. The Bradley Foundation under Michael Joyce's leadership has even established a publishing house, Encounter Books, to ensure that grantees like Horowitz have a quasi-academic outlet for their viewpoints.
The degree of interconnectedness within this network of organizations is considerable but almost invisible to the casual observer. For example, when ACTA’s president, Anne Neal, introduced herself to the Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she presented ACTA as “a bipartisan network of college and university trustees and alumni across the country dedicated to academic freedom.”
Full disclosure should have required some mention of the fact that ACTA (see funding sources above), which changed its name from the National Alumni Forum in 1998, was established by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1994. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute in turn evolved from William Bennett’s Madison Center for Educational Affairs and the Institute for Educational Affairs founded by Irving Kristol, Michael Joyce’s mentor, and William Simon, the first president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Bennett and Kristol also sit on ACTA’s Board of Directors. The remarkably consistent record of funding across all of the incarnations of this organization and the high degree of redundancy with Horowitz’s own, highly partisan Center for the Study of Popular Culture is not consistent with Neal’s definition of ACTA as an independent, non-partisan organization.
Another example illustrative of the quietly incestuous nature of this network is presented by an article by the Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young. The article is entitled “Liberal bias in the ivory tower” and by all appearances is an independent opinion piece written by a regular Globe columnist. At the end of the article Young identifies herself as “a contributing editor at Reason Magazine.” What is undisclosed in the article is that Reason Magazine is the publication of the Reason Foundation, whose funding sources are virtually the same as those funding Horowitz’s "Academic Bill of Rights" project and Neal’s ACTA.
Young’s premise for the article is stated in her opening sentence: “Yet another study has come out documenting what most conservatives consider to be blindingly obvious: the leftwing tilt of the American professoriate.” The study that she references was conducted by Stanley Rothman, now emeritus professor at Smith College; S. Robert Lichter, emeritus professor at George Mason University; and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, and was published in the online journal Forum. This study was also cited by Neal in her testimony in Pennsylvania. Young does not inform her readers that Rothman is director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change, a center with funding sources that are remarkably redundant with Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Lichter is also president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which again has funding sources that are redundant with those referenced earlier.
In addition, a recent article in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is highly critical of Lichter’s research methodology. Another example of such conflicted interests is provided by Professor Thomas Reeves. When Reeves writes in strong support of Horowitz’s proposals on the History News Network, he fails to note that he is a spokesman for the California Association of Scholars, a branch of the National Association of Scholars (see funding sources above) and that he is director of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which was, again, brought into being by the Olin and Bradley Foundations.
This manufactured drumbeat against “academic bias” is amplified by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution (see funding sources above), Heather MacDonald, a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute (see funding sources above), and Brian C. Anderson, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a former research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (see funding sources above).
The relentlessness with which columnists and experts with direct funding relationships with Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Koch and Coors level charges of academic bias and assert the need for legislative reform of higher education is remarkable. The goal of this narrowly focused and ideologically driven public relations campaign can only be understood in terms of its fostering of a political climate in which federal regulatory “reform” of what is universally recognized as the finest system of higher education in the world, will be tolerated.
Indeed, as has been discussed, such regulatory oversight may already be in the offing. The academy stands today as one of the last spaces in America where the democratic ideas that shape the social, economic and political fabric of the nation can be openly and independently debated on the basis of their merits and without coercion or distortion from vested economic and political interests. It is certainly in the national interest that it remain such.
Alan Jones is dean of the faculty and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Pitzer College.
Ward Churchill should be fired for academic misconduct -- that’s the decision made by the interim chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, after receiving a report from a faculty committee concluding that Churchill is guilty of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. That report shows that, even under difficult political conditions, it’s possible to do a good job dealing with charges of research misconduct. The Colorado report on Churchill provides a striking contrast to the flawed 2002 Emory University report on Michael Bellesiles, the historian of gun culture in America, who was found guilty of “falsification” in one table. The contrast says a lot about the ways universities deal with outside pressure demanding that particular professors be fired.
Churchill is the Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at Colorado who famously declared that some of the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were “little Eichmanns.” In the furor that followed, the governor of Colorado demanded that the university fire Churchill; the president of the university defended his right to free speech, but then -- facing a series of controversies -- resigned. Churchill’s critics then raised charges that his writings were full of fabrications and plagiarism, and the university appointed a committee of faculty members to evaluate seven charges of specific instances of research misconduct. Their 124-page report, released on May 16, concluded that Churchill’s misconduct was serious and was not limited to a few isolated cases, but was part of a pattern. The panel divided on an appropriate penalty: one recommended revoking his tenure and dismissing him, two recommended suspension without pay for five years, while two others recommended that he be suspended without pay for two years.
One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan, an Indian tribe living in what is now North Dakota, who were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. The Mandan, Churchill argues, provide one example of how American Indians were the victims of genocide. In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?," he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim. Nevertheless Churchill repeated his argument in six publications over a period of ten years, during which his claims about official U.S. policy toward the Mandan “generally became more extreme.” He refused to admit to the committee that his claims were not supported by the evidence he cited. Therefore, the committee concluded, Churchill was guilty of “a pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification [and] fabrication.” The panel members came to similar conclusions regarding five other charges.
The five-member Colorado committee worked under a cloud: The only reason they were asked to look at his academic writing was that powerful political voices outside the university wanted Churchill fired for his statement about 9/11. After the university refused to fire him for statements protected by the First Amendment, his critics raised charges of research misconduct, hoping to achieve their original goal. What are the responsibilities of an investigating committee in such a highly-charged political situation?
In this respect the Ward Churchill case has some striking similarities to the case Michael Bellesiles, who was an Emory University historian when he wrote Arming America, a book that won considerable scholarly praise when it first appeared -- and that aroused a storm of outrage because of its argument that our current gun culture was not created by the Founding Fathers. Pro-gun activists demanded that Emory fire Bellesiles, raising charges of research misconduct. Historians too sharply criticized some of his research. Emory responded by appointing a committee that found “evidence of falsification;" Bellesiles then resigned his tenured position.
Although the cases have some striking similarities, starting with the political pressures that gave rise to the investigations and concluding with findings of “falsification,” the differences are significant and revealing. The Emory committee concluded that Bellesiles’ research into probate records was “unprofessional and misleading” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his earlier explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity." But the panel found “evidence of falsification” only on one page: Table 1, “Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.” They did not find that he had “fabricated data.” The “falsification” occurred when Bellesiles omitted two years from the table, which covered almost a century -- 1765 to 1859. The two years, 1774 and 1775, would have shown more guns, evidence against his thesis that Americans had few guns before the Civil War.
But the Emory committee failed to consider how significant this omission was for the book as a whole. In fact the probate research criticized by the committee was referred to in only a handful of paragraphs in Bellesiles’s 400 page book, and he cited the problematic Table 1 only a couple of times. If Bellesiles had omitted all of the probate data that the committee (and others) criticized, the book’s argument would still have been supported by a wide variety of other relevant evidence that the committee did not find to be fraudulent.
The Colorado committee, in contrast, made it a point to go beyond the narrow charges they were asked to adjudicate. They acknowledged that the misconduct they found concerned “no more than a few paragraphs” in an “extensive body of academic work.” They explicitly raised the question of “why so much weight is being assigned to these particular pieces.” They went on to evaluate the place of the misconduct they found in Churchill’s “broader interpretive stance,” and presented evidence of “patterns of academic misconduct” that were intentional and widespread.
The two committees also took dramatically different approaches to the all-important question of sanctions. At Emory the committee members never said what they considered an appropriate penalty for omitting 1774 and 1775 from his Table 1. They did not indicate whether any action by Emory was justified -- or whether the harsh criticism Bellesiles received from within the profession was penalty enough.
The Colorado committee members, in contrast, devoted four single-spaced pages to “The Question of Sanctions.” They insisted that the university “resist outside interference and pressures” when a final decision on Churchill was made. Those favoring the smallest penalty, suspension without pay for two years, declared they were “troubled by the circumstances under which these allegations have been made,” and concerned that dismissal “would have an adverse effect on the ability of other scholars to conduct their research with due freedom.” These important issues needed to be raised, and they were.
Finally, the Colorado committee explicitly discussed the political context of their work, while the Emory committee failed to do so. The Colorado report opened with a section titled simply “Context.” It said “The committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation.” The key, they said, was that their investigation “was only commenced after, and perhaps in some response to, the public attack on Professor Churchill for his controversial publications.” But, they said, because the claims of academic misconduct were serious, they needed to be investigated fully and fairly.
The basic problem with the Emory report was that it accepted the terms of debate set by others, and thereby abdicated responsibility to work independently and to consider the significance of the findings. Their inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes were high; instead they limited their examination to a few pages in a great big book. Colorado shows how to avoid the kind of tunnel vision that marred the Emory report. The report on Ward Churchill demonstrates that charges of research misconduct that arise in a heated political environment can be addressed with intelligence and fairness.
Conservatives regularly complain about the dominance of the political left on American college campuses. They are right that this is a serious problem -- for us, for our students, and for the country. But the most vocal critics are wrong about the cause of this liberal ascendancy, which is why their preferred solution, the enactment into law of an "Academic Bill of Rights" to forbid discrimination against conservatives in hiring and promotion, will not bring about any real improvement.
That professors as a group are to the left of the population as a whole cannot seriously be denied. Several recent studies employing a variety of different methodologies all reach essentially the same result: liberals outnumber conservatives on college faculties by at least five or six to one. The first reaction I usually get when I tell people I'm a Republican and a college professor is bewilderment, followed by such questions as: "How is that possible?" (usually from someone on the left who assumes that to be smart and well educated is to be liberal) and "Do they allow that these days?" (from someone on the right who assumes that academic conservatives invariably suffer discrimination).
Although some vocal conservatives complain that liberal faculty members use their classrooms to indoctrinate students and to punish dissenting students by giving them poor grades, my own experience suggests that such incidents are quite rare. In my 20-plus years as a conservative student and teacher at three strongly left-leaning institutions (Princeton, Harvard, and Colby), I have never felt discriminated against. I have only once witnessed an overtly propagandizing classroom presentation, and have I only once heard a student complain about being graded unfairly for not hewing to the professor's party line.
Overt discrimination against conservatives is not a widespread problem, I suspect, because the overwhelming majority of faculty and administrators at places like Colby are, in fact, deeply committed to the ideals of free inquiry and fair treatment for all. Like most other institutions of higher learning in the United States, Colby accepts the American Association of University Professors' Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That statement explicitly affirms the freedom of researchers and teachers to seek the truth and of students freely to pursue the truth. That statement explicitly warns that classroom teachers "should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."
The dominance of the political left on our campuses poses another danger, which should be much more troubling than the occasional incidents of overt discrimination or indoctrination that from time to time occur. That danger is the ever-increasing cultural marginalization of academe, which threatens intellectual impoverishment to all of us -- professors, students, and ordinary citizens alike. There was a time, not that long ago, when leading figures in higher education served as public intellectuals, addressing the vital issues of their day and receiving a respectful hearing from political leaders and the public at large. These days, if a professor from any field outside the hard sciences is being quoted in the media, odds are good that it's for the purpose of ridicule.
Academics are fond of lamenting the decline of the public intellectual, but we too often blame the public for having forsaken us without asking whether it is not we who have forsaken the public. The central problem with academe today is that we overwhelmingly speak professionally only to other academics, who share our sense of what questions are important and our wider range of values and commitments. Academe has continued to move ever further to the cultural and political left not through any overt discrimination against conservatives but through a decades-long process of self-selection.
Left-leaning professors tend to address questions that interest them, with the predictable though not intended consequence of inspiring their left-leaning students and leaving their more conservative students indifferent or disenchanted with academe. Is it any surprise that smart young liberals get Ph.D.'s and become liberal professors, while smart young conservatives tend to pursue careers in business or the other professions instead? I have no doubt that academe will never again become central to American cultural life as long as professors continue to represent such a narrow spectrum of political affiliations and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, our problems cannot be solved by party politics or by legislation and lawsuits.
Instead, those of us in the academy need to do a better job of remembering that the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom also commits us to put the common good ahead of personal and institutional advancement. We should, therefore, strive always to speak to a wider audience beyond the inbred confines of academe. To those conservative and religious students who feel marginalized at college, I say: Stop complaining and start studying; become professors, and teach the classes you wish had been offered when you were in college.
Joseph Reisert is the Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law and chair of the Government department at Colby College. A version of this piece was originally published in Maine's Morning Sentinel.
One obstacle to reasonable public and scholarly dialogue on the alleged political biases of liberal or leftist professors has been the tendency of David Horowitz, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and many of their allies to fall into various versions of the ad populum fallacy, to the effect that there is something wrong with professors because they are out of step with the majority of the American people, who (at least in public institutions) pay their salary through taxes. Thus Larry Mumper, the Republican introducing Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” in the Ohio legislature, asked in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” The implication is that professors and their students should tailor their political views to follow the latest public opinion polls or election results.
Politicians like Mumper, along with many media blowhards and members of the public who revile professors, appear to have little more familiarity with the nature of humanistic scholarship than they do with that of brain surgery -- though they would not presume to tell brain surgeons how they should operate, even in a tax-supported hospital. The former field is at the disadvantage that it addresses public issues on which everyone does and should have an opinion. There is a difference, however, between just any such opinions and those derived from standards of professional accreditation (upwards of 10 years graduate study for a Ph.D. and 7 more for tenure), systematic scholarship, and academic discourse. That discourse is based on the principles of reasoned argument, rules of evidence and research procedures, wide reading and experience, an historical perspective on current events, open-minded pursuit of complex, often-unpopular truths, and openness to diverse viewpoints. (For a fuller, excellent discussion of the differences between popular and academic discourse, see “From Ideology to Inquiry,” by Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich). This also means that academic discourse should stand independent from government pressure and public opinion, in a similar manner to the ideal of a free, independent press. That is why taxpayers should be willing to support the autonomy of the academy, within reasonable limits, whether or not it agrees with their personal views.
I have spent 30-some years in conservative communities and state universities, teaching lower-division English argumentative writing and literary history courses that are general education requirements for students in business or technological majors, many of whom would not have chosen to take any such courses and resent them as increasingly costly obstacles to the most direct path to a high-paying job. Most such students are conservative, not in any intellectual sense, but in the sense (which they admit) of fearfully conforming to the political and economic status quo, to the attitudes that will be expected of them as compliant employees, and to the necessity of looking out for number one in the “Survivor” sweepstakes of the global economy. Such students are not likely to welcome the cognitive dissonance forced on them by humanities courses demanding Socratic self-questioning of their sociopolitical or religious dogmas, and they are wont to express their resentment, if not in complaints to Horowitz, in the course evaluations that have been debased into consumer-satisfaction surveys in which the top-ranked teachers provide the fewest demands and the highest grades.
Now, we might expect both liberal and conservative scholars and other intellectuals to agree, at the least, in opposition to all of these forces that are detrimental to humanistic education. Conservative disciples of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Leo Strauss, and Allan Bloom decry the contamination of both elite education and enlightened government by the ignorant masses and “philistine” (in Arnold’s term) commercial interests. Conservative intellectuals from the early formulators of neoconservatism like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer to recent figures like spokespersons for the National Association of Scholars, Lynne Cheney (when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities), and even Horowitz have positioned themselves as champions of high academic standards, the humanistic traditions of Western Civilization, and Arnoldian disinterestedness -- against the alleged debasement of those principles by academic and cultural leftists. Shouldn’t they be equally outspoken against the debasement of higher education by turning it over to public opinion polls, partisan legislation, job training and other service to corporations or professions, and student-consumer popularity contests, as well as by ever-mounting tuition and declining financial aid restricting access to the wealthy and white (except for varsity athletes, of course)?
To the contrary of the facile equation, by some conservative and left intellectuals alike, of “the Western humanistic tradition,” with political conservatism, we liberal scholars have on our side the central role in that tradition of dissent and resistance to the authority of governments, churches, the wealthy, and majority opinion. We invoke Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment skepticism in urging his nephew Peter Carr, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” And we cite Jefferson’s model of tax-funded, free, universal public education through the university level, which, if it had been adopted nationally, “would have raised the mass of people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government; and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists.” (That is, the aristocracy of merit over that of wealth and hereditary power.)
We also invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations for scholars and other intellectuals to “defer never to the popular cry,” to stand up against majority opinion, unjust governmental power (specifically on issues of his time like support for slavery and the Mexican-American War), and corporate plutocracy; in “The American Scholar” he speaks of “the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” We follow Emerson up with his disciple Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” (“There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business”), and “Civil Disobedience”: “Why does [government] not cherish its wise minority?.... Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”
This conception of liberal education as a minimal counter-force to the political and economic status quo, as well as to majority opinion, is fraught with difficulties and possible abuses, to be sure. Can we, or should we, avoid revealing our own moral or political sympathies in class? Should we, for example, teach Plato, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau (or Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King) as inspirations for existential moral choices, or simply as subjects of neutral study, perhaps as representatives of a particular viewpoint or “bias,” always to be balanced against sources on “the other side,” including equal time for defenses of slavery and segregation? Moral judgments are of course less disputable in reference to such past conflicts than to present ones like the war in Iraq or affirmative action; neither conservative nor liberal polemicists have provided a clear road map for how teachers should deal with current moral disputes and public opinion about them.
In broader terms, both conservative and liberal educators have long lamented the political illiteracy of the American public in general and college students in particular. However, amid all the mutual recriminations about this and related issues in academic politics, there has been sadly little constructive discussion of the appropriate time, place, and manner for the fostering of civic literacy in either secondary or college education. My impression is that the exhortations of NAS, ACTA, and other conservative educators for core liberal arts curriculum and more requirements in history -- with which I happen to agree -- fall short of outlining a coherent curriculum and pedagogy for critical citizenship. (On the flip side, many liberal advocates of multiculturalism and diversity have failed to delineate what kind of studies American students of all ethnic, gender, and social-class groups need for minimal common knowledge as citizens.) In such a curriculum and pedagogy, students would not merely be indoctrinated into American chauvinism and simplistic “virtues,” as some on the right advocate, but would be encouraged to think critically about competing ideological or moral viewpoints (in party politics, journalistic and entertainment media, as well as scholarly sources) about American and world history, as well as about the present world.
The pedagogical approach that I personally have developed over the years applies Gerald Graff’s principle of “teaching the conflicts,” in presenting students out front with the current debates on such issues and disclosing my own left-of-liberal viewpoint on them, as exactly that -- one perhaps biased viewpoint among other possible ones, to be understood in relation to opposing ones and studied through the best conservative vs. liberal or leftist research sources that students can find, leaving it up to them to evaluate the opposing arguments, and grading them on their skill in researching and analyzing sources. I do not claim that mine is a foolproof approach, but most of my students have found it a fair one throughout the years, and I have heard few alternatives, especially from conservative educators.
There are daunting problems here in persuading the public, politicians, and students to respect academic expertise, autonomy, and the role of higher education as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic. At the same time, scholars have a responsibility to show consideration and discretion toward public opinion, and toward students who dissent from our opinions. But cannot conservative and liberal scholars at least join in endorsing these general principles, while scrupulously addressing the difficulties in implementing them, through civil dialogue? And shouldn’t some of the foundations, professional organizations, or government agencies that have channeled their resources into partisan battles in the culture wars be willing to sponsor a bipartisan task force pursuing such a dialogue in quest of resolutions to these problems?
Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm Publishers).
Academic freedom is under attack on college campuses across the country. The “Academic Bill of Rights,” authored by David Horowitz, seems to be motivated by a concern that some professors are turning their classrooms into personal forums in which they force-feed their students a liberal political dogma unrelated to the subject matter of the course.
Horowitz’s attempt to involve legislatures in addressing what is clearly an academic issue is not only a dangerous precedent, but unnecessary as well. It is dangerous because it threatens the freedom of inquiry and critical thinking that we strive to achieve through open discussion of controversial issues. And it is unnecessary because we have in place institutional guidelines and professional standards that, when properly applied, provide balance without destroying the spontaneity and intellectual stimulation that is currently found in our classrooms.
The real problem that needs to be addressed is the growing gap in the understanding of the concept of academic freedom shared -- or more often not shared -- by faculty and administrators. Matters of institutional policy proposed by academic administrators are increasingly -- and frequently without justification -- condemned by professors as infringements on their rights.
A few examples provide an enlightening illustration. These examples involve what are mistakenly seen as academic freedom issues, providing a sense of how broadly many faculty interpret the concept and the rights it creates.
My current university for many years has provided an e-mail list service open to all faculty and staff for virtually any purpose: to post notices, advertise items for sale, express opinions on any topic, and to disseminate official university announcements. As the volume of garage sale ads grew and the expression of opinions became increasingly vitriolic, many faculty and staff members elected to filter out messages from the list service, with the result that they did not receive official announcements.
As a solution to this problem, university administrators created a second list service limited to official announcements, in which all employees would participate without the option of unsubscribing. The original open list remained available to all who chose to participate. In response to this action, one faculty member sent a message to the entire university (on the pre-existing list service) denouncing the change as a violation of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, because the “official” announcements would first be screened by the University Relations Office before being posted.
A second example: At my former university, in response to concerns over a high rate of attrition between the freshman and sophomore year, the deans proposed a policy whereby each instructor in a lower division course would be required to provide students with some type of graded or appropriately evaluated work product by the end of the sixth week of a 15-week semester. The stated purpose of the policy was to identify students at risk early enough to help them bring their grades up to a C or better. (The original proposal also included the suggestion that faculty members work with students to develop a plan to improve their performance, but that was quickly taken off the table when faculty complained of an increase in their workload without additional compensation.)
When this proposal was discussed among the faculty, several complained that the scheduling of exams was a faculty prerogative protected by academic freedom, and that any attempt by university administrators to mandate early feedback to students was an infringement upon that right. Those who spoke out did not object to the concept of early feedback -- they just didn’t want to be told they had to do it.
Another example: At the same institution, in preparation for its decennial review by the regional accrediting body, the vice president for academic affairs began to assemble the mountains of documents required for that review, including a syllabus for every course offered. The accrediting organization guidelines list 11 items recommended for inclusion in every course syllabus, and the vice president duly notified the faculty, through the deans and department chairs, of this recommendation.
The response of a surprising number of the faculty members was to argue that what goes into their syllabus is a matter of academic freedom, not subject to the mandate of the vice president or the accreditor. Again, their complaints did not seem to be directed at the suggested content, but rather they were opposed to being told what they must put in their syllabi.
The concept of academic freedom is often viewed as an extension of the rights granted under the First Amendment, applicable within the limited context of the educational system. One of the earliest definitions of academic freedom is found in the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The discussion is framed in terms of the freedom of the individual faculty member to pursue his or her research and teaching interests without interference from “outsiders,” whether they be members of the institution’s governing body or the public at large.
As an indication of how far the pendulum has swung in the 90 years since the AAUP Declaration was written, in 1915 the authors expressed concern that “where the university is dependent for funds upon legislative favor, ... the menace to academic freedom may consist in the repression of opinions that in the particular political situation are deemed ultra-conservative rather than ultra-radical.” But the authors correctly point out that “whether the departure is in the one direction or the other is immaterial.”
As appealing as the principle embodied in the AAUP Declaration may be to many academic administrators and to most, if not all, professors, that principle has not found favor in American jurisprudence. Academic freedom is not mentioned directly in the U.S. Constitution or in any federal statute. It was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1957 case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire, when Justice Felix Frankfurter defined the four elements of academic freedom as: “the freedom of an institution to decide who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Note that this definition places the bundle of rights that make up academic freedom in the institution, not the individual faculty member.
It is a huge leap from the AAUP Declaration to the contention that a policy requiring a graded work product by the sixth week or mandating 11elements in every syllabus is an abridgment of the faculty’s constitutional rights, not to mention the claim that university administrators have no right to screen what goes out to the campus community as an official university announcement.
The problem, of course, goes much deeper. The real difficulty is that on many campuses throughout the country, the expanding concept of academic freedom has created an expectation of total individual autonomy. Our concept of faculty status seems to have evolved from one of employee to that of an independent contractor offering private tutorials to the institution’s students using the institution’s resources, but unfettered by many of the institution’s policies.
Lest any of us grow accustomed to this new order, it is instructive to see what one federal court has said about the limits to academic freedom. In the case of Urofsky v. Gilmore, a prominent legal scholar challenged a state policy aimed at restricting the use of state-owned computers by public employees to visit pornographic Web sites. The faculty member made the by now familiar claim that access to such information for teaching or research is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, and falls within the scope of the individual faculty right to academic freedom.
The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that academic freedom is not an individual right, but one that belongs to the institution, and in this case the institution (Virginia Commonwealth University) is an extension of the state. In the court’s words, “to the extent the Constitution recognizes any right of ‘academic freedom’ above and beyond the First Amendment rights to which every citizen is entitled, the right inheres in the university, not in individual professors....” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review this decision, thereby allowing it to stand. And while it is binding legal precedent only for federal courts in the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia), this decision will serve as a powerful influence on other courts throughout the country.
The court’s conclusion was a shock to many of us, administrators and faculty members alike. Even more troubling is the court’s statement that “the [Supreme] Court has never recognized that professors possess a First Amendment right of academic freedom to determine for themselves the content of their courses and scholarship, despite opportunities to do so.” But as offensive as this statement may seem to some, it could have an unintended and beneficial consequence of bringing faculty and administrators closer together in recognizing their common bonds and in working toward achieving common goals for the good of their colleges and universities.
When faculty members recognize that there are limits to academic freedom, and that the rights ultimately reside with the institution, there is a powerful incentive to work with academic administrators to reach consensus on policies that will achieve important goals. And even if administrators feel emboldened by what may at first be perceived as a weakening of the individual faculty member’s freedom, every seasoned academic administrator knows that without faculty cooperation and support, even the most well-intentioned policy cannot succeed.
John Friedl is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Public Administration and Nonprofit Management, and the Department of Accounting and Finance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has previously served as both a dean and a provost.
If you have not yet heard about Michael Bérubé’s What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education, recently published by W.W. Norton, then chances are you also haven’t seen the author’s blog, which has been advertising the book heavily for weeks now, albeit with tongue sometimes in cheek. Over the past two or three years, Bérubé’s Web site has turned into a rallying point for those fighting off David Horowitz’s so-called Academic Bill of Rights (perhaps the finest bit of political word-magic since Stalin created the “peoples democratic republics” of Eastern Europe). The blog itself is part of what is now sometimes called the “netroots” of the Democratic Party, although Bérubé himself is slightly more disposed to working out a position on the multivalence of the signifier than on, say, ethanol subsidies.
In other words, What’s Liberal looks, at first, like a book written with a definite constituency in mind. So does Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities, out next month from the University of North Carolina Press -- a volume of Bérubé’s pieces that originally appeared in academic journals and popular magazines as well as the blog.
So all the familiar worries about the echo-chamber effect of new (or “niche”) media come to mind. You know what to expect from a certain kind of title that has become very familiar over the past few years: the op-ed in a fat suit, the sermon to the choir, the repetitious but morale-boosting statement of why "we’re right, they’re wrong." There are right-wing and left-wing versions of such books. You see them glaring at one another across the aisles at the bookstores. Sometimes they even mimic one another’s covers – either to heighten the spirit of antagonism, or just from a lack of originality, not that the distinction matters too much.
A reader of Bérubé’s blog quickly learns that satire is one of his default modes. (Upon being listed by Horowitz as one of the academe’s “dangerous professors,” he announced that his field was “dangeral studies.”) Sitting down to read What’s Liberal, I anticipated that there would be sarcasm, and plenty of it.
Parody and irony have their uses; at times, no other tools will do the trick. But as modes of argument, they tend not to be especially generous toward an opponent. They tend to reinforce the mentality common to the “we’re right, they’re wrong”-type books, for which the line between “us” and “them” is bright and clear. Reading Bérubé, I expected fireworks. Or, more accurately, dynamite -- an exercise in cultural and political demolition.
But in fact, no. The relationship between the book and the blog is not straightforward. And while each might be an example of a public intellectual at work, the contrast between them is a reminder that perhaps we should keep in mind the expression C. Wright Mills sometimes used: “publics,” for there is more than one kind.
What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? assumes the existence of a large, smart, but ambivalent (or frankly confused) audience of people who have heard about the arguments over "bias" in higher education, but not taken sides.
The author assumes on the part of the reader both skepticism and an open mind. He is canny enough a rhetorician then implicitly to equate both skepticism and open-mindedness with liberalism itself (properly understood).
There is also a steady effort to dispel fantasies about the university as a place somehow radically different from other scenes of white-collar life. It is true that the ranks of academics includes "our occasional cranks, our poseurs, our bloviators, our pedants, and a couple of those people who are just impossible to work with,” he writes, “but in this respect, we’re very much like any other workplace -- except for the pedants, who are relatively more numerous on campus than off."
And while admitting that, yes, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in institutions of higher learning, the differences don’t automatically correspond to attitudes toward curriculum. “It is not uncommon,” he writes, “to find that the department’s gay, pony-tailed, hemp-wearing poet insists that today’s students simply must be grounded in a series of required 'core' courses in British literary history, whereas the lone suit-and-tie Rockefeller Republican is arguing that the English major should have no requirements whatsoever.”
The book covers quite a lot of ground. It debunks some of the more heavily publicized but fact-free accusations regarding the persecution of conservative students; acknowledges the embarrassments of the “Monty Python left” of Ward Churchill and friends; and describes what it’s like to teach The Rise of Silas Lapham to undergraduates who almost never actually like the book. It also offers a pretty compelling and accessible account of what’s at stake in the Habermas-Lyotard debate over the incommensurability of discourses, with special reference to the debate over foot massages in the opening section of Pulp Fiction.
And there’s more besides. None of it seems random or episodic. All of it serves, rather, to show that higher education is much less homogenous -- or for that matter, ideology-minded -- than certain propagandists make it look. Any informed account of academe must stress on the "variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty" it shares with the rest of life in an affluent society. (I borrow that phrase from Lionel Trilling, who was either a liberal or a neoconservative depending on the angle from which you looked at him.)
"Universities," writes Bérubé in a passage that sums up an important strand of his argument, "even private universities, are thoroughly and complexly interwoven into what remains of the public sector of the United States, and their relative economic health, together with their extraordinary capacity to generate economic wealth (if you’re interested in that kind of thing), provides powerful testimony to the wisdom and the long-term structural soundness of the mixed free-market/welfare state economy. So America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons -- our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of received authority -- but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us because we work so well."
That is not a perspective that gets usually expressed when culture warriors go to battle. But I suspect (and, frankly, hope) it may get a hearing among other sorts of people. Newspaper editors, for example, and state legislators. And smart high school students, not to mention their parents.
For more on What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? -- as well as a little about Rhetorical Occasions, which covers many of the same issues at a postgraduate level -- you might want to listen to this podcast of my recent interview with Michael Bérubé.