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.
Like most of us in academe, I move in a number of educational circles. There are my colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University, my wife’s colleagues at Wingate University, and a host of others. I recently made a decision to try and expand my educational circle somewhat. I am running in a non-partisan election for a seat on the Union County, N.C. Board of Education. In doing so, I have begun to learn just how hard it is to run a campaign -- something that I should probably confess to not doing entirely well. Live and learn.
One of the things that I have been most surprised to learn has nothing to do with all the minutiae of campaigning. The thing that surprised me most was the reaction of my colleagues when they have heard I am running. They are proud of me with a reaction that almost borders on awe. This awe, however, is not entirely comforting. As best I can describe it, it is the awe reserved for martyrs and those who succeed through some slight madness that sets them apart. And before that sounds like it is going too far, the standard response to learning that I have thrown my hat into the ring is begins with something like “Good for you.” Almost immediately after this, however, comes the question, “What possessed you to run for office?” (The alternate is a reflection on what a thankless job it will be.)
Pay attention to that word possessed -- the one with religious and/or demonic overtones and the implication that no sane person would do this.
When it came up in my classes (I don’t teach in Union County so I don’t have to worry about a potential conflict of interest.), the students were more excited. They wanted to know why I was running and what I stood for. They wanted to know what motivated me. “Why did you choose to run?” replaced questions that implied a loss of mental control.
As I thought about this, I began to realize that I was looking at something that went beyond collegial humor and the wry cynicism that academics are famous for developing as a part of their pursuit of something like objectivity. I suspect that I am looking at a flaw in the way the academy approaches politics.
Because of the ongoing examination of the academy by groups concerned with whether there are a bunch of tenured radicals corrupting America’s youth, most of the discussion has been about whether or not professors are trying to indoctrinate their students in one political belief or another in their classrooms. This is, of course, an important concern. If an instructor cannot maintain a separation of our personal politics and our professional obligations, that instructor needs to learn to do so quickly.
But not all political activity is equal and we need to learn to embrace some of it for the benefit of our classrooms.
One of the big movements currently circulating in academe is the move towards “active and collaborative learning” -- a movement being simultaneously developed by academics as a way to improve student learning and a movement consistent with the Department of Education’s interest in seeing more measurable results of what goes in college classrooms. There are books and journals devoted to the study of these approaches and techniques. Several of these techniques, at their core, rely on modeling.
Now with that in mind, consider this: How often do we tell students that they need to vote and participate in their civic lives. How often do we assign plays like Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People or essays like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then discuss the issues of war and civil rights that swirled around them yet limit the realm or discussion to the purely academic?
They often hear us speak. They do not often hear about what we do.
So long as we do not model behavior, students will not see anyone participating in the civic realm. The politicians they see on television aren’t real to them. They do not regularly see a person that they know and can personally identify with actively engaging in the civic discourse or hear about the struggle to choose the best course of action to make our towns better from an array of bad options.
What I am advocating here is not something tied to one party or political philosophy. Whether you are a left-leaning anthropology professor or a member of the right of center business school set, we should all be active participants in the civic realm and, importantly, our students should know that those activities are a part of our lives.
For those of you still worried about the long term effects of possession, this doesn’t mean you need to need to run for political office. There is a host of ways to be engaged. It could be something as simple as getting up extra early on Election Day and making sure that you are still wearing the “I Voted” sticker given to you at the polls when you ask your students if they have voted. I’m not saying to ask who they voted for, just whether they had voted. It could be letting them know about the civic or volunteer responsibilities you dealt with last night or over the weekend. You may, in fact, already be doing some of these things.
I know what some of you are saying. We are, on the whole, an overworked and underpaid profession and none of us have the time to put something else on our plate. The truth of the matter is that, unless they are CEO's or come from money, most of the people who are entering local politics are in the same boat. I have heard stories in the political circles I have begun to move in of people dipping into their home’s equity or retirement funds to finance some of their campaigns. While you may not want to make that kind of a sacrifice, you can still make a difference in the life of your students and your community just by making an attempt.
There is a final reason we, as a profession, need to become more engaged -- one that we need to consider and consider quickly. We won’t get the problems faced by the academy solved by the “them” in government until we meet “them” and find out that they are us.
Matthew M. DeForrest
Matthew M. DeForrest is assistant professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University.
I was in a white clapboard building recently, near one of the many railroad tracks that crisscross central Illinois. The building was part of one of several church properties in Champaign-Urbana and its neighboring towns. I was there to teach a class on modern American poetry at a 12-month Christ-centered substance abuse rehabilitation program. The table dominating the room was being cleared of lunch when I arrived. Most of the men introduced themselves with their full names as I walked around and greeted them, but once at the table they were Brother Jones or Brother Green. Then we sat down, 10 African-American men and me around a wooden seminar table with photocopies of the poems I had assigned. The coordinator of the class -- or reading group -- is a tenured faculty member at a nearby university. Next semester the project will be supported by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, but my time and that of the other teachers was volunteered and will remain so.
I was invited to teach one of the two-hour sessions by a colleague. Some months ago I explained that I would focus on African-American poems about religion, some deeply grounded in religious faith, others critical of organized religion. This debate about religion among African American poets has a long history, as I explained to the participants. It is deeply felt and surely one of the impressive legacies of the last hundred years of our literary history.
One of the men soon volunteered that some of the poems made him angry. I said that was exactly right. Some black American writers felt sustained by the church, others felt betrayed, but none were writing merely to reassure us. They wanted us to respond powerfully. We certainly did not have to agree with them. We could take up our place in the debate. I explained that many people assumed poetry was a much milder art form. Not so, I argued, and these poems proved the point. They compressed the writers' views and made them available to us in telling language. The group had read Langston Hughes' "Christ in Alabama" and "Goodbye Christ," Amiri Baraka's "When We Worship Jesus," and Carolyn Rodgers' powerfully pro-Christian poems "when the revolution comes" and "mama's god."
I pride myself in being able to enter these poets' worlds and embody their disparate convictions. But on this December day I did not have a chance. Fifteen minutes into the session the reverend arrived and pulled me aside:
Reverend: "I cannot have these men exposed to this language and these ideas."
CN: "I'm letting them enter into this long-running debate, and I'll be very positive about the pro-religious poems. Let me go through the poems for you and show you what I plan to say about them."
Reverend: "I don't care. These men cannot read things like this. They have to get grounded."
CN: "I'm sure they see much worse on television and saw much worse on the streets."
Reverend: "They only watch the programs I let them watch. They don't read newspapers. Tell me the role of faith in your life."
CN: "Well, I believe in the pursuit of justice and in human decency."
Reverend: "You're not really telling me about your faith."
CN: "I suppose not. Look, this is about academic freedom."
Reverend: "Not here."
CN: "I'm the president of the American Association of University Professors. We've defined academic freedom for nearly a hundred years."
Reverend: "Not here. I decide what gets taught. I approve what they read. I'm ordering you to leave the building."
Since it was a private facility I left as ordered. But the program is to be funded with public money, and the Illinois Humanities Council was assured free speech was guaranteed in the classes. It is not. Indeed others have suggested the students were under pressure not to disagree with church doctrine. This is precisely why the separation of church and state is established in the United States Constitution, though there is reason to doubt President Bush is comfortable with the concept.
Although it was humiliating to be ordered out of a class I was teaching, it was also instructive. Though this local minister was not quite a prince of the church, it was still my first experience of being silenced by church authority. I naively assumed that clearing my lesson plan with the course coordinator was all I needed to do to guarantee my freedom. I naively assumed, adapting Gertrude Stein, that a classroom is a classroom is a classroom. I've not been silenced before or had the experience of being thrown out of the classroom in nearly 40 years of teaching. Other faculty members are not so lucky. Many religiously oriented colleges and universities would never conduct business so crudely. But some do. Any doubters might begin by reading the AAUP's investigative report on Brigham Young University. That is why we remain vigilant.
The reverend made it clear -- though he didn't use the word -- that indoctrination had to precede exposure to the free market of ideas. Students had to have their responses preprogrammed before they could be allowed to encounter secular culture. My own view is that these men -- in their 20s, 30s and 40s -- could read Langston Hughes and still side with Carolyn Rodgers. She concludes one poem with the lines "when mama prayed, she knew who she / was praying to and who she was praying to / didn't and ain't got / no color." I wanted them to hear the lines read aloud and discussed, because they are lines every American churchgoer should hear. These are lines these men could use in their encounters thereafter. But academic freedom did not carry the day.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.