A Call to Defend Academic Freedom

Leading academics band together to decry outside interference in tenure reviews, especially in cases involving scholars of the Middle East.
October 23, 2007

Saying that they are fed up with "aggressive incursion of partisan politics into universities' hiring and tenure practices," five prominent academics have issued a call to "defend the university" and gathered dozens of backers in what they view as a new way to bolster academic freedom.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University has issued a statement and is asking professors and others to sign on.

"In recent years, universities across the country have been targeted by outside groups seeking to influence what is taught and who can teach. To achieve their political agendas, these groups have defamed scholars, pressured administrators, and tried to bypass or subvert established procedures of academic governance," the statement says. "As a consequence, faculty have been denied jobs or tenure, and scholars have been denied public platforms from which to share their viewpoints. This violates an important principle of scholarship, the free exchange of ideas, subjecting them to ideological and political tests. These attacks threaten academic freedom and the core mission of institutions of higher education in a democratic society."

While the statement identifies the problem as a broad one, it notes that many of the recent incidents have involved the Middle East. "Many of the most vociferous campaigns targeting universities and their faculty have been launched by groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel. These groups have targeted scholars who have expressed perspectives on Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which they disagree. To silence those they consider their political enemies, they have used a range of tactics," including "unfounded insinuations or allegations" of anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism, the broadening of the definition of anti-Semitism to include "teaching that is critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and of Israel," and "pressures on university administrations by threatening to withhold donations if faculty they have targeted are hired or awarded tenure."

The statement goes on to call for professors to resist such outside pressure. "Academic freedom means not only the right to pursue a variety of interpretations, but the maintenance of standards of truth and acceptability by one’s peers," the statement says. "It is university faculty, not outside political groups with partisan political agenda, who are best able to judge the quality of their peers’ research and teaching. This is not just a question of academic autonomy, but of the future of a democratic society. This is a time in which we need more thoughtful reflection about the world, not less."

Signatories to the statement pledge, among other things, to "speak out against those who attack our colleagues and our universities in order to achieve their political goals" and to "urge university administrators and trustees to defend academic freedom and the norms of academic life, even if it means incurring the displeasure of non-scholarly groups, the media among them."

The organizers of the effort are Joan W. Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., and former chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom; Jeremy Adelman, chair of history at Princeton University; Steve Caton, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University; Edmund Burke III, director of the Center for World History at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and Jonathan R. Cole, provost emeritus of Columbia University.

The statement comes at a time of a series of high profile hiring or tenure cases involving professors who work on the Middle East and whose work has been subject to scrutiny by many non-academics during the process they were under consideration. Among the cases are those of Norman Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at DePaul University; Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist up for tenure at Barnard College; and Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who saw his candidacy for a job at Yale University derailed.

And this week, David Horowitz and his campus allies are sponsoring "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week," a series of events that will among other things say that women's studies and other left-leaning scholars aren't doing enough to combat radical Islam -- and these events are already setting off controversies on many campuses, where students and professors say that the week is a thinly disguised effort to scare people about Muslims.

The new effort also comes at a time when many groups are trying to find ways to bolster academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors issued a new statement in September to counter certain arguments used against professors (such as arguments that their classes must all be balanced). The American Federation of Teachers is also working on a new statement on academic freedom.

Scott, of the Institute for Advanced Study, said that the statement came about because "a number of us were just fed up with the amount of pressure that groups which claim to be defending Israel are exerting." Citing such cases as the anthropologist at Barnard, Scott said "outside political groups are trying to force the hand of university administrators in ways we think are really dangerous."

The scholars in these cases deserve tough scrutiny, Scott said, but it should come from scholars in their disciplines -- their departments and the outside experts recruited by their departments for evaluations -- not from the public or people in other fields. She said that critics of these professors imply unfairly that their work is never reviewed, when their books would never have been published without thorough peer review and they never would have been hired without intense questioning about their scholarship and teaching.

"It is the prerogative and responsibility of the members of the discipline to make these judgments," she said. "It's not as if people get a free pass. It's that at every stage, the review has to be within the discipline."

She said, for instance, that it would not bother her if Alan Dershowitz offered opinions on law professors, but that he should not have been evaluating Finkelstein, a political scientist. As a general rule, she said, "biologists shouldn't tell historians how to interpret Middle Eastern history and historians shouldn't tell biologists what good biology is."

Many colleges -- and this was the case at DePaul with Finkelstein -- start tenure reviews at the departmental level, and then the review passes to a university-wide committee. Scott said she saw this as appropriate if the second committee was "looking at process, not at substance." It's important for a second body, she said, to be sure that procedures were followed, but not to judge the scholarship.

And Scott said that she senses that the pressure from outside groups -- having nothing to do with the academy -- is most intense when tenure reviews leave the departmental level. The environment is especially difficult right now, she said, when Horowitz and others are orchestrating events designed to incorrectly define Middle Eastern studies as anti-American. "This reminds me of nothing more than the way fascist youth were mobilized to disrupt classes and to question the authority of scholars," she said. (Via e-mail, Horowitz said that "it's the plans to disrupt and slander our events that reflect classic fascist tactics.")

Adelman, the history chair at Princeton, said he joined the effort out of concern over "the proliferation of cases." He said it was inevitable that from time to time, a scholar might draw lots of outside attention, but the apparent increase in such cases made him think it was time for professors to take a more public stand.

Outside groups have every right to analyze and criticize scholars, he said, but not to try to dictate tenure decisions. "I have no problem with debate. But the critics of the university's right to make decisions about scholarship don't understand that's what we are doing." Scholars need to be evaluated on the basis of their scholarship, he said, not their views on the Middle East.

While the professors' statement on academic freedom does not mention groups by name, Campus Watch -- which publishes information about professors of Middle Eastern studies, with much of the analysis critical -- would appear to be one of the groups.

Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, said that the new group was based on false assumptions. The professors believe, he wrote via e-mail, that "academics, uniquely among all professionals, are beyond criticism -- that they make up a sacrosanct, privileged group that demands protection from opinions with which they disagree. By implying that criticism from external sources, such as Campus Watch, is illegitimate, they seek to seal themselves off from the society that supports them." He said that he found irony that "ivory tower intellectuals who regularly render harsh judgments against the practitioners of other professions, from businessmen to clergy, and from politicians to the members of the military -- claim immunity from criticism when it is directed toward themselves."

Myers went on to say of the professors' effort: "Their desire to declare themselves off-limits to external criticism is symptomatic of the intellectual homogeneity that plagues academe. Were it not for extra-university voices, there would be precious little debate within academic Middle East studies, so uniform is opinion among professors of that field."


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