'Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era'

January 6, 2011

It's not just civil libertarians who worry that 9/11 has been used to justify insidious state overreach; academics have a mounting set of concerns, too. A new essay collection, Academic Freedom in the Post 9/11 Era (Macmillan), whose contributors include Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Henry Giroux, makes the case that universities are in trouble. Its editors are Edward J. Carvalho and David B. Downing.

The book presents academe as bullied by corporate interests, saddled by the need to curb its rhetoric to match national political agendas, and pressured by the military. Its message so piqued Stanley Fish that he used its authors as characters in a short Kantian morality play on his New York Times blog, pitting them against conservative academic David Horowitz and provoking a few hundred comments.

Carvalho and Downing -- an instructor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, respectively -- spoke to Inside Higher Ed about some of those lingering questions.

Q: In your book, Noam Chomsky says 9/11 had "ambiguous consequences for academic freedom." What prompted the book?

A: Our primary concern was to engage a critical view of the rash of academic freedom cases that emerged after 9/11. Our sense is that issues of academic freedom tend to reach deeply into the fabric of any society. But like us, most of our contributors agree that a number of powerful state and business interests used the events of 9/11 to fuel their rationales for U.S. exceptionalism, militarism, and unilateralism. This rhetoric justified deeper cuts to all kinds of social expenditures from health care, worker protections, environmental regulations, and, of course, education.... The project was also prompted by a trigger event: the July 2007 firing of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado. As we began to investigate this story, we were stunned by the differences between the reality of the case and the media version.

With respect to Noam Chomsky’s assessment about “ambiguous consequences,” he was questioning whether 9/11 actually did lead to increased surveillance of faculty and abuses of academic freedom. As he points out, such abuses are not new. So the attribution of historical differences in the post-9/11 period provokes various judgments, as our book makes clear. Although most of the contributors differ from Chomsky in their assessment of the impact of 9/11, certainly, he is raising cogent questions pertinent to understanding many of the complications as well as ambiguities of our recent history.

Q: How has academic freedom changed or stayed the same under the Obama administration? You mention the economic crisis has had an effect.

A: We believe that the economic crisis continues to provoke compromises in academic freedom, and in the next year or two, these pressures may intensify given the current rage to reduce the national debt by cutting social expenditures. While 9/11 signaled in the mass media a political event justifying an expanded “war on terror,” this rhetoric proved under the Bush presidency to be a rallying call for more deregulation, more privatization, and for defunding of the social sector across the board, including education.

All of this educational downsizing clearly puts academic freedom in jeopardy, partly because the budget cuts lead to increased use of part-time, temporary, non-tenure track faculty which leaves them vulnerable, both economically and academically. As does the Obama administration’s allegiances to a corporate culture, as evidenced by the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, for instance, a move that Henry Giroux and Ken Saltman predicted some time ago would adversely affect public education (Politics After Hope, p. 138). Overuse of standardized testing and quantitative assessment in primary and secondary schools is now reaching deeply into higher education as well, and we see no abatement of these movements.

Q: How has the American Association of University Professors shaped the academy's understanding of “academic freedom” post-9/11?

A: In the post-9/11 era, the AAUP has become noticeably more forceful in articulating its own position on academic freedom. They have done this in no small part through much more intensive online and e-mail distribution of news and policies. For instance, Cary Nelson’s recent post “Defining Academic Freedom” is a good, workable summary of 12 main points about academic freedom that affect all segments of higher education.

Q: Your book suggests that the Churchill case and Norman Finkelstein's tenure denial reflect something that has gone terribly wrong with academic freedom. Why do you view these cases as important?

A: The Finkelstein and Churchill cases symbolize, in our minds, two of the paradigmatic ways (in addition to the key economic factors) that faculty and student rights get shortchanged. In Finkelstein’s case, when it was obvious that his scholarship and teaching record were by any academic standards impeccable, “collegiality” was wielded as a political tool to deny him tenure. Clearly, the AAUP has opposed such uses of collegiality in tenure decisions and other forms of evaluation because they can be so capricious. In Churchill’s case, those pressing charges did so by claiming to follow the procedures for adjudicating research misconduct. [But] as Stanley Fish argued in his April 2009 assessment of the charges, “if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.”

... For some commentators, it appears that the political right and the political left are really all on the same page with respect to freedom and truth. Stanley Fish makes exactly this point in his December 20th New York Times piece, “We’re All Conservatives Now,” where he comments on our book. What we most appreciate about Fish’s analysis is his respectful claim that both Churchill’s and Finkelstein’s essays are never dogmatic but rigorous, accurate, and principled.

... The arguments for an underlying set of shared principles between the political right and left simply ignore the obvious differences in social, political, and economic power. We mention these contradictions because they emerged once again in the Churchill case when the presiding judge, Larry Naves, overturned the jury verdict on the grounds of “quasi-judicial immunity.” Something is, indeed terribly wrong when, in the name of upholding academic standards, administrators are granted “immunity” from public scrutiny. While this kind of duplicity might be exceptional, we would all do well to examine carefully the specific policies of academic freedom that govern our academic employment.

Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top