Protecting Academic Freedom in the Black Lives Matter Era

Faculty often fail to rally behind colleagues who buck the conventional wisdom, argues Jonathan Zimmerman, citing the recent case of a professor who criticized the BLM movement.

June 22, 2020
 
 
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In March, as the coronavirus crisis moved college instruction online, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk called on students to send “any and all videos of blatant indoctrination” to his organization. “Now is the time to document & expose the radicalism that has been infecting our schools,” Kirk tweeted.

The reaction among my fellow professors was swift and sharp. You can’t teach -- or, at least, you can’t teach well -- if you’re always looking over your shoulder, wondering who will troll you for a stray comment about white privilege or the Israel/Palestine conflict. Kirk’s efforts threatened academic freedom, we said, and an attack on one professor was an attack on all.

“If one of your colleagues gets hit, support them,” Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley urged. “It is not a time to lecture them about what you think they did wrong. They need your support, not your moralizing and sanctimoniousness. We’re all in this together.”

So where were these staunch defenders of freedom when Harald Uhlig was getting flayed recently for criticizing Black Lives Matter?

Sitting on their hands, mostly. Over the past century, at moments of great national stress, our profession has failed to rally behind colleagues who buck the conventional wisdom. And we’re repeating that ugly history right now, by hanging them out to dry.

That’s what happened to Uhlig, a prominent economist at the University of Chicago and the editor of the prestigious Journal of Political Economy. In a series of tweets on June 9, Uhlig said that Black Lives Matter had “torpedoed itself” by demanding the defunding of police. He went on to compare BLM to “flat-earthers and creationists,” calling for “sensible adults to enter back into the room” for “serious, earnest, respectful conversations” about police reform.

Uhlig wasn’t done. “Look: I understand, that some out there still wish to go and protest and say #defundpolice and all kinds of stuff, while you are still young and responsibility does not matter,” he added. “Enjoy! Express yourself! Just don’t break anything, ok? And be back by 8 pm.”

I understand why many of Uhlig’s fellow economists were offended by his posts, especially in a field that has struggled to enlist minority scholars. Uhlig didn't simply question BLM; he dismissed and demeaned it. And, of course, his opponents are free to express their opinions, just as Uhlig should be.

What I cannot accept is the way they called for his head, which is different from criticizing his comments. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cut ties with Uhlig, who had been a consultant in its research department. And economists around the country demanded that he step down as editor of his journal, arguing that his tweets had made him morally unfit at such a charged political moment.

Uhlig isn't alone. At the University of California, Los Angeles, business school professor Gordon Klein was placed on leave for an email rejecting his students' demand for a "no-harm" final exam -- that is, one that can only help your grade -- in light of the recent traumas suffered by African American students. Klein asked how he could know which students were black -- especially in a class that was meeting online -- and noted that Martin Luther King Jr. had said people should not be evaluated by skin color. "Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK's admonition?" Klein asked.

Again, I can understand why students were offended by Klein's response. But I can't understand the decision to remove a 39-year teaching veteran from the classroom, which should send chills down the spine of anyone who cares about academic freedom in the United States. With one errant email -- or a single thread of tweets -- you can be rendered a pariah forever. The national good demands it, or so we like to imagine.

That's what we said during World War I, when at least 20 faculty members lost their jobs for criticizing America’s role in it. They got no help from the American Association of University Professors, which had issued a statement two years earlier claiming that the university should be an “intellectual experiment station” where everyone was free to say what they thought.

But all of that went out the window when the country went to war. A month after the United States entered the conflict, the AAUP resolved that professors had “special obligations” to support the war effort. It added an extra warning for faculty members of German descent, who should “refrain from public discussions of the war” and “avoid all hostile or offensive expressions concerning the United States and its government.”

The most prominent casualty was Columbia psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who didn’t publicly denounce the war but did question conscription for it. That was enough to get him fired. “What had been tolerated before has become intolerable now,” Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler declared. “What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition.” Didn’t Cattell know there was a war going on?

A similar argument was used to dismiss more than 100 professors in the 1950s: at another moment of grave existential danger, this time from Communism, we simply couldn’t risk letting anyone play for the other team. But critics added a new twist, claiming that Communists’ allegedly slavish devotion to their creed made them unfit for a university that prized the free exchange of ideas.

So purging Communist professors was really “a matter of ethical hygiene,” wrote Sidney Hook, the most prominent defender of the dismissals. By embracing Communism, the argument went, those professors had forsaken the values that defined the university itself.

The biggest myth about the McCarthy period is that purges of university faculty were imposed upon an unwilling professoriate. In fact, most American faculty members embraced the campaign to remove Communist or left-leaning colleagues. They took loyalty oaths, condemned “fellow travelers” and did everything else they could to protect the university from its supposed Red enemy.

Repeating Patterns

You don’t have to like Harald Uhlig -- or approve of his tweets -- to see that we’re repeating all the same patterns in the campaign against him. Uhlig, we’re told, is a cancer on the university. He represents the opposite of everything we stand for: diversity, inclusion and equity. He must be eliminated, at all costs.

And that means scrutinizing his earlier activities, just as Red hunters scoured the backgrounds of their targets. Uhlig’s tormentors even recycled a series of tweets he issued back in 2017, during the dispute over National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee before games. “Would you defend football players waving the confederate flag and dressing in Ku Klux Klan garb during the playing of the national anthem?” Uhlig asked.

Critics said last week that Uhlig had equated Kaepernick with Confederates and the KKK, which was the surest sign that a full-on character assassination was underway. Uhlig’s point was that all of us can imagine certain kinds of activities that the NFL should prohibit, including the use of racist regalia. So the league clearly retained the right to regulate player behavior, no matter what you thought of its restrictions on Kaepernick.

But who’s got time for nuance when we're fighting the good fight? The point is to obliterate Uhlig, utterly and completely, which will in turn discourage any further critique of Black Lives Matter. How many people do you think will question BLM’s position on police defunding from this point on? Would you take that chance, now that you’ve seen what happened to Harold Uhlig?

And that, too, echoes earlier periods of repression. In the 1950s, especially, faculty members who had reservations about the Cold War against the Soviet Union almost always kept quiet about it. “I teach what I’m told, not necessarily what I think,” one anonymous professor wrote.

Our university leaders are busily issuing new loyalty oaths, declaring allegiance to Black Lives Matter, and everyone else is expected to follow along. That can’t be good for our democracy, or for our universities. It’s not even good for Black Lives Matter! Like any other social movement, BLM can only benefit from a full and free discussion of it.

I say that as an unabashed ally and supporter of BLM, which has done more than any other organization to expose and challenge racism in policing. But it doesn’t need to rest of us to police the university on its behalf. That patronizes the movement, all in the guise of protecting it.

So if somebody else gets hit for criticizing Black Lives Matter, stand by them. It is not a time to lecture them about what you think they did wrong. They need your support, not your moralizing and sanctimoniousness. And we’re all in this together.

Bio

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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