Middle East studies in the News
Free to Say What?
by Paula Sutter Fichtner
"The exercise of academic freedom and the First Amendment at local universities has come under fire recently. Columbia, normally a redoubt of unfettered speech for both students and faculty, has been rethinking the practice for almost a year" (The New York Sun, April 9, 2004). Whistleshistles began blowing toward Morningside Heights last spring after a teach-in on the war.
Win Iraq at which a professor, Nicholas De Genova, called for an American defeat and "a million Mogadishus." An anthropologist,he was headlined as "The Most Hated Professor in America" in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 18, 2003), academe's trade paper of record.
Supporters of the state of Israel also believe that Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, who calls Palestinian killing of Israeli soldiers "resistance," speaks as an activist cheerleader and not as a thoughtful scholar.Recently, there is the case of a professor, Joseph Massad, who turns whatever class he teaches into a rant on Palestinian problems (The New York Sun, May 4, 2004).
Over at Rutgers University, the president, Richard McCormick, has pondered the First Amendment before rebuking some habitually tasteless editors of a student magazine who expected a cover illustration of Jews being popped into ovens at a carnival to "amuse through extraordinary absurdity" (The New York Sun, April 26, 2004; April 29, 2004).
Down on Washington Square, a professor, Zachary Lockman, the director of New York University's Kevorkian Center for International Studies, had not mastered the semantics of "and"before using his constitutional freedoms to sign a public manifesto in aid of "defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel" (www.geocities.com/martinkramer.org).
Though Mr. Lockman later explained that he endorsed only the first part of the phrase,he had not done his homework carefully if at all.
Professorial politics have turned leftward, more stridently anti-American, and more hostile to Israel since the 1960s. Yesteryear's protesters are well represented among today's senior faculty members.Though middle age has sobered some of them beyond recognition, enough of their ideological legacy lives on to have shaped many in the scholarly generation now replacing them.
The above antics, therefore, do follow a kind of historical logic. Nevertheless, to understand is not to excuse; a skeptical public, particularly the part of it that is indentured to the circussize tuition fees of today, has some reason to ask if professors are accountable to none other than themselves when they speak and write.
Not quite. Today's academic freedom came out of 18th and 19th century Germany, where students and professors "freed" themselves from the traditional primacy of theological studies at universities.Scholars subsequently gained the right to teach their discipline as their research dictated, with minimum control from the state. The American counterpart of this doctrine came from the American Association of University Professors in l940. Though updated several times, its basic principle has never changed: Professors, tenured and untenured, are not to lose their jobs because their scholarship and the courses they developed from it include "controversial matter" (www.aaup.org).
Thus, both in Germany and here, academic freedom privileged scholars to use their professional research "freely" in writing and teaching. It was never a license to run off at the mouth. Controversial classroom material, says the AAUP, must be related to the subject of the course and reflect the expertise of the instructor.
Even if a lecturer pauses now and again for an aside on current affairs, he or she should not do so "persistently." As for the First Amendment, the AAUP warns college and universities that faculty members are fully entitled to its protection. But the organization also advises academics to keep in mind the special attention their words might receive in public settings.
Some scholars of all ranks and distinctions resent even professionally sensitive guidelines such as these; colleges and universities may therefore never come up with widely acceptable codes of faculty behavior.There are, however, partial but effective ways of encouraging faculty members to avoid irresponsible talk that also will further teaching, learning, and productive discussion of controversial events on campuses.
Instructors often advise their classes to attend teach-ins, in effect co-opting such events for the educational program. For students to weigh the merits of what they hear at these affairs,academic administrators should schedule them only when several points of view on contentious issues can be presented.The roster of speakers should be heavily weighted in favor of people with demonstrated scholarly records in the topics they discuss.
The entrenched left-of-center politics in higher education today does make sustaining a critical mass of alternate opinion in a faculty much harder. Political litmus tests, however, are the mortal enemy of sound learning; Universities in Nazi Central Europe and the Soviet bloc more than proved this point.
Closer to home, the jury is still out on how much "balancing" faculties for race, ethnicity, gender, etc. has contributed to serious scholarship.
Departments, university administrations, even trustees, can however control for variety of scholarly specialization in teaching staffs, a step that would enrich the mix of professorial opinion without compromising high scholarly standards. Provosts and deans can, and should, routinely question "pile-ups " of two or more faculty members in the same department or program whose research, writing, and teaching are very similar.A wider spectrum of scholarly interests will also increase opportunities for students to inform themselves more broadly on the several sides that great issues always have.
These steps would not be welcome to all, so that administrations may have to do some armtwisting to realize them. Happily, however, thanks to the First Amendment, they seem to be willing to act.
Columbia clearly did not like the publicity that Mr. De Genova attracted and does not want any more of it.The clueless editors over at Rutgers have apologized, though it took longer than it should for them to see what they had done. Mr. Lockman's clarification of his gaffe deserves to be taken at face value. But can he be as forbearing with students as he is with himself?
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