Middle East studies in the News
Cole's Version of Academic Freedom
by Robert David (KC) Johnson
This morning's Chronicle brings news that Columbia is devoting $15 million on behalf of gender and racial diversity in its faculty. The initiative is being coordinated by Jean Howard, Columbia's vice provost for diversity initiatives. Howard, you might recall, served on the special committee that looked into allegations of bias in Columbia's MEALAC Department. Even though she signed a petition demanding that Columbia divest from all companies doing business in Israel (a petition that Columbia president Lee Bollinger properly termed "grotesque"), Howard refused to recuse herself from the special committee. It should be noted that the committee contained no signatories of the petition decrying the divestment initiative.
Somehow, I doubt that Howard will cast as wide a net as possible to ensure that she oversees the hiring of women and minorities of diverse ideological and pedagogical views. If it showed nothing else, the MEALAC controversy suggested that the Morningside Heights campus is much shorter on intellectual diversity than it is in racial and gender diversity. By my count, less than five CU faculty members publicly questioned the teaching techniques of Joseph Massad or Hamid Dabashi, while hundreds defended MEALAC's curricular and personnel practices.
This legacy casts a useful light on an article by former Columbia provost Jonathan Cole, published in the recent version of Daedalus. In the article, Cole adopts a more temperate line than he did in a pro-MEALAC rally held on the Columbia campus this spring. There, according to New York Sun reporter Jacob Gershman, Cole cast Joseph Massad (who even the biased special committee conceded had acted improperly by throwing a student out of his class for failing to publicly state that the Israelis had committed atrocities on the West Bank) "as an exemplary teacher who is under no obligation to give equal weight to student opinions expressed during class. Just as a Jewish history professor doesn't have to take seriously a student who denies the Holocaust, Mr. Massad is not required to give equal time to an argument denying the 1982 Shatila refugee camp massacre in Lebanon, he said." (A fascinating comparison—which, to borrow one of Cole's favorite phrases, could almost be termed "anti-intellectual.") "‘The American research university is designed to be unsettling,' Mr. Cole said. ‘The university must have and always welcome dissenting voices.'" (Indeed it should. The crux of the battle at Columbia centered on the efforts of the MEALAC faculty and their allies on campus to stifle voices that dissent from their theories.)
In contrast to most MEALAC defenders, Cole fears that academic freedom is under assault in the natural sciences as well—though his argument here isn't at all convincing. After lamenting the difficulty that some foreign students have had in getting into the United States, "without a scintilla of evidence that they are security risks," he cites three examples (the public relations campaign against LSU professor Stephen Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the anthrax scare; the arrest and subsequent conviction of Texas Tech professor Thomas Butler, who was originally charged under the Patriot Act with failing to report his transport, from Tanzania, of biological agents that could be used by terrorists; and the concerns of Cornell professor Robert Richardson about the government's ability to control "pathogens that might be developed as bioweapons.") It's hard to see, however, how any of these examples fall under the definition of "academic freedom" as commonly understood. Hatfill is currently suing the New York Times for libel, and may very well win. But the initial allegations against him seem to have had nothing to do with his being a professor and more with the administration's attempt to find a convenient scapegoat for the anthrax scare. As for the issues raised by the Butler and Richardson cases, is Cole really saying that any attempt by the government to regulate the use of biological toxins that have both academic and potential terrorist uses constitutes a violation of academic freedom?
The crux of the battle involves the humanities and social sciences, as Cole essentially concedes. "The governing role played by peers makes universities different," he contends, "from most other American institutions," and it's clear that Cole believes in retaining self-governance at all costs, even when evidence of abuse (as in the MEALAC case) is undeniable. He believes that university structures are sufficient to ensure effective self-governance. "There is no place for faculty members," he writes, "to use their positions of authority to coerce and cow students into conforming to their own point of view." There are, he notes, "workplace rules in place at universities that govern and control such forms of behavior." Of course, the rules in place at Columbia gave students the option to go to then-MEALAC chair Hamid Dabashi, who had violated other Columbia rules in an apparent attempt to coerce students in one of his classes to attend an anti-Israel rally at which he was speaking.
Cole seems particularly displeased with the language used by MEALAC critics. They have, he laments, tended to "expropriate key terms in the liberal lexicon, as if they were the only true champions of freedom and diversity on college campuses." From such groups, he warns, "there is a growing effort to pressure universities to monitor classroom discussion, create speech codes, and, more generally, enable disgruntled students to savage professors who express ideas they find disagreeable." I share Cole's concern with speech codes. He was, however, provost of an Ivy League school for the entire 1990s, and I don't recall him claiming that the "diversity"-related speech codes imposed throughout the academy during those years represented a threat to academic freedom, much less one of a greater scale than McCarthyism. Perhaps he's just never heard of FIRE.
Unlike most MEALAC defenders, however, Cole concedes that, in theory, a problem exists regarding a lack of intellectual diversity on campuses. In his words, "the university must do everything it can to combat the coercive demand for political litmus tests from the Right and the Left, and the pressure to conform with established academic paradigms." Indeed, he notes, the growth of knowledge is inhibited when claims to truth are advanced "on the basis of supposedly possessing privileged insight simply as a result of one's race, gender, religion, or ethnicity." Intolerance for "competing points of view" within disciplines, Cole observes, is a problem, especially since "different disciplines have evolved somewhat differently in institutionalizing mechanisms to ensure that rigorous standards exist to evaluate ideas and the results of research."
So, how can the university defend itself when critics contend that, say, departments of History, or English, or Middle East Studies are using ideological or pedagogical litmus tests rather than academic merit to make personnel and curricular decisions? "Currently," Cole admits, "there is broader agreement about the appropriate corrective mechanisms in the natural sciences than in the humanities and social sciences." Oh. That's not exactly reassuring.
Cole argues that faculty "must convince the public that a failure to defend dissenting voices on the campus places at risk the greatest engine for the creation of new ideas and scientific innovation the world has ever known." I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, until Cole and his allies actually do "defend dissenting voices on the campus" and not those (like the MEALAC faculty) whose views represent campus orthodoxy, I'm afraid Cole's broader comments on academic freedom don't have much credibility.
Posted by Robert KC Johnson on Wednesday, August 3, 2005 at 2:02 PMNote: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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