Campus Watch in the Media
The Real Debate on Academic Freedom [Review of "Academic Freedom after September 11"]
by Jon Blitzer
Beshara Doumani's forthcoming book on academic freedom features a cover image of gagged academics marching somberly in protest. We need not ask any questions. Doumani's title clears up even the vaguest of uncertainties. Academic Freedom after September 11, a series of essays from prominent academics and intellectuals who all share one common fear, that academic freedom – that storied right of academe – is in peril like never before.
What is striking about the book is its organization, an exposition of academic freedom that unfolds in four parts. Doumani moves from the theoretical to the applied, visions of academic freedom to snapshots of its practical deterioration. The middle sections are familiar territory in discussions of the subject. A two-essay chapter labeled "Contending Visions" consists of a Robert Post-Judith Butler call and response on definitions of academic freedom. Another chapter, entitled "Praxis," provides three essay-length case studies of loyalty oaths, language acquistion programs, and Israel-Palestine pedagogy. But the book both begins and ends with the shrill insistence of its title–Doumani's reminder that these otherwise well-worn conversations about academic freedom are taking place in a new and charged context: the post-9/11 world. He has chosen to bookend his middle chapters accordingly. At the start of the book is Doumani's own essay, "Between Privatization and Coercion: Rethinking Academic Freedom in the 21st Century," and at its end is a long appendix comprising a panoply of relevant documents, all but one of which (a 1940 Statement of Principles by the Association of American University Presidents) come from the last three years. It's not conversations of old that grip Doumani—it's what's happening in academe right now.
Without question, one thing appears to be the case about debates on academic freedom: they are predictable. Arguments in support of academic freedom endlessly reassert the same foundational premises with fresh contemporary examples. In some sense, this is the case with Doumani's book. At its core, Robert Post and Judith Butler engage in the expected theorizing about academic freedom as a term and its importance, and the other essays supply the contemporary context. But Academic Freedom after September 11 also represents a changing trend in the thinking of academic freedom advocates within the academy. Doumani's choice to date academic freedom specifically in the post-9/11 moment is itself an argument. It is an argument not simply that academic freedom faces new threats, but also that such threats are the deepest and gravest ones in the history of the university. Doumani is not alone in suggesting this possibility. Scores of university faculty are increasingly worried–and increasingly certain–that academic freedom is under organized assault from a whole host of interconnected political groups including conservatives, neoconservatives, the Bush administration, and the Zionist lobby.
An Old Freedom with New Threats
In some respects, academics may be right to worry. Some fearful of the university's diminishing independence from the government cite a recent Congressional bill aimed at revising sections of long-standing education legislation. House Resolution 3077, first introduced in October 2003 only to die in a senate conference committee shortly afterwards, sought the creation of an International Higher Education Advisory Board to oversee the redistribution of funds and activities for graduate fellowships in area studies programs. The bill inspired tremendous fear among academics. The creation of an advisory board that would likely draw from the Departments of Education and National Security would make area studies departments answerable to a government board for funding. This would give an inappropriate amount of power over teaching and scholarship to the government, stripping universities and their professors of their independence.1
Though the legislation ultimately failed, it was widely believed that the proposal had neoconservative roots and support. Its critics (and there were many) suspected that behind the effort were former Hoover Institute fellow Stanley Kurtz, Pro-Israel blogger and Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer, and Daniel Pipes, conservative columnist and founder of Campus Watch.2 To those with such suspicions, the bill appeared to be the result of coordination among conservatives, Zionists, and an administration engaged in a common campaign to silence critics. Think back to Doumani's title. In choosing 9/11 as the historical context for his inquiry, Doumani is proposing not only a history of academic freedom, but also a paradigm for reconceptualizing its future. 9/11 marked the validating moment of the Bush administration's efforts to clamp down on critics of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. By invoking this loaded historical moment, Doumani is laying the foundation for a new conception of academic freedom: a story in which academics are victims of an ideological battle waged on the university from the outside in
Returning to the Academy
That future debate on academic freedom will occur along these lines is likely but unfortunate. Faculty argue that the university is facing its greatest threat since McCarthyism, and debate promises to continue in these loaded terms as long as people frame academic freedom according to its most accessible trope–a faculty weakened by an intrusive government. This sort of thinking has always involved a two-part process. On the one hand, defenders of academic freedom emphasize its theoretical importance, that academic freedom is vital to the intellectual life of the university. On the other hand, defenders describe the present circumstances that imperil academic freedom anew. With the current political landscape looking as it does, talk about academic freedom is bound to become even more volatile in this respect. Thus, every defense of academic freedom is a defense that engages two questions that are mutually reinforcing: Why does academic freedom matter? And how has it become endangered?
This should sound both logical and familiar since it is the mechanism by which Doumani's book operates. Nonetheless, his book also demonstrates how, in some respects, this two-part process is beginning to change. In light of the current threat—real or perceived—talk about academic freedom is turning increasingly polemic, and as this happens the theoretical basis for academic freedom fades farther and farther into the background. For example, the conversation between Robert Post and Judith Butler seems perfunctory, or at least beside the point, within the overall structure of Academic Freedom after September 11. Reading their chapters, it is no wonder why. The two are in general agreement that academic freedom is a "professional rather than individual freedom." In other words, both argue that the term really only applies to the relationship between faculty members and their employers within the university, that its scope extends no further than that. To be fair, the two do disagree. Their contention is a matter of how each proposes to situate academic freedom in the broader, political context, where the term remains fraught as ever. But neither Post nor Butler move beyond the book's basic underlying assumption. At every turn, faculty is pitted against powerful lobby groups, politicians, or the school's own administration, and this vision, hardly a contending one within the academy, is the only way of seeing academic freedom in the 21st century.
The outcry against current dangers to academic freedom has gotten louder. As the volume is sure to increase, the more fundamental and essential questions about academic freedom–what it constitutes and why it matters – are getting drowned out. Doumani's book is proof enough of where debate on the subject may be headed. But is the fate of academic freedom a conversation by and for academics alone? If we return academic freedom to the university, where it no doubt belongs, can a dialogue even exist? Who might faculty talk to but each other?
Academic freedom has always been a bedrock principle in academe. Its invocation by faculty members touches on something larger than any individual controversy which precipitates conversation about the concept in the first place. Take some of the most celebrated theorists of the university, and they all, for the most part, seem to agree both about academic freedom and its fundamental significance. One theorist comes immediately to mind. The late Edward Said famously analyzed the intellectual and ideological consequences when universities cannot preserve their independence from political life. For instance, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, two books which characterize Said's work, speak directly to the kind of concerns that underlie any defense of academic freedom. Said makes the argument in the most urgent of terms. With interlocking hegemonic institutions (the military, the government, and the corporate sector) coming into increased and sustained contact, there must be some outlet from self-interested and homogenized thinking. If the university fails to maintain its independence from outside interests, it loses its legitimizing function as a bastion of free thinking and lively, unimpeded intellectual debate. Others have called this function by a different name, claiming that if the university is to thrive in its culture of independence, then it must operate with ethical individualism as its governing premise. Professors can only do their jobs if the university protects the interests of its intellectual contributors through academic freedom.3
Though these arguments have merit, something is clearly missing. Academic freedom is described as the university's lifeblood, and yet, the theoretical discussions of academic freedom only involve mention of faculty when the academic community consists both of professors and students. So what about students? Do they have any right to claim academic freedom for themselves? And if so, how could they?
Academic freedom originated in early 19th century Germany with two fundamental principles realized in the founding of the University of Berlin: freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and freedom to learn (Lernfreiheit).4 While the original concept clearly accommodated both teachers and students, the codification of academic freedom occurred along different lines. Historically, academic freedom became a tool for the faculty since they seemed to need it the most. Looking back, there have been scant instances of student claims to the term. Yet recently, there has been one that should strike Columbians close to home. In the fall of 2004, a small group of students formed Columbians for Academic Freedom (CAF) in response to allegations of professorial abuse and intimidation in the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cutures (MEALAC).
For understandable reasons, CAF began in a precarious position from the very outset of its work. Even before CAF came into being in 2004, faculty had suggested that political groups outside the university had interfered with the MEALAC department at Columbia and with equivalent departments elsewhere. Stanford history professor Joel Beinin, in his essay "The New McCarthyism: Policing Thought about the Middle East," dates such interference all the way back to the late 1960s in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Since then, he claims, pro-Israel groups have been monitoring the tone and content of classes having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.5 It may, therefore, comes as no surprise that many tagged CAF as simply a Zionist advocacy group. The David Project, the Boston-based Zionist group that produced "Columbia Unbecoming," was thus considered the likely source of CAF's ideological positions. Moreover, it did not help that CAF, by its very acronym, sounded like a subsidiary of David Horowitz's conservative coalition, Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). SAF, a group with no ties to CAF at all, is widely believed to be an ideological movement by conservatives to bolster their own particular agenda under the auspices of academic freedom. So CAF faced immediate skepticism from the faculty, who saw the group as another tentacle of the campaign to silence leftist critics of Israel.
This skepticism obscured matters for both students and faculty. It is easy to comprehend faculty anxiety over outside interests converging on the university. At the same time, it is problematic that CAF was dismissed from its very inception. The group was, after all, a coalition formed by students inside the university. Maybe faculty members found CAF's stance disagreeable, but to dismiss the group on the unfounded assumption that it had its roots outside the university would be misguided. To do so would be to confuse two separate things—first, the group's origin and composition, and second, its actual arguments, the positions it took.
That this sort of confusion occurred was not incidental, nor was it the result, strictly speaking, of political disagreements. This confusion speaks to a much deeper issue, namely the structural feature of academic freedom as a concept. When faculty members claim the right of academic freedom, they are calling for complete autonomy in their classroom and their work (research, publications, etc.). Academic freedom defines and protects the space where faculty members can freely operate, and so a student who complains about a teacher's conduct poses an immediate problem. In questioning the nature of a teacher's conduct, it is not exactly clear how the student is to proceed without unfairly jeopardizing the faculty member's autonomy. As Harvard English professor and acclaimed cultural critic Louis Menand has rightly pointed out, "academic freedom is a two-faced concept," best understood according to Isaiah Berlin's conceptions of negative and positive liberty. 6 The academic freedom a faculty member claims hinges on negative liberty, a freedom from interference by administrators, trustees, or political interest groups. When students, on the other hand, complain about a faculty member's conduct in the classroom, they do so with the expectation that the university (either its administrators or department chairs) will intervene on their behalf. They expect, in short, that the university will extend to them (as students) a degree of positive liberty.
There are a couple notions worth pointing out here. Menand brings up Berlin as a way of strengthening the contention that academic freedom exists primarily for faculty members. And so, when he mentions negative and positive liberty, he maintains that negative liberty, of the two, is the "stronger liberal conception." 7 But he also does what few other theorists of academic freedom tend to do. He allows, in theory, for the application of academic freedom to students. This allowance accords well with the possibility implied by the German model, that the student's freedom to learn might fall under the same rubric governing a faculty member's freedom to teach. Even though academic freedom in its rawest theoretical form accommodates students within its purview, the obvious dearth of students who have used the term suggests, in part, that the inevitable clash between students and faculty can be disabling for students.
Talk on academic freedom has left little room for student claims to the term. As debate is increasingly about faculty members being victimized by groups outside the university, the politicized dimensions of the conflict have dominated thinking on academic freedom. It is exceedingly difficult for students to use academic freedom against faculty members since doing so immediately puts students in the conservative camp, in effect, outside the realm of the leftist campus mainstream.
But politics aside, students are still ill-equipped to argue that academic freedom protects them too. We are beginning to see that such claims entail theoretical re-readings of the term-—readings that few professors are willing to support or even entertain. In fact, faculty and student claims to academic freedom appear fundamentally incompatible. The right of the faculty to be free from interference under the protection of academic freedom precludes the student right, under the same term, to demand (even legitimate) intervention. One right necessarily implies the sacrifice of the other.
Consider, for example, the argument made by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that any student criticism of faculty members was tantamount to an undue critique of course content. In a letter to President Bollinger "in defense of academic freedom," the NYCLU suggested:
[I]n asserting their right to criticize, students must also understand the limitations of such rights–students cannot expect, through the use of grievance procedure or otherwise, that the university administrators will call professors to account for the content of their lectures or their ideological assertions within the classroom.8
The assumption here is that if students "assert [their] right to criticize," they are likely overstepping a vital boundary created and preserved by academic freedom. According the NYCLU, a student can complain about a faculty member but must not do so on ideological grounds.9 The NYCLU, however, precludes the possibility that such a complaint–a legitimate student complaint, that is–even exists. Later in its letter, the NYCLU questions the very creation of Columbia's ad hoc committee, a committee assigned to investigate student complaints of classroom intimidation. The committee, chaired by Ira Katznelson at the request of President Bollinger and Provost Brinkley, avowed in its report "not to investigate anyone's political or scholarly beliefs, [nor] review departments' curricula." 10 And yet, despite the committee's promise not to embark on any such investigations, the NYCLU still objected to the formation of the ad hoc committee because, as the NYCLU continues to argue in its letter to Bollinger:
–the accusations with respect to professorial conduct are inextricably bound with ideological disagreements [among students and faculty]; we fear that holding professors to account for their statements runs a severe risk of intrusion by administrators into academic content and political ideology. 11
So what exactly is the argument here? Is it that a student cannot complain because any complaint is "inextricably bound with ideological disagreement"? It certainly sounds this way. In fact, if the very investigation of student complaints is considered unfair, even when the "investigators" are professors themselves promising not to look into anyone's political or scholarly beliefs, then students can hardly expect to be taken seriously. There is an even deeper and more unsettling insinuation here. Just as this reasoning appears to strip students of any means of legitimate criticism, the NYCLU implies that students are threatening to silence professors with ideologically motivated accusations. Academic freedom's defining trope – that teachers are the helpless victims of ideology – has begun to extend so far as to group students with outside interests. By the NYCLU's imaginings, both students and the familiar antagonists of academic freedom (from outside the university) are making more or less the same ideological aspersions.
Here is how it looks. The NYCLU's logic is not merely circular; it actually looks and feels as though this circularity is designed to write someone, namely the student, out of the logic altogether. Students can only complain using the language of academic freedom if they have a problem with a teacher's conduct. However, even complaints of a teacher's conduct cannot be taken at face value since the NYCLU suggests that such complaints are never really about conduct at all. If a student has any problems, the NYCLU seems to think, that student is really only bothered by an ideological matter, which is protected absolutely by academic freedom.
Naturally, students should feel skeptical of this. Academic freedom, taken to the extreme of an absolute right above any kind of student criticism, severely disempowers students. But that it should come to this—that academic freedom may be taken to such an extreme—should hardly be news indeed. It is part of the concept's very DNA. Because student and faculty claims to academic freedom are opposed even in theory, there is bound to be tension when both groups argue against each other invoking the same right. What becomes alarmingly clear in the NYCLU's letter is that in the post-9/11 world of academic freedom, the opposition between negative and positive liberty inherent in the concept guarantees an extreme reading of academic freedom: a reading that completely eliminates students from the picture.
Rethinking Academic Freedom
One of the reasons why it appears so hard for students to lay claim to academic freedom is that students and faculty cannot see eye to eye on how the debates about the term should even look and sound. Again, students can complain about a professor's conduct but must be careful not to blur what is obviously a contested boundary between conduct and content. Students must make incredibly specific arguments if they are to warrant the attention of administrators or department chairs who can investigate on their behalf. A student's case is essentially one of details – and highly arguable details since, as we discussed before, a student is threatening to limit the negative liberty guaranteed professors by questioning faculty autonomy in the first place. Meanwhile, what galvanizes the academic community and its supporters is the notion that academic freedom is a bedrock principle, a value that structures and protects the very organization of the university.12 So while students are making their case, the faculty makes its own. One group argues the nitty-gritty, as it were, because they can make their case in no other way, and the other refutes with a wide arsenal, emphasizing the broad strokes and drawing from a long line of eloquent meditations on the nature and importance of university life (a life protected by academic freedom).
Let's be clear. Students should respect the nature and importance of the university, and they ought to respect the faculty when it voices its anxieties about the role and function of this community. But by the same token, students deserve respect because they participate in the community as well. Which makes at least one of the faculty claims a bit frustrating to hear: the prevailing mantra that education should be about feeling unsettled, that students are not learning if they fortify themselves in their existing beliefs and assumptions. Fine, the tautology stands. Education is about learning new things and learning new things is never easy or comfortable. But again, this argument is stale. Defenders of academic freedom say it so often that they say little else of importance to students. Student complaints launched by CAF were about faculty conduct, about intimidation in the classroom. CAF was supposed to be making an argument about a hostile learning environment. So if a student (or student group) observes the bounds of academic freedom, and makes an argument about conduct rather than content, then it is downright patronizing to be lectured on how education should work.
The logic of academic freedom, insomuch as one exists, forces students to distinguish between politics and propriety when they complain about faculty conduct in the classroom. It also appears that this logic presupposes the students' incapacity to make these relevant distinctions. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best when he remarked, "Even a dog knows the difference between being stepped on and being tripped over." Would it be too much to say the same of college students?
1 For information about the bill see the website of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, 108th Congress: http://www.house.gov/ed_workforce/markups/108th/sed/hr3077/917main.htm
3 Dworkin, Ronald. "We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom." The Future of Academic Freedom. Ed. Louis Menand. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. 185.
4 See Columbia President Lee Bollinger's Cardozo Lecture on Academic Freedom. Available at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/president/communications files/cardozolecture.htm. Bollinger, in turn, cited a definitive text on academic freedom: Richard Hofstander and Walter Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (Columbia University Press 1955).
5 Beinin, Joel. "The New McCarthyism: Policing Thought about the Middle East." Academic Freedom after September 11. Ed. Beshara Doumani. New York: Zone Books, 2006. Beinin goes a bit far when he cites the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as two pro-Israel advocacy groups that have inappropriately monitored university classrooms. The AJC and ADL are truly moderate voices in this otherwise charged debate, and to group them with Campus Watch, for instance, is unfair and misleading.
6Menand, Louis. "The Limits of Academic Freedom." The Future of Academic Freedom. Ed. Louis Menand. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. 5.
8 New York Civil Liberties Union: "Letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in Defense of Academic Freedom." Printed in Academic Freedom after September 11. Ed. Beshara Doumani. New York: Zone Books, 2006. 303.
9 Of course, students can always complain about teachers' ideological positions, and they need not feel like such complaints are ever beyond their purview as students. My only point is that complaining on grounds of academic freedom implies a specific protocol.
10 Columbia Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report, March 28, 2005:
11 NYCLU, 304.
12 Dworkin, 187.
JON BLITZER in a junior majoring in English and Philosophy. He writes for The Columbia Political Review and The Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism.Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
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