Blogs > Cliopatria > The World of Sandi Cooper

Jan 9, 2006 11:13 pm

The World of Sandi Cooper

IHE has an article this morning on the unsuccessful amendment that David Beito, Ralph Luker, and I co-sponsored at the AHA. (The amendment called for the organization to express concern with not only ABOR but also with campus speech codes as threats to academic freedom.) As David wrote from Philadelphia,"This vote is a great disappointment and critics will have a field day. They will charge--and with some justification--that it shows that the AHA subscribes to a double standard of 'academic freedom for me but not thee.'"

The most peculiar argument against it came from CUNY's own Sandi Cooper, who, according to IHE's Scott Jaschik, said:

courts have thrown out speech codes so criticizing them is “beating a dead horse” while the Academic Bill of Rights is “a very serious threat.”

Now, if ABOR would force colleges to hire more" conservative" faculty, as Cooper and others have claimed, then the courts would throw out ABOR as well, since public colleges cannot hire or fire on the basis of political beliefs. (ABORs passed by a state legislature could not apply to private colleges.) Since Cooper sees no reason for the AHA to come out against concepts that can't pass judicial muster, I wonder why she felt compelled to resolve against ABOR? Given that dozens of colleges around the country have some form of speech codes and not even one state has adopted ABOR, it would seem to me that the more"serious threat"--at least in the 12 months until the next AHA convention--is speech codes.

Perhaps the AHA should just follow Cooper's advice, close down shop, and allow the courts to uphold academic freedom.

Update, 1.31pm: Mark Goldblatt, a professor at SUNY's FIT and self-described conservative, has a fascinating recap of an MLA session on why"anti-war" courses are fine, but"pro-war" curricula or scholars have no place in higher education.

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Robert KC Johnson - 1/10/2006

The piece to which I linked described--to quote my description-"an" MLA session. It might be, as you suggested, that the ideas offered at this session do not reflect those of a majority of MLA members. Given the resolutions presented by the delegate asembly, however, I'm skeptical, which is why I mentioned the resolutions.

Perhaps at next year's MLA Conference, a resolution can be presented asking the organization to go on record stating: (1) a candidate's opinions on foreign policy issues must have no bearing on that candidate's suitability for employment, even as an illustration of the candidate's capacity for "critical thinking"; (2) if introductory writing courses are designed around criticism of US foreign policy, the department should do its best to ensure that another section of the writing course be designed around a more balanced interpretation of US foreign policy.

If the session recapped by Goldblatt so clearly misrepresented the viewpoints of a majority of MLA members, I'm sure that such a resolution would have no difficulty in winning approval.

George H Williams - 1/10/2006

Want to talk about resolutions? Fine. But that's not the subject of the piece to which you linked.

Now that you're moving the goalposts, I'll withdraw from this conversation.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/10/2006

As with the AHA Convention, the MLA Convention also considered broad resolutions that spoke for the entire association. To quote IHE's Doug Lederman, "speaker after speaker rose to complain about 'right wing' attacks on higher education" in a debate where the central item was whether or not to excise from an anti-ABOR resolution sponsored by the Radical Caucus a clause contending that the ABOR aimed at enforcing “the teaching of ‘conservative’ ideas that cannot win support through their own merit.” The IHE story (as well as the Chronicle coverage) noted that those suspicious of the clause disputed not its factual basis but the tactical wisdom of including the clause.

If the debate over this resolution--a resolution voted on by the MLA delegate assembly--presented "a distorted view" of the MLA meeting, then the MLA has no one to blame but itself.

George H Williams - 1/10/2006

If you've looked at the program, then you know that panels devoted to contemporary politics are few and far between, representing a statistically insigificant percentage of the total.

There are many, many panels meeting simultaneously, and it's extremely unlikely that a person interested in, say, Victorian novels is going to skip a panel on that topic in order to be able to voice dissent at a panel hosted by the Radical Caucus. Being skeptical of a particular group's "agenda"--which is, in fact, unlikely to have much traction beyond their own group--is not enough to make most attendees focus their energy on that group's panels.

By focusing on the extremes, you help spread a distorted view of the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Why are you doing that? What's in it for you?

Robert KC Johnson - 1/10/2006

The first concept (ruling out applicants because of their opinion on the war in Iraq) would violate personnel policies at all public universities and most private ones. I do find that pretty upsetting. A slight permutation of the second point triggered a major fight over the meaning of academic freedom at Cal-Berkeley a couple of years ago. As I commented at the time, I prefer the philosophy expressed in the AAUP's 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom on such matters.

Perhaps there were lots of people skeptical of the Radical Caucus' educational and political agenda at the conference. These dissenters appear to have done a most ineffective job at making their points of view heard.

I have looked at the MLA program.

George H Williams - 1/9/2006

I do not agree with either of these sentiments, but I tend not to get too upset that there are people who publicly express opinions I disagree with.

These opinions certainly do not represent any sort of "mindset of the conference" [sic]. You seem to be assuming that there is an ideology to which everyone at the MLA must subscribe. How, exactly, would this subscription be enforced?

As for how you're arriving at your conclusions regarding the MLA, I am not a historian, but I recognize the superior value of primary sources (in this case, the many MLA presentations that take place annually) over secondary sources (in this case, the reports generated by a news media interested in the exceptional rather than the common).

Have you even looked at the program for the conference?

Robert KC Johnson - 1/9/2006

My fault: I should have been clearer. What I found fascinating was that, in a series of open statements, professors stated that they would: (a) not consider hiring an applicant who favored the war in Iraq, on the grounds that supporting the war suggested an inability to engage in critical thinking; and (b) see nothing wrong with fashioning an "anti-war" curriculum in a skills course. I'm not too surprised that (a) and (b) have adherents. I am surprised that people would be willing to state the sentiments publicly.

Perhaps the sentiments offered at this panel weren't widely shared at MLA--though based on the press coverage I read of the conference (from the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), this session seemed to reflect the mindset of the conference.

George H Williams - 1/9/2006

So, out of thousands of presentations on a wide variety of topics, this author handpicks some that are sure to confirm him in his already held prejudices about the academy.

And this is fasinating?

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