Blogs > Cliopatria > The Limits of Academic Freedom?

Oct 29, 2004 9:16 pm

The Limits of Academic Freedom?

As Cliopatria readers know, I am concerned with the application of ideological litmus tests in the hiring and curricular processes, and this week, we’ve seen two major stories on this front. The first involves the wildly anti-Israel sentiments among Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies faculty, a topic about which I have previously written: the latest permutation, first broken and then amplified in a journalistic scoop by Jacob Gershman, chief education reporter for the New York Sun, has now received coverage in the New York Times and generated a lead editorial in the New York Daily News.

The issue: a film put together by a pro-Israel group, The David Project, featuring former Columbia students recounting their experiences in Middle Eastern Studies classes. Middle East Studies Professor Joseph Massad demanded to know how many Palestinians one student, a former soldier in the IDF, had killed; another student quoted Massad as saying,"I will not have someone in this class who denies Israeli atrocities.” In another case, a student asked his language professor about using the verb “prevent” in Arabic, and received the following response:"Israelis prevent ambulances from entering refugee camps.” Massad did not deny making the comments, but instead charged “This is a propaganda film funded by a pro-Israel group as part of a racist witchhunt of Arab and Muslim professors,” and he noted that “neither Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any student.” Columbia’s existing system required students concerned about bias to contact either Massad himself or the chair of the department, Hamid Dabashi, a figure who hailed the Columbia “teach-in” at which one professor hoped that US soldiers in Iraq would experience"a million Mogadishus” as the “revenge of the nerdy ‘A’ students against the stupid ‘C’ students with their stupid fingers on the trigger” and has described Israel as “nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States.” No wonder no complaints were filed.

To his credit, Columbia president Lee Bollinger is now investigating the matter.

Based on their public reactions to date, neither Massad nor any of his colleagues see anything inappropriate in their behavior, they see it as part of their job to orient their classes around their views of what the appropriate policy of the US and Israel in the Middle East should be. When departments are allowed to employ ideological litmus tests in the personnel process, as seems to have been the case in Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies department, it should hardly be surprising that professors approach their job as Massad has done. Under no definition of “academic freedom” can a professor refuse to provide instruction to a student until that student answers a question such as “how many Palestinians did you kill”?

If possible, an even more bizarre conception of academic freedom has come from Cal.St.-Long Beach, where an English professor named Clifton Snider has claimed, “The special nature of universities protects professors from being question[ed] about their lectures.”

This assertion forms part of Snider’s defense after he came under attack by Town Hall columnist Mike Adams for ideologically biased assignments in his Introductory English class. Snider, in a remarkably similar situation to the Vinay Lal “Democracy in America” course UCLA about which I’ve previously written, listed a variety of suggested topics for a required opinion essay.

Some of Snider’s suggested topics are ideologically neutral; others are blatantly one-sided, all in one direction: i.e., “Energy (nuclear, solar, fossil, synthetic fuels, etc.). A related topic is Dick Cheney's secret conference on energy policy. Why hasn't the administration revealed who participated and should it reveal this information? Also important is the fact that, as Kevin Phillips writes,"four generations of the [Bush] dynasty have chased [oil] profits through cozy ties with Mideast leaders, spinning webs of conflicts of interest”; “The Economy (tax cuts, the military budget, education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, etc.). Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generation”; “Should Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have been impeached for her partisan, political actions in the Bush v. Gore case of December 2000?”; “George W. Bush's time in the National Guard presents important questions about the character of a man who has sent hundreds of Americans to their deaths in war and killed and maimed untold thousands of others”; “Is it right for the Bush Administration to use the War on Terrorism for political or commercial purposes?”; “What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq?”; “Discuss how the war has effected [sic] our relationship with other countries in the Middle East.”

More alarming—this is, remember, in an opinion essay requirement—Snider excludes students from writing about a host of positions that would be considered “conservative,” such as support for prayer in public schools, opposition to same-sex marriage, support for “the so-called faith-based initiative,” opposition to abortion, and opposition to hate crime laws. These are topics, the professor informs his students, “on which there is, in my opinion, no other side apart from chauvinistic, religious, or bigoted opinions and pseudo-science.” In an even more chilling statement, he adds, “Neither homophobia nor racism can be tolerated in civilized, rational debate; therefore, I will not accept either as arguments, however disguised, in your papers.” Except for hate-crime laws, I personally agree with Snider’s position on all of these issues. But to inform students that in an opinion paper, taking positions that disagree with those of the professor can constitute “homophobia” or “racism,” “however disguised,” is astonishing. To date, the administration at Long Beach has done nothing about the issue, but obviously no student who disagreed with Snider on political issues could run the risk of expressing their viewpoints in the class assignments.

The Massad and Snider cases are reminders that academic freedom is not an absolute right. First, as Snider seems not to have realized, it carries with it a presupposition that professors specialized training gives them a right to teach their subjects free from outside interference. When, as Snider seems to be doing, professors simply attempt to force students to agree with their political opinions, politicians can legitimately ask why they don't have a right to ensure balance--at least at public universities. Meanwhile, academic freedom is not a right solely possessed by professors--students also have the right to a college education free from ideological intimidation by professors, something that Massad and his cohort seems to have forgotten. My sense, unfortunately, is that problems like these two cases will become increasingly common, as departments that employ ideological litmus tests in the hiring process grow increasingly isolated from any dissenting viewpoints, and so they come to believe that behavior such as Massad's or Snider's represents an appropriate approach to the job of a college professor.

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More Comments:

Robert KC Johnson - 10/30/2004

In the Massad case, it's useful to imagine the reaction of a mirror-image event--i.e., if a Jewish professor told a Palestinian student that he wouldn't answer the student's question until the student told him how many innocent Israeli civilians the student had killed in terrorist acts; or if a Jewish professor announced to his class, "I will not have anyone in this class who denies Palestinian atrocities."

I think we all would recognize acts such as these as unprofessional. I'm unaware of any such acts, and would condemn them as strongly as I've condemned Massad. Professors are not supposed to say that students who disagree with them on highly controversial contemporary political issues are not entitled to receive their services as professors--for which, after all, the institution is paying them a salary.

As to the Snider case, he is, of course, entitled to his opinions, and he can and should write op-eds or letters to the editor expressing them. But in a course to teach students writing, he has no business preventing students from taking positions on controversial contemporary issues with which he disagrees.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/30/2004

Professor Johnson's present concern, as the title would indicate, is academic freedom. Perhaps when Pipes gets an academic position and uses it to abuse his students in an unprofessional manner, then Proessor Johnson will address that. If you have any such examples, I'd advise you to forward them to the professor and see if he will comment on them.

There is nothing wrong with the questions Snider poses. There is something very wrong with his redlining questions for his students to pose and answer in what is supposedly a class on writing, rather than a Vietnamese re-education camp. That he would take the opportunity of his class to brainwash his students (I'm sorry -- "work towards peace and human rights") is a disgrace. His unprofessionalism and intolerance should be an embarrassment to the profession. In fact, he should be fired.

chris l pettit - 10/30/2004

I have seen some comments of Massad's that are questionable, and so get your point, but would like to point out that the statements of his that you cite are absolutely accurate and can be supported and so weaken your argument. Israeli forces have prevented ambulances from reaching the injured, anyone who denies Israeli atrocities is either an idiot or a bigot, the man does not deny Palestinian atrocites (although some of his statements that Zionists construe as supporting them are rather ill advised). I can see how one could, in their own little reality, be a little miffed about the context in which the ambulance prevention was raised, which clearly belies Massad's stance, but with so many bigoted pro-Israeli scholars throughout the US (Daniel Pipes), how can one complain about the questionable nature of statements made by a faculty member who is supposedly anti-Israel without condemning the bigotry of Mr. Pipes, who gets plenty of play here at HNN? In this instance, your commentary is incredibly one sided and laughable.

In terms of Snider, his lack of balance is deplorable, and the fact that he does not allow student to write ignorant and idiotic subjects, as they are entitled to do as part of their academic freedom, is definitely something that can be played upon by those who want to continue the tradition of stupidity and miseducation that pervades our universities. It is too bad that he supports his progressive views in such a way that conservatives are able to attack them, no matter how silly the attacks are. His claim about not having to speak about his lectures is simply untenable. If he is going to teach in such a fashion, he needs to answer questions about it.

The "investigations" surrounding the controversies are a bit questionable, in that there is nothing to investigate in the case of Massad. If anything they should be investigating the religious extremists that were allowed to make the propaganda video. I suppose one could make a case for a sitting down with Snider to get him to adjust his teaching style, but there is nothing wrong with the questions he poses, and I hope that he continues to pose tough questions that force students to actually address what is going on in the world today instead of allowing them to continue to be brain dead zombies like most Americans (and a large percentage of academics). Maybe then we can actually start working towards peace and human rights instead of continuing our spiral into oblivion.


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