Neve Gordon: Academic Freedom after September 11

Roundup: Talking About History

[Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at nevegordon@gmail.com.]

Immediately after September 11, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded by Lynn Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman, published a report accusing universities of being the weak link in the war against terror and a potential fifth column. As if the general hint at treason was not enough, an appendix to the report listed the names of 117 "un-American" professors, staff members, and students, and the offending statements they had made.

A few months after ACTA‚s study was disseminated, Daniel Pipes, the director of a think tank called Middle East Forum, launched a blacklisting internet site called Campus Watch, which publishes dossiers on scholars who criticize US policy in the Middle East or Israel‚s treatment of Palestinians. On the website one finds a "Keep Us Informed" section, where Pipes encourages students to inform on any professor who deviates from "correct conduct." Some have obediently complied.

These initiatives marked the beginning of a well-orchestrated attack against academic freedom in the US. In mid-January of this year, the Bruin Alumni association offered students $100 to tape leftwing professors at the University of California Los Angeles. The idea was to expose radical professors who "[proselytize] their extreme views in the classroom." 24-year-old Andrew Jones did not wait long and created a website featuring a hit list of 30 professors he considers the top extremist, leftwing offenders.

As Beshara Doumani, a history professor at the University of California Berkeley, points out in his compelling introduction to Academic Freedom after September 11, Pipes and friends have cynically appropriated the liberal terminology of the New Deal and civil rights eras, employing code words such as balance, fairness, diversity, accountability, tolerance, and not least, academic freedom in order to justify the enforcement of a political orthodoxy that undermines these very values.

The book describes this new assault on academic freedom in detail, distinguishing the current wave from the one launched by Senator McCarthy. As Stanford University Professor Joel Beinin observes, the geographical and political context has obviously changed, so that if in the 1950s scholars who offered a dissenting analysis of the Soviet Union and Cold War were decried as traitors, today it is Middle East specialists who are being accused of treason.

But the main difference between the two academic witch hunts is that today private interest groups and not the government are running the show. Of course, the major players within these think tanks have unhindered access to the corridors of government and are frequently successful in influencing high-ranking public servants; yet the resources for the campaign to de-legitimize academic dissent and to control the production of knowledge come from opulent think tanks.

In addition, the strategy employed today is different from the one used during the McCarthy era. The future of academic freedom, Kathleen J. Frydl predicts in her chapter, will not be determined in the courts but by budgets, whereby those who challenge the powers that be will be cut off from resources, while knowledge will be privatized and become the property of those who have the assets to produce it. The measure of academic freedom, she continues, will not be calculated according to who is fired by the university, but by who is hired -- those who appear to be intellectually recalcitrant will simply not be allowed to enter the academic gates. Finally, tenure will no longer guarantee academic freedom, since job security will be destroyed. Tragically, all of the processes described by Frydl are not part of some distant and theoretical future, but in the past years have infiltrated the higher-education system.

Doumani's timely volume not only provides the reader with an analysis of the very real assault on academic freedom as well as several important documents that pertain to this assault (in the appendix), but also assembles three chapters by Robert Post, Judith Butler, and Philippa Strum who discuss, respectively, the historical roots of academic freedom in the US, its philosophical underpinnings, and its legal structure.

Post, a law professor at Yale and a former general counsel of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), takes the reader on a fascinating journey, tracing how academic freedom first developed as a result of efforts to institutionalize a set of employer-employee relationships in a university setting. He shows how the principle of academic freedom emerged in the US not as an individual right, but rather as the price the public must pay the academic community in return for the social good of advancing knowledge. Scholars are granted the freedom to conduct research upon the understanding that this is the way universities can provide meaningful contributions to human knowledge and the search for truth.

Post notes that this is precisely the reason why the International Studies in Higher Education Act (HR 3077) that was passed in Congress in October 2003 contradicts the principle of academic freedom. This Act aims to establish a powerful advisory board to oversee International Studies programs which receive federal funding, authorizing the board to review course material, curricula, and faculty hires and make funding recommendations to the Secretary of Education. Two seats on the board are reserved for personnel from national security agencies. Post concludes that this Act could ultimately transform International Studies into programs that merely promote opinions held by the people who provide funding and therefore undermines the social function of the university as a free market of ideas that advances knowledge.

Post adds, though, that academic freedom does have constraints which are determined by professional norms concerning, for instance, the quality and methods of research. This claim triggers Judith Butler, whose profound chapter problematizes Post‚s descriptions, demonstrating that he does not fully take into account the historicity of academic norms.

In her brilliant essay, Butler shows that the emergence, transformation and sometimes disappearance of academic norms not only change our conception of what constitutes research and knowledge and how we conceive truth, but also shifts and blurs the boundaries between academic freedom and first amendment rights, between professional and extramural expressions, and between individual rights and institutional prerogatives. She underscores that one of the roles of academic freedom is to allow and even encourage scholars to critically interrogate the legitimacy of academic norms, the very norms which according to Post serve as the boundary of academic freedom. Because the tension between academic norms and academic freedom can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways, it creates a paradox. Butler would probably say this is healthy, since such paradoxes can expand intellectual frontiers and spur the production of challenging new ideas.

All of which brings us back to Doumani's introduction, where he persuasively argues that the question is not only how to preserve academic freedom but also what to do with it. It is time, he says, "to engage as public intellectuals the domestic and international movements for civil rights, democracy, and justice... Let us speak and act before it is too late."

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Ronald G. Feldman - 1/25/2008

Paul Godt is well known for his attacks on his colleagues. That is why he was let to retire early. He was a liability, more than anything else to his university. Another ethically challenged American pseudo-intellectual, lacking completely any moral fiber.

john crocker - 8/20/2006

I have attended five different colleges, in three different regions of the US and in Europe and have yet to be in a classroom like you describe. Almost every professor I have had has appreciated being challenged by students and challenging them in return. If you don't want your worldview challenged university is not the place for you.

"Those arguing for academic freedom are arguing for unaccountable bureaucracy. Worse, they are arguing for a monopoly on intellectual life."
This is in fact exactly what they are arguing against.

The first acts of fascists, communists and religious fanatics when taking poser is to liquidate the intellectuals. Ask yourself why the intellectuals are the first targets of those seeking social control of a society and ask yourself why they are under attack in America now.

John Nesbit - 8/18/2006

Intellectuals/scholars are entitled to their political opinions - that is why they called "intellectuals". Objective knowledge is social science is fiction! I fully back Marwan Bishara, a fine journalist and politicall scientist even if I may dusagree with him pn many issues. Nevertheless, judging by his writings, he stands up as a fair and balanced analysts. My understanding is that he is not the first scholar to become victim of a political witch-hunt initiated by some of his US colleagues.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/13/2006

How can you preserve something which doesn't exist? You people ought to realize 52% of the American people voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and virtually none of his supporters sit on U.S. college faculties. When you talk about "academic freedom" you seem to want to argue about Israel, which quickly gets a little boring, and nothing else. David Horowitz isn't even mentioned above, but he can slice all of you to ribbons with his arguments about the subject of academic freedom--and the lack of it--in America today. I guess Horowitz is having some success with his state-by-state legislative effort, too. Professors like Ward Churchill have helped him a great deal.

john crocker - 8/12/2006

Where did you go to school?

john crocker - 8/11/2006

Which conclusion?

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/11/2006

"On the contrary, like in America, Europe and else where, Israeli Jewish and Arab intellectuals and scholars are indispensable moral guides to their peoples, both in theory and in practice. It's not only our right as professors to be activists, it's also our responsibility as scholars to struggle for fairness and justice and keep power in check. "


Jason Blake Keuter - 8/11/2006

Let's read some transcripts of the rhetoric in class before jumping to that conclusion!

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/11/2006


Jason Blake Keuter - 8/11/2006

What you call academic "freedom" is actually the habit of not being challenged. Professors speak to captive audiences. They have arbitrary power over the graduate school lackies, which instills in the latter habits of intellectual subservience. Pipes and others are simply questioning and challenging government employees in the public sphere. Those arguing for academic freedom are arguing for unaccountable bureaucracy. Worse, they are arguing for a monopoly on intellectual life. Invariably, they complain about corporate influence and their well financed opposition in thinly veiled Marxist cant, but they do so only to maintain their monpoly on expropriated money from the workers who pay for universities but don't attend them. They know that the more what they do is exposed to public scrutiny, the less likely the public is to pay for it. For this they pour derision upon the unknowing corporate dupes that make up the electorate. In reality: Pipes is a whistle blower working in the public sphere that academics should know better than to enter.

They have the right to their opinions. They do not have the right to be paid for holding them. Their defense of academic "freedom" is a shrill, disingenous defense of bureaucratic privilege.

Haim Katz - 8/9/2006

3/11/2005 02:00 PM
To: celeste.schenck@aup.edu, douglas.yates@aup.fr, eaker@essec.fr, Gail.Hamilton@aup.fr, jmhnewton@yahoo.com, marc.montheard@aup.fr, MarcoRim@aol.com, oleg.kobtzeff@aup.fr, paul.godt@aup.fr, paul.godt@wanadoo.fr, schemeil@lecap.upmf-grenoble.fr, steven.ekovich@aup.fr, gardner@aup.fr, shperry@wanadoo.com cc: gerry@aup.fr bcc:
Subject: Re: Marwan Bishara's response to Paul Godt's allegations

Dear IA department:
Please find enclosed Marwan's Bishara's response to Paul Godt's allegations, in which he openly accused Marwan Bishara of "anti-Semitism," in the Wednesday March 9 meeting of the IA Department, and sent to me as Chair of the IA department.-Hall Gardner Chair, IA Department

Dear Colleagues,
I am alarmed and dismayed by Wednesday's IA department meeting. Mr. Paul Godt made a number of unsavoury and outrageous accusations regarding my views and beliefs. To add insult to injury, he accused me of "anti-Semitism" as a way of intimidating me and the department. That is blood-libel. Worse, Paul Godt recommended that, for its own sake, AUP must sever or end all institutional relationship with me or in other words, ban me from teaching at the school because of my activism and beliefs (and because I am a Palestinian!). It is shocking but hardly surprising coming from Paul Godt. Unless, he apologizes, formally and in writing, for the comments he made, I will take this matter to the Ethics Committee and from there to only-God-knows-where. I am shocked because even in Israel, the "Jewish state" where I was born and raised as a Palestinian Arab with de facto second class citizenship, I never experienced such aggression and hostility by a soldier let alone coming by another colleague. Yet I am not surprised because ever since I joined AUP three years ago, Paul Godt never said hello, never spoke to me, never attended any of my classes or my lectures and yet he ran campaign to discredit me from day one. This week, I was treated like a Jew was treated in past times.

Paul Godt has based his attacks and criticism on the basis that my activism runs counter to my teaching and being a Palestinian is bad for my classroom objectivity and, all in all, my association with AUP is harmful to its reputation. In Israeli universities, Israeli Arab and Jewish professors teach side by side regardless of their differences of opinion and their ideological affiliations. Jewish and Arab activist professors who speak out jointly and separately for peace and justice are not chased out of their institutions. On the contrary, like in America, Europe and else where, Israeli Jewish and Arab intellectuals and scholars are indispensable moral guides to their peoples, both in theory and in practice. It's not only our right as professors to be activists, it's also our responsibility as scholars to struggle for fairness and justice and keep power in check.

Marwan Bishara

Dexter Ramm - 8/9/2006

Judith is a little nuts.

john crocker - 8/8/2006

I don't think the author is worried about an honest portrayal of what is taught.

What these sites tend to do is take quotes out of context, complaints from disgruntled students or make things up to support misleading claims about bias. Witness the post you are responding to. The actual title of the course is "Nationalism in the Middle East as Idea and Practice."

I am not saying that bias does not exist on campus, just that the idea of some liberal conspiracy to warp the minds of the youth is nonsense. The biases seen are a factor of the biases of the observer and the department viewed. If you focus on some humanities departments you will likely find leftward biases in the opnions the professors express outside the class and in some cases that bias may enter the class. If you focus on business departments you are likely to see that trend reversed. If you focus instead on math and science departments you are not likely to run into any political bias exposed in the classrooms or labs.

john crocker - 8/8/2006

The actual official title of the course and its catalogue description follow:

"Nationalism in the Middle East as Idea and Practice"
MDES G6031, Fall 2006, Instructor: Joseph Massad This course intends to familiarize students with the most recent theories dealing with nationalism from a variety of angles and perspectives. In addition to covering the theoretical material, the course also examines two case studies on nationalism, Arab unionist nationalism and Zionist colonial-settler nationalism. The course will discuss issues of gender, law, sexuality, race, tradition, narration, in the context of studying the formation of national identities. Day/Time: Thursdays 4:10pm-6:00pm 3 points.

I am not sure how the name ensures that you are signing up for a hate course. The name you thought the course had would indicate quite a narrow focus. "Zionist colonial-settler nationalism" is the title of one of the two contrasting case studies. I am not entirely certain why you find this phrase to be indicitive of hate. Is it because he describes Israelis building settlments on disputed lands "Zionist colonial-settlers?" Which part of that discriptor is inaccurate?
Or is it because he refers to their nationalism; which is not much in dispute? Neither the description nor the course title are indicitive of bias. You may feel that he is biased, but you will have to do a lot better than this for your argument to be convincing.

John H. Lederer - 8/8/2006

According to the author:

Publicising what is taught = Denial of Freedom of Speech

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 8/7/2006

Joseph Massad to teach "Zionist colonial-settler nationalism" at Columbia Yap. That is the OFFICIAL name of the course. Apparently, Columbia no longer demands that her professors even pretend to be objective. They just want to say: Do not complain. The name insures that you know you are signing up to a hate course.

Samuel Wilbur Condon - 8/7/2006

The problem with the argument that what ACTA is doing constitutes a McCarthyite attack on academic freedom is that it's incoherent as an argument <em>for</em> academic freedom. That is, it seems to assume that academic freedom is simply a concept that, by definition, has no bounds. If it has no bounds then it also has no purchase, and whether it exists or not is irrelevant.

As a matter of fact, however, the use of the term "balance" isn't a code word for repression but a very real reference to the notion that there just isn't much "balance" in a system that has been almost completely dominated by a clique of multiculturalists, so that if one doesn't at least pay lip service homage to this clique one simply doesn't stand a chance of being hired or promoted. Also, pointing out that the way the term "diversity" is operationalized doesn't include any notion of ideological diversity isn't to use a codeword to undermine the concept of "diversity;" it's simply an accurate description of what's going on. The irony here is that one can't even suggest that the multiculturalist conceptions of diversity might not actually work, or that their manifestation is more likely to lead to intolerance than tolerance. In short, there's no tolerance for that perspective at all... even though there's an enormously persuasive empirical argument for it.

What do you call a system where people are constrained from making persuasive empirical arguments for a position? Surely not "free", by any rational standard of meaning? The myth, of course, is that no such empirical arguments exist... which is only plausible in an environment that all-but enforces their absence.

John Chapman - 8/7/2006

similar to the old style Soviet apparatik. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a truly “private university” in this country but they are the schools who would be free to hire any people they like, free to hire and fire on any basis whatsoever, who could make contracts with professors that say: you must always teach that Christianity is the only true religion, that the college president is not a jerk, and that neoconservatism and the merger of church and state would the best thing since the appearance of Jesus Christ. State-supported institutions on the other hand will be able to do no such thing and have to rely on the free market of ideas to advance knowledge. Like having the Dark Age and the Enlightenment existing at the same time on the same continent, maybe even encouraging new paradigms.

Michael Glen Wade - 8/7/2006

Yet another reason for the good voters of Connecticut to consign Joe Lieberman to the garbage heap of Senate history tomorrow. May he be the first of many in this election year.