It was a year ago tonight. You probably remember where you were. George W. Bush had actually won his first election, and a primal scream broke out across the Yard ahead of schedule. Then everyone went home, trying to forget about the whole thing.
One year and hundreds of flag-draped coffins later, it looks like this president could be going down. But so could our freedom to speak out about what's happening to our nation and our University.
The Bush Administration has created a climate of fear and complacency that has contaminated the once open air of the academy, even in the bastion of liberalism that Harvard likes to think it is. And it seems the free speech standards of the Bush era have been embraced by administrators and students alike.
Let's face it. The Bush backlash has had Harvard whipped. The spectrum of acceptable discourse has grown narrower and narrower. Many students have told me they feel the need to censor themselves in the classroom. Others won't go to political events that interest them for fear their peers or employers will find them guilty by association.
Just as dangerous as students' self-censorship is the direct censorship of the Harvard administration itself. Administrators have gone to great lengths to regulate political activity on campus and have shown their readiness to undercut students' free speech rights when they aren't big fans of the content of that speech.
A case in point is the anti-war movement at Harvard. Last spring, administrators made an abortive effort to prohibit students from gathering to protest recruitment. And they have even tried to regulate the content of political speech, with an associate dean recently telling organizers of today's rally to "keep your gathering restricted to the war."
It would appear that the administration oversteps its bounds when it seeks to add to its job description the position of "thought police."
Harvard faculty, too, have faced political intimidation on campus. Sociology Department Chair Mary C. Waters stated last year that many have been "held hostage to fear." And the University has made it clear that professors can expect retribution when they are too outspoken in challenging its political and pedagogical orthodoxies.
They may be driven to leave, as Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West '74 was after President Summers derided him in 2002. Or, like Lecturer Brian Palmer '86, they may be denied a new contract despite teaching one of the most popular, engaging, and politically explosive classes that I, for one, have ever taken.
Once you start allowing your students to debate the merits of a democratic university or the value of the living wage sit-in, your fate at Harvard is sealed.
Such incidents are more than merely unfortunate for those involved. They produce a chilling effect on speech and teaching for everyone else. Political profiling is the mortal enemy of academic freedom.
To be fair, Harvard is not alone in picking on dissident professors. Yale recently terminated renowned Professor of Anthropology David Graeber solely for his anarchist beliefs, while many other schools have let go of faculty for socialist, atheist, pro-Palestinian, or purportedly "anti-American" views. One can disagree strongly with all of these views and still recognize a professor's right to hold them. This is what civil liberties were made for.
Yet across the nation, classes are being monitored and professors policed by state governments as they legislate so-called "academic bills of rights." Academic blacklists have been issued by Campus Watch and Lynn Cheney's American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which smell just like the un-American activities committees of yesteryear.
Indeed, a new breed of McCarthyism now endangers the American academy. It threatens the free exchange and expression on which our education is founded. And though it may start by menacing the few, it will end up menacing us all.
So it's time for all of us to stand up for those who have come under attack for exercising their freedom as faculty, as students, or as citizens. Because it might as well be any of us.
The values of free thought, free inquiry, and free speech become more important than ever in times of war and government secrecy. The academy is called to be a haven of freedom, not an ivory tower in Bush's Fortress America. Let us decide which we will be.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky '07 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House