Universities across the country are contending with the influence Middle East politics and partisan interest groups have on who the institutions promote, hire and invite to speak. The issue has brought into question the line between free speech and academic professionalism.
In contrast, UT's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Department of Middle Eastern Studies have a rather unique policy that rejects partisan political groups and chooses, rather, to keep academia academic.
Even before Sept. 11, their policy has been to not sponsor national or foreign government officials or partisan groups, unless a plurality of views is represented, said Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
"Having someone come in and grind an axe on their perspective isn't education," he said. "It's just political lobbying and campaigning. A lot of government officials are just campaigning, or trying to get some bill passed."
Speakers coming from academia are generally preferred, Aghaie said. While the policy restricts the influence of ideas coming from outside academia, perspectives, even controversial ones, from the inside are not censored or monitored, he said.
"We don't avoid any sensitive issues," Aghaie said. "There aren't any noncontroversial issues in the Middle East . . . It's just the way we deal with it tends to be academic, as objective as we can, as diverse - with plural views internally - as possible, but we never had to avoid any issues."
The American Association of University Professors, however, said outside perspectives are important for the educational experience.
In 1967, the association articulated the argument it upholds today, "the freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom," and that "the right to examine issues and seek truth is prejudiced to the extent that the University is open to some but not to others whom members of the University also judge desirable to hear."
Such inclinations to pursue plurality undermine the right of students to hear outside speakers and thus contradict the basic educational mission of colleges and universities, according to the association's Web site.
The concept of balance shouldn't be the goal of intellectual inquiry, said Robert Jensen, journalism associate professor.
"If you balance an accurate fact with an inaccurate fact, that's not a virtue," Jensen said. "This idea that all you have to do is balance controversial subjects is really quite silly."
On the other hand, "the Middle East is a very flammable area; you say one thing, and you offend 100 people," said Abraham Zilkha, Middle Eastern studies associate professor. "There are a lot of propagandists in this part of the world, and we don't want someone who's trying to inflame the situation. We're dealing with 18-year-old students who can become an easy prey for those who want to indoctrinate them."
Liat Avivi, a Middle Eastern studies and law student, said college and graduate students are capable of assessing the credibility of speakers discussing controversial and flammable issues.
But Emrah Zarifoglu, engineering graduate student and representative for the campus Middle East Film Club, said he'd rather avoid the flammable discussions.
"Personally, I'm trying to get away from controversy that may put people on the two polar opposite sides of some discussion," Zarifoglu said. "There are more common points that we can come about by the means of the culture."
The Middle Eastern studies department and center focus strongly on cultural aspects, which Zarifoglu said are more important than polarizing political views to convey right now.
"When we talk about the Middle East from the Western side, it's more like an Orientalist point of view; like all the people living there are a uni-culture," he said.
Moreover, the policy has allowed administrators in Middle Eastern studies to avoid pressure from lobbyists and partisan groups trying to influence academia, Aghaie said.
Barnard College, Wayne State University, Yale University and New York University have all experienced recent flare-ups caused by the outside influence of interest groups, mostly pro-Israeli, on the speaker selection, hiring and tenure processes.
"There's tremendous pressure from Friends of Israel on the academic professional," said government professor Clement Henry. "Israel, that's 6 million people [compared to] a total 300 million Arabs, 70 million Iranians and another 70 million Turks. But, that's something that I think has always been with us and something this country has to grapple with."
Faculty are supposed to have the academic freedom to pursue inquiry, including inquiry into controversial and difficult subjects, Jensen said. This push toward balance in academia is a political strategy, he said.
"One of the most controversial and difficult is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the people advocating for the Israeli position win, in a sense, if they win this demand for balance," Jensen said.