The flap over liberal law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky's deanship at UC Irvine may be resolved, but many questions still remain about the general health of academic freedom across the nation.
The Chemerinsky case is just one of a few recent high-profile examples involving politics, academic freedom, and the hiring, firing and tenure-granting decisions at universities. Others include the firing of Ward Churchill, a radical professor at the University of Colorado; the denial of tenure to DePaul University's Norman Finkelstein, a hard-hitting critic of Israel; and the current controversy brewing over the tenure approval of Barnard College's Nadia Abu El-Haj, who has criticized Israel's archaeological practices. Some say that these cases create a climate of fear on campuses, especially when discussing loaded issues about Israel and the Middle East as a whole.
"There's no doubt that there's a concerted right-wing attempt to intimidate professors who advocate critical views, especially on Middle East issues and on the Bush presidency," said Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University and distinguished visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara. "I think the high-profile cases deserve the attention they receive, but the real threat of academic freedom is to create this climate of uncertainty and intimidation in which people who don't have tenure or secure positions will be much more reluctant to engage in controversial activities … or express controversial views in their classes or in their scholarship. I think that's a tremendous loss to the kind of creative atmosphere that institutions of higher learning should do their best to establish."
Churchill was fired for academic misconduct, the investigation of which stemmed from a 2005 controversy touched off by an incendiary essay he wrote soon after the 9/11 attacks that compared some of the workers in the World Trade Centers to "little Eichmanns," referring to the infamous Nazi war criminal. He has sued the university, alleging the denial of his First Amendment rights and due process; the university has asked a Denver district judge to toss it out.
Finkelstein was denied tenure earlier this summer by the board of Chicago's DePaul University on a 4-3 vote. (This followed a 9-3 vote by the political science department recommending tenure and a 5-0 endorsement of the recommendation by the College Personnel Committee.) A brief firestorm ensued over both the political nature of the decision and allegations that Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor and Finkelstein's ideological foe, had influenced the decision when he actively campaigned against the granting of tenure. Finkelstein and the university eventually agreed to a private settlement.
Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology of Palestinian descent who has won a number of awards and grants, is currently under intense scrutiny as she waits to hear if she will be awarded tenure. Barnard College has approved her tenure and is awaiting approval from its affiliate, Columbia University, which holds the final word. Condemnations of Abu El-Haj swirl around her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, chosen by the Middle East Studies Association as one of 2002's best two English language books about the region, which some argue is scholarly lacking.
Some point to the attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent war on terror, as a watershed point for academic freedom on university campuses.
"There's certainly been a general attack against academic freedom in the wake of 9/11, particularly in Middle East studies," said Matthew Abraham, an assistant professor at DePaul University, who spoke in support of Finkelstein and Abu El-Haj. "The war on terrorism has brought with it a war on academic freedom … Scholars who are bringing attention to [U.S. and Israeli actions in the Middle East] are going to be attacked because they are uncovering aspects of our foreign policy that nobody wants to discuss openly."
These cases and others have occurred in a time when some organizations, including David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom, Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch, and Lynne Cheney's American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), have increasingly denounced what they see as liberal bias on university campuses. Of these organizations, both Students for Academic Freedom and ACTA have introduced legislation seeking to mandate a balance of political views within the academic curricula.
"When I was a leftist, I wanted to hear the argument on the other side," said Horowitz, a conservative writer and activist, about his efforts to combat the "leftist bias" he sees on campuses. "It's like being a tennis player with nobody on the other side of the court. It's bad for their leftism."
Others disagree, arguing that politics should not be introduced into academic decisions.
"It's so incredible and unbelievable to consider the idea that you want to look at somebody's politics when you're making a hire or promoting someone," said John Curtis, a director at the American Association of University Professors. "There's no reason to ask what a professor's political views are, because what matters is what they do in the scholarly world and what they do in teaching."
While the legislative efforts to counteract perceived liberal biases have by and large failed, some worry that they have created a threatening atmosphere.
"Our big concern is that even when legislation doesn't pass, faculty starts self-censoring," said Craig Smith, a coordinator at Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition of organizations committed to fighting against these legislative efforts. "They feel that they can't push their students, and they can't say unconventional things and that they may get into trouble for that because more people are paying attention."
Amid all of this is the Chemerinsky case, which many argue benefited because conservatives, including Horowitz, stepped forward to express their support for the embattled legal scholar.
"This suggests that there is a red line that beyond which encroachments on academic freedom will not be effective or successful," said UC Santa Barbara's Falk. "What I fear most is the secondary effect of these efforts, which is to create an atmosphere of intimidation … that threatens the whole climate of learning within academic institutions."