So far, 2007-2008 is looking like another bleak academic year for those of us who want the university to be a fair, welcoming and open-minded oasis where the life of the mind can flourish. In Gaza, Hamas police and their henchmen recently beat professors and students at Al Azhar University, who dared to protest a Hamas rally mourning the death of Hamas's founder. In Great Britain, radical academics are threatening to try boycotting Israel again, despite the financial strain it puts on their union which is supposed to improve scholars' working conditions. In California, an independent task force deemed University of California at Irvine a hostile environment for Jews, with the administration cowed by an aggressive and frequently anti-Semitic Muslim Student Union. And in February, in 20 campuses worldwide, activists spent a week perpetuating the historically inaccurate and libelous comparison between Israel's policies and the old South Africa's systematic, racist apartheid regime.
Despite these assaults on academic freedom and integrity, more of my professorial colleagues are outraged by the failure of the anti-Zionist polemicist Norman Finkelstein to get tenure. Many professors are also furious that some Barnard College alumni vainly tried to interfere in the tenure process of Nadia Abu El-Haj, who sloppily and tendentiously caricatures Israeli architecture as a prop for Zionist colonialism.
THESE TWO cases and others inspired the noble-sounding but deeply biased Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University. This fall, leading scholars from Princeton and Columbia started a petition drive against outsiders imposing "political agendas" at the cost of academic freedom. These external forces, the petition argues in its first paragraph, have defamed scholars, pressured administrators and subverted university governance to achieve their aims. Such assaults violate "an important principle of scholarship, the free exchange of ideas, subjecting them to ideological and political tests. These attacks threaten academic freedom and the core mission of institutions of higher education in a democratic society." The second paragraph then reveals the bias. The petitioners claim that "many of the most vociferous campaigns targeting universities and their faculty have been launched by groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel." The petition ends by warning of a new McCarthyism, perpetuating a stereotype of embattled liberal academics, and vowing to defend and explain the "importance of academic freedom to a sustainable and vibrant democracy."
In fact, the 646 scholars who signed will have difficulty explaining academic freedom, considering their petition reflects such a deep misunderstanding of the essential mutuality underpinning academic freedom - and the broader notion of scholarly integrity. Conservative and liberal academics seem to agree that academic freedom is threatened. Yet they ignore that, together, partisans from both extremes risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more "academic freedom" becomes a term fronting a particular political agenda, the more embattled and devalued the concept becomes.
As writers and teachers, professors cherish their academic freedom to think and speak freely. Academic freedom is a politically neutral concept defending professors' rights not to be politically neutral. Scholars should be free to reach politically-charged conclusions without worrying about professional sanctions. But academic freedom demands that scholars grant colleagues and students the same latitude they enjoy to think differently. Unfortunately, too many modern academics demand the freedom to pursue their own political agendas without embracing that mutuality freedom requires.
THE PETITIONERS missed the historian's favorite text - context. They are free to condemn the backlash against the Columbia Middle East Studies professors who intimidated Zionist students, the Norman Finkelstein and Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure controversies, the fights over federal funding to bring Middle East Studies professors hostile to American policy into high schools. But an honest assessment of the background would conclude that these storms did not emerge in a vacuum. Tensions accumulated for years over perceived leftist biases and politically correct intolerance throughout the universities, most especially in Middle East studies.
In the modern university, attacks on George W. Bush are ubiquitous and guaranteed to get cheap and knowing laughs. Yet when critics suggest that academics on the whole veer left, cries of "McCarthyism" fill the air. A petition truly in the spirit of academic freedom would acknowledge the growing tension, both sides' excesses, and challenge everyone in the university to ratchet down the politicking, especially in the classroom.
The petitioners have undermined faith in their political smarts as well as their scholarly integrity. Given the charged context and the many grievances on both sides, their inability to mention even one abuse from anti-Israel or anti-American forces inside or outside the university is shocking. Scholars should be among the first to reject the modern Middle East's mutually exclusive, all-or-nothing narratives. This doctrinaire refusal to acknowledge complexity dismays many students who are subjected to their professors' one-sided perspectives.
Universities need professors to create a new tone in many classrooms. Many of my students understand that their professors will reveal some bias. The students resent professors who present their political bias as the only perspective and disdain any other positions.
Students know how to play the academic game. If they sense professors want parrots, they can squawk back brilliantly. But we do not need a generation of cynical copycats, echoing a party line. We need a generation of eagles, taught by their mentors to soar high, transcending the red-blue gravitational physics weighing down so many discussions today.
This need for independent, creative student thinkers, mentored by tolerant, truly liberal-minded professors, suggests the deeper scandal in spreading such one-sided petitions and such a pinched, my-way-or-the-highway view of academic freedom. These petitioning professors not only unduly politicize the meaning of academic freedom. If they impose the same one-sided views in the classroom that they do in such petitions, they are also regularly committing educational malpractice.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His next book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents will be published this spring.