A pro-Israel think tank started a web site last month to monitor North American faculty members and universities and to allow students to report on their professors. The Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum maintains "surveys of institutions" and plans to make these available to administrators, trustees, alumni, students, parents, and government officials and legislators.
Organizers of the new site, called Campus Watch, said they "will henceforth monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance." According to the web site's sponsors, "American scholars of the Middle East, to varying degrees, reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the U.S. government about the Middle East ... Campus Watch seeks to reverse the damage already caused by the activist/ scholars on American campuses."
Campus Watch charges that "Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association, the main scholarly association, is now 50 per cent of Middle Eastern origin. Though American citizens, many of these scholars actively disassociate themselves from the United States, sometimes even in public."
Among the institutions initially targeted by Campus Watch are Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Stanford, North Carolina, Michigan, Concordia and Toronto.
Martin Kramer, the editor of Middle East Quarterly, the think tank's journal, said combining scattered material in one location will be useful, but he hopes the site grows over time.
Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said Campus Watch is "a menace to academic freedom, and we are taking it very seriously. It reminds us of 'Accuracy in Academia,' the group that emerged in the mid-1980s with a call to patriotic students to monitor their professors for indications of Marxism in their teachings and inform AIA, which would publicize the evidence. The academic community greeted AIA with disdain, the public was not taken in, and it never really got off the ground. That was before the era of e-mail, of course, but let us hope that academic freedom withstands Campus Watch equally well."
One of the professors targeted by Campus Watch, Hamid Dabashi, chair of the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures at Columbia University, said the project seeks to create fear that students will be spying on professors. That won't effect him, he said, but it could be a "horrible development" for junior faculty members. "In the tenure culture, it could be damaging to the healthy relationship that has to govern the classroom," Dabashi told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor and editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies said the watch list had resulted in massive repetitive spamming of the e-mail addresses of the scholars identified on it, as well as of many others. "Singling someone out for opprobrium and monitoring has immediate effects in cyberspace, which a reasonable person could have foreseen. Obviously, denying academics use of their e-mail facilities is a key interference with their research, scholarly communication and career effectiveness," he said.
Considerable concern has been expressed in Canada. Peter Fitzgerald, chair of history at Carleton University, said that "whatever one's views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Islamic fundamentalism, I would hope that any academic would find the idea of collecting information and assembling 'dossiers' on the classroom teaching of colleagues to be both bizarre and repugnant."
"Campus Watch appears to be an attempt to intimidate and silence particular academics and to place their opinions outside the boundaries of 'legitimate' academic debate," said CAUT executive director James Turk.
"Anyone committed to academic freedom must be concerned. We remember what initiatives like this have done in the past and will not allow that to happen again. CAUT will actively pursue this matter, in conjunction with our colleagues at the American Association of University Professors," he added.