Is the academic mission of American universities under attack? Several recent events, including the case of Campus Watch described in Shalom Goldman's essay and the one I describe here, suggest a pattern of accusations of anti-Americanism leveled against the academy. This case in particular implies that some universities are incapable of deciding what or how to teach.
In North Carolina, both the courts and the state legislature became involved in a controversy over the University of North Carolina's right to set the curriculum for an academic program for incoming freshmen. The annual North Carolina Summer Reading program assigns incoming freshmen a book to read over the summer that they will then discuss in the classroom when they arrive on campus. Last summer, the decision was made to find a book that would present the basic tenets of Islam, and Chapel Hill's Professor Carl Ernst chose Approaching the Qur'an by Haverford Professor of Religion Michael Sells. Despite the availability of an option for students to write a paper on why they chose not to read the book, three unnamed freshmen at the University of North Carolina sued the university in federal court, arguing that the assignment blurred the mandated separation of church and state.
The court threw out the case, but the state legislature took it up. The North Carolina House of Representatives passed legislation blocking funds for any entering freshman course in religion "unless all other known religions are offered in an equal or incremental way" (the full text is cited on the American Association of University Professors website, www.aaup.org). With this act, the state legislature in effect seeks to exercise power over the university to limit the curriculum and interfere with academic freedom. As an op-ed by general secretary of the AAUP Mary Burgan points out, several other public
universities have also been recent targets of their state legislatures, who took issue with controversial research of certain faculty. Those of us who teach at private institutions are fortunate not to operate at the whim of state politicians, but we are not free from financial pressures.
This kind of pressure is disturbing in and of itself, but what is even more troubling is the plaintiffs' and politicians' blurring of the
distinction between teaching and advocacy. In effect, they charged
the UNC with advocating for Islam, as if there were no difference between studying a religion and proselytizing for it. This kind of thinking is anti-academic, and it reflects what I believe to be a growing misconception that a college education should not entail introducing students to anything that challenges their basic beliefs.
Is academic freedom unnecessary, a luxury we may disregard in times of trouble? Are certain institutions or individuals undeserving of it? Individuals and groups outside the academy are increasingly vocal about wanting a say in what goes on inside it. They demand this role without a proper understanding (or, in at least one case, with a willful misunderstanding) of the nature of university teaching and research. Perhaps this is in part our fault for not constantly striving to communicate to the public what it is we seek to do and why. It probably also reflects an increasingly conservative political climate. In this climate, and under the threat of war, it behooves us all to pay attention to attacks on academic freedom and to support efforts to defend it.