Writing for the conservative National Review Online, contributing editor and Hoover Institute fellow Stanley Kurtz recently argued, "The war [on terrorism] has unquestionably brought a new level of scrutiny to our politically correct campuses." Neoconservative activists claim to champion the First Amendment by bringing "scrutiny" to the "unbalanced" speech on campus. At the same time, since September 11, 2001, they have increasingly criticized curricula that challenge the traditional picture of America as a blemish-free beacon of freedom and progress.
Although many professors have been maligned for their alleged unorthodoxy since the Culture Wars (and, before that, McCarthyism), this time around, students are being recruited as the movement's foot soldiers and informants, encouraged to file online reports on their professors in order to create a database of dossiers on the deviant. When translated from neoconservative speak, Kurtz's statement rings eerily true. September 11 has intensified the right's tactics and created a fragile environment for academic freedom. September 11 has not yet, however, allowed the right to significantly restrict academic freedom. Except for the firing of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist, defenders of academic freedom have been successful in the face of an ever-narrowing national discourse. Like efforts in the 1980s by the group Accuracy in Academia to enlist student snitches on campus, current campaigns to recruit undergraduates to spy on their professors—including Campus Watch, the Web site of neoconservative journalist Daniel Pipes, and No Indoctrination, the site of science-teacher-turned-activist Luann Wright—have not been enthusiastically received by today's college students. More significant, even the conservative student activists I interviewed for this article are publicly either lukewarm or opposed to attempts to curtail academic freedom.
Opponents of academic freedom employ two divergent and contradictory arguments in their assault on perceived academic deviancy. Partisans of both approaches (and many are, of course, partisan to both, alternating between the two pragmatically) insist that they strongly support academic freedom. One typical argument employs the standard polemics of "unpatriotic" and "un-American" against offending academics. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) was founded by former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney and Democratic senator and presidential contender Joseph Lieberman (who has since distanced himself from the organization). ACTA maintains this tradition of jingoistic conservatism in its November 2001 report, Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It, which catalogs the American faculty's most ungracious remarks in the aftermath of September 11.
Exploiting the surge in nationalism that followed the terrorist attacks, the report contrasts the response of the public and the government with that of the academy, and it doesn't like what it finds. Relying on a seemingly random collection of quotations, often taken from peace demonstrations, the report rails against dangerous subversives in a tone of simple-minded nationalism. It quotes a longtime leftist professor of journalism and sociology as saying, "There's a lot of skepticism of the administration's policy of going to war," as if his appraisal of the political climate on his campus somehow reflected his own unorthodoxy. Ironically, the professor supported war in Afghanistan. Instead of looking up one of the many articles that he had written about the war on terrorism, ACTA gleaned the quotation, along with four others, from a story in the tabloidesque New York Daily News. The professor says that the ACTA report is a "miserable excuse for research," yet he doesn't see it as a major threat to academic freedom. "I'm not inclined to think that it counts for much. It just pumped up the fervor of people who already look to that group. Their purpose seems to be to get attention to a rather primitive form of obedience."
More recently and most interesting, however, is the right-wing appropriation of academic freedom's own rhetoric in the battle against it. Web sites like CampusWatch and No Indoctrination, along with neoconservatives such as Kurtz, Pipes, and journalist David Horowitz, are charging unorthodox professors not with failing to properly glorify America, but with violating the academic freedom of their own students and the right of those students to be free from indoctrination. They make their claims in terms of fairness. The November-December issue of Academe reported that "professors whose dossiers were listed [on Campus Watch] informed the AAUP that they were immediately subjected to massive spamming of their e-mail addresses and, in the case of one of them, to repeated death threats. Outcries against the dossiers led to their removal as a separate section of the Web site, but attacks on particular professors were retained in another section." Right-wing activists aver that these sites work to further academic freedom despite their chilling effect on individual professors.
The neoconservative critique of the academy is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Despite its rhetoric of academic freedom, the campaign's target is what Horowitz perceives to be a "fifth column" amid us, whom he characterizes as "tens of thousands of active sympathizers with the enemy's anti-American cause." The right's hard evidence for leftist bias is a survey released by the American Enterprise Institute in the August issue of American Enterprise magazine, written by editor-in-chief William Zinsmeister and Horowitz. The authors asked student volunteers to research the voter registrations of a sample of professors at local boards of elections. The results showed that most of the professors sampled were members of "left" parties, such as the Democratic, Working Families, or Green Parties, appearing to demonstrate an overwhelming liberal bias in the professoriate.
But in December's American Prospect, Martin Plissner, former political director of CBS News, pointed out the survey's fatal research flaw. "In the University of Texas sample, for example, twenty-eight of the ninety-four teachers came from women's studies—not exactly a highlight of any school's core curriculum or a likely cross section of its faculty. At the same time, none of the ninety-four was from the university's huge schools of engineering, business, law, or medicine—or from any of the sciences." Zinsmeister and Horowitz apparently skewed their methodology to fit an agenda designed to impeach, rather than defend, academic freedom.
Kurtz argues that official statements on academic freedom, such as those of the AAUP, "clearly give the university grounds for taking action against professors who place their wish to radicalize students over their obligation to expose them to contrary views." Objecting to political indoctrination sounds reasonable on the surface. The courses that right-wing activists find objectionable, however, sound oddly familiar despite the new rhetoric about the academic freedom of students.
In August, Young America's Foundation, a center established to build the conservative movement on college campuses, re-leased its report, The Dirty Dozen: Twelve College Courses You Are Paying For. The offending courses include "Seeing Queerly: Queer Theory, Film, and Video" at Brown University and Harvard's "Who Is Black?" about the social construction of racial identity. The right's target is not the violation of student freedom of thought but, rather, the fact that certain thoughts and questions are being raised at all. The right would seem to prefer that issues like race, class, and nationhood be kept simple and static.
Writing for the conservative Web site Accuracy in Academia, columnist Dan Flynn proclaims that he finds liberal bias in the notion that reality is constructed by human agents acting in history. He criticizes the University of Colorado class "The Social Construction of Reality" as emblematic of liberal bias in the academy, "which purports that 'all things that construct the objective social facts of our social world are created, reproduced, maintained, and distributed by specific human interaction processes.'" Ironically, The Social Construction of Reality was first published in 1966 by conservative sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann.
Ideology is best transmitted simplistically. The less complex issues like patriotism and nationhood are made to seem, the easier it supposedly is to rally students behind them. Horowitz told me that "the greatest threat to academic freedom today comes from professors," and that the liberal bias in the academy makes it "hard for college students today to believe in their country." Pipes's and Horowitz's real threat to academic freedom lies in their misleading rhetoric. Their ultimate target is not liberal bias but truly open inquiry. For Horowitz, the slippery slope begins with questioning one's country, which leads to criticizing it, and potentially concludes with committing treason. Beneath the rhetoric is the obvious: Horowitz and his colleagues simply want the American university to bend to their agenda.
Conservative student activists do not seem eager to join the ranks of this collegiate campaign. Before college, young people often see issues like race, class, and America as static entities imbued with a given and unquestioned character. The academy, in the spirit of preparing critically minded students for life in a democracy, questions presumptions and comfortable assurances. Although some students I interviewed echoed the rhetoric of Pipes and Horowitz, most seemed to respect political diversity among the professoriate and the right to academic freedom, despite their objection to "liberal bias." Why the disjunction between campus and think tank? Horowitz says he thinks that conservative students have been "too passive," and that they have allowed "incredible injustices to pass without protest." Instead, maybe conservative students are just better able than Horowitz to grapple with difficult problems and ideas.
Among the student conservatives I interviewed, the president of the campus conservative club at a prestigious East Coast university was most openly hostile to academic freedom. He says that professors in Middle Eastern studies who attempt to "rationalize" the September 11 attacks "sympathize with America's enemies." He insists that a professor's job is to "inspire patriotism" and "teach students what our enemies are all about" in a way that will serve U.S. interests strategically. He derides professors who try to explore the "root causes of terrorism—some of which are clearly irrelevant," arguing that in the interests of our country, truth should be consistently submitted to political interest and ideology.
The solution to subversive faculty? The student, an economics major, wants universities to "implement market-based approaches to faculty labor," which would eliminate tenure and end what he calls "professorial activism." Once such a program is realized, the university should be able to fire "a professor who incites violence and hatred against Americans." Without tenure, job security would be a function of a professor's conformity to patriotic orthodoxy.
Most conservative student activists I spoke with, unlike that student, claimed to advocate academic freedom for the right and for conservatives. The cofounder of the same conservative club differentiates "between those who explain violence and those who support violence." He insists that "people like Noam Chomsky," the outspoken leftist social critic, should be protected under academic freedom. The danger is how, where, and by whom is the line between advocating and explaining violence drawn? Is Columbia University professor Edward Said's support of Palestine, or, more controversially, his throwing a rock at an Israeli military base, protected under academic freedom? Is the support of any national liberation movement not explicitly sanctioned by the U.S. government protected? The "moderate" opinion of the conservative club's cofounder allows for some disturbing possibilities. However, advocacy for opinions and ideas all along the political spectrum is protected speech—you just can't pick and choose in a free society. Absolute rights to academic freedom must be defended absolutely.
A junior at a large midwestern university and cofounder of a Web magazine posted on the magazine's site "a list of words that appear in college catalogs frequently." He says that if he ever sees those words in a course title, he knows that "it's not worth taking the course." The words include "class," "race," "gender," "identity," "imperialism" (but not "imperial" or "empire"), "Freud," and "capital" and its variants (except in an economics course).
What gets lost in the belligerent polemics of right-wing activists is that academics should be open-minded, with a principled aim of free inquiry. For conservative students, the problem with these courses seems to be that they explore issues that conservatives would prefer to ignore. Explanation apparently implies social causation and amelioration. Critics of academic freedom are more comfortable with stasis and simplicity. In conversation, however, the written facade of the Web magazine cofounder fades. He says that people like Pipes and ACTA who label those who question American foreign policy as unpatriotic are "silly." He adds that Pipes "has a whiff of book burning about him. These campaigns are expressly designed to silence free speech."
Another conservative student who cofounded the same Web magazine says that the "America is evil approach" should be balanced by a conservative response. He believes, in stark contrast to Horowitz or Pipes, that "liberal bias" doesn't usually prevent faculty from offering balanced viewpoints in the classroom. Further, he doesn't think, "that these professors should be censored or fired. It's a matter of freedom of speech and if we can't have it in a university, where can we?" He noted that I was probably expecting a much more intolerant response, more akin to ACTA or Pipes. I was. "There's a growing rift between the young conservatives and the old guard," he explains. "The younger conservatives are a lot more tolerant of intellectual liberals." Although his Web magazine began as a conservative publication, he says that it now includes liberal writers as well. He claims this new inclusiveness is "emblematic of the tolerance of diverse ideas within the new conservative movement."
Marketplace of Ideas
Most conservative activists, both collegiate and professional, describe the university in conspiratorial terms of systematic leftist indoctrination. The cofounder of the conservative club on the East Coast campus explains that most conservatives tend not to become teachers. "They'll work in Wall Street or as accountants because they want to make money," he says. "They want the government to leave them alone. The activist left on the other hand, wants to create a new society. The way it does this the most is by indoctrinating children."
"Indoctrination" is a word that means many things to many people. According to students' postings on the No Indoctrination site, it can signify anything from a professor who "openly refers to certain political parties as 'idiotic' on a regular basis" to one who displays "seriously objectionable anti-Semitic sentiment such as [criticizing] Israeli mistreatment of 'the Palestinians.'"
In fact, the ideological discrepancy between the academy and society that ACTA and the conservative students cite should be welcomed rather than feared. As the American political dialogue becomes increasingly more narrow and simplistic, students need to be engaged in controversial debate. The academy does not owe proportional representation to all ideologies espoused in society. The leftist journalism professor I interviewed commented that if all views were to be represented, then experts on extraterrestrials should be put on staff as well. Professors owe their allegiance to the truth, wherever it may lead them. The alleged indoctrination that conservative activists complain about is really just the asking of certain questions. On the way to Wall Street, some conservative undergraduates feel that understanding the cultural and racial effects of economic stratification creates obstacles. They need to know how it works, how they can manipulate it. They do not want to know the whys that are demanded of the academy.
Right now, the major threat to academic freedom resides in rhetoric. Right-wing activists continue to associate the academy with dangerous leftist extremism. Any eventual success of the right's rhetorical campaign might allow for serious threats to academic freedom that politicians, in a time of war, can't be presumed to resist exploiting.
More immediately and more tragically, the threat is to the undergraduate student's mind. The right's intellectual blacklisting will cause more students, many barely out of high school, to preemptively close their minds to the academy's free and provocative marketplace of ideas. As students, we all enter the academy predisposed to think in one way or the other. However, we are also endowed with latent critical capacities. Recently, Central Connecticut State University president Richard L. Judd, defending a Middle Eastern studies seminar, accurately assessed the undergraduate perspective: "University students are not blank slates. They are capable of assessing the value of a professor's teachings."
Critics of academic freedom warn that we students are being systematically indoctrinated by a fifth column in the professoriate. The myth of liberal bias must, however, take a great deal of energy and creativity to perpetuate: at a post-September 11 panel at (notoriously liberal) Reed College, not a single professor expressed opposition to U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, and one actively supported it. Further, Horowitz's "fifth column" must somehow also include the many conservative student activists who refuse to take part in his assault on academic freedom.
However frightening their bark may be, opponents of academic freedom are for now a loud, angry, self-involved community, hopelessly unsuccessful at reaching out to undergraduates in their efforts to restrict expression on campus. The danger is that the great suppressions of academic freedom in the United States have always been preceded by the cultivation of an environment hostile to professors who espouse controversial ideas. As historian Ronald Lora argues in his account of right-wing activists' campaign against suspected communists and liberal "fellow travelers" during the McCarthy years: "Unsympathetic to the notion of a managed society . . . modern American conservatives have sought instead to build a harmonious society by creating a deep-rooted moral and intellectual consensus. In their view, deviant behavior and ideas were heretical and ought to be suppressed, because they posed a threat to social cohesiveness."
In the academy today, right-wing ideological forces are working to exclude undesirable people from debate. So far, however, these forces have failed to persuade college students to sign on the dotted line.
Dan Denvir is an undergraduate major in anthropology and student body president at Reed College