The Organization of American Historians, the foremost scholarly organization for the study of American history, has been looking into charges of widespread harassment and repression in our institutions of higher education as a result of the government's attempt to stifle dissent. And their findings are disturbing.
The initiative for the investigation came from Historians Against the War , a coalition of scholars who oppose the President's war in Iraq. Historians Against the War requested the Organization of American Historians to look into examples of alleged repression and harassment.
Among the scholars' concerns were the Patriot Act's restrictions on research, especially its infamous section 215, which allows the government to snoop into library records. They also described widespread reports of teachers, especially in high schools and community colleges, who have been threatened, "reprimanded or confronted with suspension or non-renewal for allowing students in their classrooms to express opposition to the occupation of Iraq."
Historians Against the War point out how Campus Watch and other right-wing groups denounce historians who express anti-government views. These groups sponsor letter-writing campaigns and public denunciations; they enlist right-wing politicians to pressure school boards and boards of trustees to punish or fire teachers whose opinions they don't like. Their efforts are part of a larger culture war that calls on teachers to espouse a pro-government policy or else suffer the consequences, which include dismissal or the refusal of employment.
The anti-war historians cited as well how the Bush Administration has gone to extremes to limit historians' access to government records though a variety of tactics — from outright denial of access to blocking out sections of documents. Freedom of Information Act requests have met with denials, restrictions, and/or delays by the government.
In response to these concerns, the Organization of American Historians last March created an ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom; the committee's mandate was "to investigate reports of repressive measures having an impact on historians' teaching, research, employment and freedom of expression."
The ad hoc committee report clearly supports the scholars' charges of right-wing attacks on faculty who oppose administration policies. The committee describes how right-wing groups "mount systematic and often vituperative campaigns" that call upon college and university administrators to censure or dismiss faculty who have expressed publicly their opposition to the war in Iraq.
Their tactics include denunciations sent to the faculty member and campus newspapers, "as well as harassing telephone calls late into the night."
The committee's report calls government surveillance of faculty members, students, visiting scholars and libraries "ominous."
The Patriot Act has also created a computer system called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), which keeps watch over the status of international students and reports information to the government.
According to the committee's report, foreign students who are not enrolled full time are subject to arrest and deportation: "In California at least, some of those students have simply disappeared. Privacy rules block any attempt by their teachers or friends to investigate what happened to them."
The Organization of American Historians also describes the "interminable" reviews that foreign historians, students and researchers are now subjected to when they apply for entry to the United States or renewal of their green cards. This has obviously deterred many scholars from applying for positions in the United States. The committee found that in the last year alone, "foreign students (especially from China) have overwhelming applied to other countries rather than to the US (with especially severe consequences for the sciences)."
In September 2004, the Council of Graduate Schools issued a sobering report on the decline in the number of foreign graduate students in the United States — down 18 percent from 2003-2004. Many graduate institutions have been forced to institute policy changes designed to "ease and encourage foreign admissions."
The Organization of American Historians ad hoc committee also cites the case of an eminent Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, who was prevented from accepting a teaching position at Notre Dame. Deborah Sontag wrote an article in The New York Times in October entitled "Mystery of the Islamic Scholar Who Was Barred by the US." The Times also carried an op-ed by Ramadan himself, "Too Scary for the Classroom?"
The committee is especially worried about "direct efforts by the federal administration and by foundations and Web sites that support it to shape the content of teaching and research in directions favorable to its policies." Area studies programs have been hardest hit by this attempt to make the curriculum conform to the government's policies.
The Organization of American Historians has corroborated the concerns raised by Historians Against the War and other teachers of history.
The government and its supporters are waging a concerted campaign to stifle academic freedom and dissent in our schools and colleges and to force on the educational system a curriculum that supports government policy.
Whether this campaign to stifle dissent succeeds or not depends not only on the reaction of professional groups like the Organization of American Historians and individual teachers but also on that of the public at large.