What will be the biggest test on campus this fall? The calculus midterm? The chemistry final? The sociology term paper? For supporters of free speech outraged over recent attacks against progressive professors, the correct answer may very well be: none of the above.
Campus opponents of U.S. wars abroad or racist, sexist, and heterosexist actions at home are discovering that they are targets of a well-funded assault. The immediate aim is to intimidate academics from speaking out; the more sinister long-term goal is to turn back the clock on past victories for civil liberties.
The fruits of such victories are the departments of women's studies, African American studies, and other ethnic studies — whose existence is now at stake.
The biggest test on campus this fall? How to defeat the rightwing menace that threatens to chill campus activism and free speech.
The big chill. Opponents of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the U.S.-supported Zionist occupation of Palestine are particularly at risk.
In February, Colorado governor Bill Owens called for the firing of Ward Churchill, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Churchill's "crime" was writing an article a few years back in which he blamed the tragedy of 9/11 on the terror of U.S. foreign policy.
The media salivated at this fresh opportunity to publicly skewer a widely known critic of the ruling rich. As could be expected, Fox's Bill O'Reilly accused Churchill of being "unpatriotic."
Churchill still has his job, thanks to public support of his right to free speech, but resigned as chair of the ethnic studies department.
At Columbia University in New York City a month later, the Israel on Campus club showed a "documentary" film in which disgruntled students accused professors from the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Culture (MEALAC) of penalizing them for not sharing their views.
Joseph Massad and other MEALAC professors roundly denied the unsubstantiated charges. Still, officials called for an investigation of bias on campus.
Despite various attempts, none of the MEALAC professors were fired.
In spring of 2004, Elyse Crystall, an English department lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taught a course called Literature and Multicultural Diversity. In one class, students discussed how men react to homosexuality. Crystall didn't anticipate the land mine she was about to hit.
Student Tim Mertes commented that homosexuality was "disgusting" and "a threat to life." Because the next meeting was not for five days, Crystall felt compelled to respond with an email to her students.
As an untenured faculty member with no job security, Crystall's move was remarkably courageous. She wrote that expressing homophobic ideas with a sense of impunity is an example of the privilege that comes with being a "white, heterosexual, Christian male."
U.S. Representative Walter Jones, the originator of "freedom fries," found out about the email and demanded an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. The OCR found Crystall guilty of creating a "hostile environment," ruling that she "illegally subjected a student to intentional discrimination and harassment." The OCR required an apology from Crystall and an agreement to allow a faculty observer in her classroom.
Crystall publicly objected to her forced confession. "My ability to protect my students has been taken away from me," she wrote.
The university administration neither criticized the OCR nor suggested that it is people like Mertes, not Crystall, who create a "hostile environment."
Heretic hunters in high places. In 1995, Republican Lynne Cheney and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman created the bipartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Its goal is to identify professors who are "short on patriotism," the supposed "weak link" in U.S. security. ACTA dangles billions of dollars in potential contributions before the bulging eyes of state governors and university administrators.
Governor Owens was active in ACTA when he charged Ward Churchill with "treason." Owens also called for changing the tenure system and tried unsuccessfully to gut the ethnic studies department budget.
Blacklisting professors is a pet project of Campus Watch, the online affiliate of the Middle East Forum. Its founder is shameless Muslim-hater Daniel Pipes, who served on a Defense Department anti-terrorism task force. Discussing immigration to Western countries, he called Muslims "brown-skinned peoples" who maintain "different standards of hygiene" and whose customs are "more troublesome than most."
Campus Watch describes itself as an organization of "American academics concerned about US interests and their frequent denigration on campus." These interests include "strong ties with Israel" and "a stable supply" of cheap oil.
Its mission is to "monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance." Among such "monitored" professors were the MEALAC colleagues at Columbia University.
Campus Watch wants to "reverse the damage already caused by the activist/scholars on American campuses" and pledges to continue its crusade "so long as the problem exists."
Another major player is David Horowitz, founder of the Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). Horowitz, a politically born-again rightwinger, decries history departments that do "not have a single conservative on faculty." He complains that "university faculties are teeming with Marxist crackpots." Women's studies departments are centers for "training in radical feminism."
In order "to end the political abuse of students," Horowitz wrote an Academic Bill of Rights, which he wants universities to adopt "voluntarily." But Horowitz is happy to let state legislatures impose it as law. At least half a dozen states are considering this, with talk about "select committees" to monitor classrooms and reading lists.
A year before his anti-Crystall crusade, Jones of North Carolina cosponsored a House resolution based on Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights. "I want the Congress to hear from students and faculty to determine if there is a problem at our colleges, and I think there is," he said.
The University of North Carolina's SAF identified one such problem — an alleged lack of equal rights for opponents of abortion. It posted a memo from Carolina Students for Life demanding the right to use Women's Center resources to sponsor its own "pro-life" speakers.
Who's oppressing whom? Cheney, Lieberman, Pipes, and Horowitz claim to support academic freedom. But they use an old trick in portraying those who wish to stifle free speech as victims.
Their dangerous doublespeak can be found currently in the U.S. Senate's bipartisan draft of the Higher Education Act, which resolves that colleges "not permit professors to punish students who don't see eye to eye with them."
What facts justify this clause? The case of Ward Churchill? Joseph Massad? Elyse Crystall? Will a student who fails a human sexuality exam for insisting that homosexuality is not God's will now have the right to bring charges against the professor?
No one should be fooled by these rightwingers. Neither bigoted white males nor advocates of imperialist wars are an oppressed minority. They are supporters of oppressive policies against women, Middle Easterners, gays and lesbians, African Americans — in fact, the vast majority of the globe's people.
To overcome this menace, students, faculty, and other working people must demand a massive increase in the funding of public universities, including their women's and ethnic studies departments, so that they do not have to rely on grants from the likes of Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman. There must be no professorial blacklist, and Horowitz's phony Academic Bill of Rights and Congress's undemocratic Higher Education Act must be defeated.
Neurologist Steve Strauss, the author of a recent book taking a sharp political look at phonics and education, can be reached at stevenstrauss436 @hotmail.com.