Academic Freedom on the Front Lines
January 11, 2005
Front Page Magazine
By any measure,
Even in this hostile environment, an academic freedom movement has flourished. The campus branch of Students for Academic Freedom, headed by Eldad Yaron, has proven remarkably effective in gaining student support for its efforts. One sign came this fall, when Representative Daniel Tauber of the Student Government Assembly introduced the Defense of Academic Freedom Act, which seeks to protect students from being penalized for their political viewpoints and to discourage professors from replacing academic content in their classes with material that solely reflects their political opinions.
In an ideal world, legislation such as Tauber’s wouldn’t be necessary, but over the years, public colleges and universities have been particularly vulnerable to attempts to use the classroom for indoctrination. The most spectacular example, McCarthyism, led to the dismissal of hundreds of faculty members nationwide for their Communist or allegedly pro-Communist leanings.
In the last decade or so, a new type of challenge has emerged, based on a different conception of what an education at a public college should accomplish. Public institutions traditionally have sought to provide students with knowledge in the disciplines of the liberal arts, as well as important intellectual skills such as writing and critical reasoning. The new goal, however, centers on a belief that public colleges should teach students not how but what to think.
Adherents of this viewpoint are mostly senior administrators and the senior professors whose lifetime appointments and salaries safely ensconce them in the upper middle class, and they base their position on an unseemly class prejudice—namely, a contention that middle- and working-class college students need to be taught how to behave in a “diverse” society. In another era, this would have been described as a “civilizing” mission, but such wording, quite properly, is now discredited. In the framework of organizations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities, appropriate student behavior in a “diverse democracy” is most often achieved by professors using the classroom to influence students’ political positions. It is no coincidence that the AAC&U has guided the
The Brooklyn College Bulletin, like that of most colleges and universities, explicitly guarantees to all students the right to academic freedom, and so the Student Government had every right to take up a measure like Tauber’s. Indeed, the bill could not have been more timely: the college administration has, in a variety of recent venues, demanded an increased emphasis on “Global Studies.” To my knowledge, not one university grants a Ph.D. in “Global Studies”; instead, this new curricular fad provides a cover for professors to offer courses organized around one-sided presentations about contemporary domestic and international issues. In a “Global Studies” class, students need the protection provided by measures such as Tauber’s Defense of Academic Freedom Act, since teaching truly is a political act.
The Tauber measure drew strong opposition from administration supporters on campus. One faculty member (whose in-class approach this noindoctrination.org posting profiles) informed Assembly representatives that the bill, which urged the college to adopt as official policy that professors could not be fired for their curricular or political opinions, would produce a new “McCarthyism.” Moreover, the representatives were told, passing the bill would require Brooklyn’s “far-right” History professors to assign Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky in their classes—even though no conceivable reading of the measure could suggest that professors would be forced to assign any specific works, much less books from outside of their discipline. (Zinn is a political scientist, Chomsky a linguist.) Then, astonished Assembly members were advised that if they wanted an appropriate model for academic freedom, they should turn to the example of late 1960s , where this faculty member was invited to speak alongside a professor from the
As the meeting drew to a close, members of the Assembly received a first-hand lesson in what academic freedom might have been like in a one-party socialist state of the late 1960s. Brooklyn College Dean of Student Life Milga Morales issued a letter deeming “null and void” all actions taken by the Assembly in the previous seven weeks and removing the duly elected Assembly speaker and committee chairs. When queried on the matter by the
The college’s action drew an almost immediate rebuke from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose director of legal and public advocacy, Greg Lukianoff, noted, “That any college would take such extraordinary actions to prevent the passage of an academic freedom bill is both outrageous and shameful, and is unworthy of an institution dedicated to a liberal arts education.” President Kimmich quickly looked into the matter, concluded that Morales had acted before obtaining all of the facts, and reversed her ruling on technical grounds.
To FIRE president David French, “The message from this case is clear: friends of liberty will not allow administrators to hide censorship behind procedural or administrative pretexts. If an administration believes an academic bill of rights is improper, it should engage in debate, not repression.”
The college disagreed: in a letter to FIRE,
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