The War on Campus

The War on Campus

Will academic freedom survive?


“They’re using state resources to the practical effect of aiding and abetting the Taliban”–and they should be fired.

Thus proclaimed Scott Rubush, an associate editor of David Horowitz’s FrontPage magazine, on National Public Radio in early October. The objects of Rubush’s wrath are four left-wing faculty members at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, who criticized US foreign policy at a teach-in shortly after the September 11 attacks. FrontPage has launched a campaign–“Tell the good folks at UNC-Chapel Hill what you think of their decision to allow anti-American rallies on their state-supported campus”–apparently aimed at pressuring UNC’s administrators and trustees to sharpen their knives.

The FrontPage campaign has kicked up some dust–the UNC administration has received several hundred angry e-mails and has been excoriated on the floor of the North Carolina legislature. But no actual damage has been done. Chancellor James Moeser has issued strong statements in defense of his faculty’s right to free speech. Throughout the country, academic freedom is far more secure today than during, say, World War I, when several schools terminated professors who, in the immortal words of Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, were “not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.”

Yet there are still genuine causes for worry about academic freedom as we move into a new, perhaps long-term, period of war. For one thing, not all administrations have been as resolute as UNC’s: Several college teachers and staff workers across the country now face disciplinary action in various post-September 11 imbroglios. Outside the campus, leftist professors have faced high-pitched media demagoguery. And it’s not clear that faculty will manage to respond to such challenges with anything like a unified voice. After two decades of passionate battles over the canon, hate speech and nonfoundationalist theories of truth, American academics may no longer share a broad understanding of what, exactly, academic freedom means.

One person who knows exactly what he believes a university should be–but isn’t hopeful that many actually existing teachers will fight for his vision–is Richard Berthold, a University of New Mexico history professor who now faces a potential semester of unpaid suspension for making a callous joke on September 11. As his class on ancient Rome filed in that morning, Berthold quipped that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.”

“It was a stupid thing to say,” Berthold declares. “I deserve a lot of the shit that’s been dumped on me. However, the First Amendment should protect even jackasses.” Berthold is no leftist. “A lot of the hate mail I’ve been getting says, ‘You commie!’ which is ironic, given that I’m pretty conservative on most domestic issues.” He is, however, critical of US foreign policy, which is part of what was floating in his mind when he made his unfortunate joke. (Berthold once actively participated in the conservative National Association of Scholars. “But I never quite fit in there,” he says. “I’m a longhair, and I would always wear a Palestinian scarf to their meetings.”)

The firestorm around Berthold burned fiercely–on talk radio and in the New Mexico legislature–for several weeks. As in North Carolina, much of this criticism leaned on the trope of “state support”: Do we good citizens really want our tax dollars to pay for sedition? In Berthold’s mind, this question (from which private universities are relatively immune) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the university’s mission. “There’s tremendous pressure from the business community that UNM should simply be filling jobs,” says Berthold. “Well, if you want that, then you’ve bought yourself a vocational school. It’s not a university. A real university is about knowledge and inquiry.” But if Berthold dislikes the business lobby’s role in shaping the university (“It seems like you have to own a car dealership to join the legislature here”), he holds an equally low opinion of certain of his left-wing faculty colleagues and their enthusiasm for speech codes. After all, the university’s charges against him include the claim that he engages in “insulting language.” “Now the American campus seems to be on the cutting edge of intolerance,” says Berthold. “And all in the name of social justice.”

This same line of argument has been taken up by several conservative essayists, notably National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz, in the weeks after September 11. It’s too bad that professors like Berthold have been disciplined or intimidated, they say–but didn’t the academic left set the stage for this kind of thing by promoting misguided and repressive antiharassment policies?

“I don’t accept that notion at all,” says Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union of the City University of New York. “I don’t accept that the left has created a climate of intolerance by vigorously denouncing racist speech. Racism is something that should be denounced each and every time it’s encountered.” Bowen’s union has been the object of intense criticism in the wake of an early October teach-in at which leftist CUNY professors discussed US foreign policy. (“Once-Proud Campus Now a Breeding Ground for Idiots,” ran one headline in the New York Post, whose editors declared that they were rethinking their support for increased CUNY funding because of the teach-in.) In fact, says Bowen, the controversy over the CUNY teach-in has been heavily conditioned by racial and class injustice. “NYU, Columbia, Princeton–every other school in the area has had similar teach-ins, and there hasn’t been this vitriolic criticism. Our students are working class, immigrants, people of color, and there’s this idea out there that they have less right than elite students to be exposed to a wide range of opinions.”

Bowen is surely right to say that “vigorously denouncing racism”–and interrogating its role in education policy–is an important responsibility. But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Stanley Kurtz is on to something. The last generation’s wave of campus speech codes and antiharassment policies may have done more to suppress freedom than to remedy injustice in any meaningful way–and it may be only now, after September 11, that the full costs will become apparent.

Consider the case of Jonnie Hargis, a library assistant at UCLA. On September 12 one of Hargis’s colleagues sent around a gooey e-mail sermon titled “America: The Good Neighbor.” Hargis replied with a message of his own: “This is all well and good but avoids the fact that U.S. taxpayers fund and arm an apartheid state called Israel…the U.S. is still bombing Iraq…so, who are the ‘terrorists’ anyway?”

Two days later, UCLA suspended Hargis for one week without pay. The charge? Not that Hargis was seditious; nor that he had violated the alleged political neutrality of the university. Those were the rationales for repression in bygone years. Instead, Hargis was charged with “contribut[ing] to a hostile and threatening environment” for his colleagues who have “ethnic, religious, and family ties to Israel.” Hargis’s e-mail hadn’t mentioned any of his library colleagues; it simply spelled out his hard-left views of US foreign policy. It’s not hard to imagine the many crucial arguments that might be suppressed with the use of UCLA’s logic. Could secular feminist speakers be accused of creating a “hostile environment” for traditionalist Muslims? Could antiwar faculty be accused of creating a “hostile environment” for ROTC members on campus? (Actually, this last argument has been wheeled out this season by conservatives.)

“The original patriotic e-mail didn’t offend me,” says Hargis. “I just took it as an invitation to discuss. And then two days later I walk in and I’m suspended.” As was the case at UNC, this story has a decent ending: Through his union, the Coalition of University Employees, Hargis has successfully pursued a grievance. He will be repaid for his lost income, the incident will be stricken from his job record and the university has been forced to issue a clarification of its e-mail policies. But it’s hard to imagine that the incident has not had at least a small chilling effect on campus dialogue.

Not all cases of alleged harassment are so prima facie absurd, of course. Forty miles to the south of UCLA, Orange Coast College political science professor Ken Hearlson has been suspended with pay following a heated mid-September exchange with four Muslim students in one of his classes. The students claim that Hearlson is biased against Muslims, that he accused them personally of supporting terrorism and that he inspired a jingoistic rage among other students in the class. Hearlson denies these charges, saying that he merely intended to stimulate a discussion about whether there is a double standard at work among Middle Eastern governments that have denounced the World Trade Center attacks but praise Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

The Hearlson case, like Richard Berthold’s, is squarely about in-class behavior, not about professors’ freelance expression of opinion at teach-ins or on Op-Ed pages. This is a crucial distinction for Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the author of There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too. Fish takes a strictly unsentimental approach to academic freedom: “It’s a guild arrangement,” he says. “It’s designed to allow professors to teach without interference from ecclesiastical or political authorities. I try not to attach to academic freedom any big-think notions like Truth or Independence. It’s a trade-off: The outside world leaves us alone, and in exchange we police ourselves, and behave responsibly in the classroom.” Fish is unsympathetic to Berthold’s insistence that his Pentagon joke is obviously and automatically exempt from university scrutiny. Suppose he’d quipped that “anyone who bombs a mosque gets my vote”–couldn’t the university legitimately censure him for that? So, too, with Ken Hearlson’s case. If the charges against him are true–if he indeed crossed the line and personally harassed students on account of their ethnicity or religion–doesn’t the school have a clear responsibility to squelch such behavior?

As a basic proposition, Fish’s claim is reasonable. But the catch is that it’s far from certain that colleges in cases like Hearlson’s will always make a good-faith effort to sort out the facts. The track record of campus antiharassment policies is not encouraging–they tend to define “harassment” extremely vaguely and to offer weak due-process protections at best. Hearlson was sent home the day the accusations were raised against him, before any investigation at all. “The college completely bypassed the faculty union’s contract, and also bypassed the formal procedure for student grievances, all on the grounds of the September 11 emergency,” says Carol Burke, president of the academic senate at OCC. The case has been turned over to an attorney with the Orange County Department of Education, who is interviewing student witnesses. An audiotape of the class, meanwhile, supports Hearlson’s account of events, according to Burke. “There are thirty-five new adjuncts and faculty members here, and this has just terrified them–‘You mean we can be taken out of the classroom just like that?'” Burke continues: “Of course serious claims of harassment should be investigated. But the college can’t just short-circuit the contractual fair-hearing process. Meanwhile, this guy has been kept out of the classroom for eight weeks.”

So a great number of questions–about speech codes, due process and faculty independence–obviously remain to be sorted out within academia. But to focus just on these matters is to miss the more immediate dangers from outside the campus: the rise of media demagoguery and the specter of populist violence, “the return of good old American anti-intellectualism,” as Fish puts it. A drunken man entered Berthold’s house and attempted to assault him, while several antiwar faculty members have received death threats, including Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of the objects of FrontPage‘s ire. Berthold says, “These two talk-radio hosts in Albuquerque play this game where they teeter right on the edge of telling their listeners to, you know, come get me. And it’s ironic, because they’re stretching the limits of the First Amendment themselves.”

Outside the heavy-breathing precincts of talk-radio, some button-down conservatives are attempting to stigmatize even the most innocuous discussions of world affairs. On November 13 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative watchdog group founded by Lynne Cheney, issued a report titled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” It lists 117 comments made by faculty and students in the wake of September 11, some of which are simple statements of fact. (Number 68, in its entirety: “Todd Gitlin, professor of communications at NYU: ‘There is a lot of skepticism about the administration’s policy of going to war.'”) ACTA vice president and general counsel Anne Neal insists her organization does not call for censorship, but the report leans heavily on the rhetoric of “unity”: “Academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response [to the terror attacks].”

The academy is indeed divided, and should be proud of it. But even as self-styled free-speech defenders like Horowitz and FrontPage are exposing their true colors, we should beware of similar hypocrisies from our own quarter. “It would be a sad day when the state decides what can and cannot be said on a campus,” says Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has defended Berthold and Hearlson. “We’re very happy that [UNC Chancellor] Moeser has stood up in defense of his faculty–but will he be just as tough when there’s some nonsense from the other side of the spectrum, if people in Chapel Hill try to shout down Ward Connerly or ban a homosexuality-is-a-disease speaker? We’ll be watching carefully. The public has got to be assured that campuses are not full of crazy double standards.”

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