Is there a conservative movement to silence dissent on college campuses? At the University of Colorado at Boulder, a radical professor's scholarship and ethnicity is the subject of an official review. Yale recenty fired its one anarchist professor. David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom keeps a conservative campus watch list. Conservatives charge that McCarthyist liberals are keeping them out of the Ivory Tower. Liberal professors argue thathat conservatives are out to remake campuses in their image - one professor or one piece of legislation at a time.
Yeshiva University history professor Ellen Schrecker, author of numerous books on the McCarthy Era including No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, puts things in perspective. "The current climate and the McCarthy Era are of course both similar and different," she explained about the post-9/11 United States. "We never see history repeat itself exactly. There's no Congressional investigating committee now, but we see the same process of demonizing enemies and seeing some kind of threat to security that has whipped up a furor with connections to partisan politics."
Ward Churchill, a UC-Boulder ethnic studies professor, thinks the comparison to the Red Scare days isn't accurate to describe the current witch-hunt on campus. "There are parallels to McCarthy's days, but the techniques have advanced," said Churchill in an interview with Clamor. "What that era didn't have is an articulated plan to convert the institutions of higher learning to the dominant ideology."
Schrecker sees an evolution as well, saying, "What's different between now and the McCarthy Era is that then attacks were on individual professors for extracurricular activities with communist groups or whatever. At no time was anybody's teaching or research brought into question. What's different today, and I think more scary, are things directed against curriculum and classroom and attempts by outside political forces to dictate the syllabus."
Middle East Studies professor Joseph Massad endured an investigation into his teaching by his employer, Columbia University, stemming from anti-Israel charges brought on by the pro-Israel group the David Project. And cases such as that of University of Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian, whose extracurricular activities with Muslim organizations have him awaiting trial for terrorism charges, illustrate that not all the attacks on professors have shifted to their lecture materials.
Current campus conservatism isn't part of any clandestine plan organized by neoconservatives in a back room of the White House. But it's important to seriously look at cases like those of professors Churchill, Al-Arian, and others in order to determine what kind of wasr is currently being waged on campus and who the combatants are.
Big Man on Campus
The Churchill saga has become a cause celebre for all sides of the controversy. Late last January, Churchill was preparing to leave for Hamilton College, in upstate New York, . But the weekend before his scheduled appearance, remarks he made in an essay titled "Some People Push Back," written the day after September 11, more than three years earlier, became the topic of national conversation. On January 26, 2005 the story was covered by the Associated Press and released on the statewide wire service. At 3:46 A.M. the next morning, Colorado Republican Congress member Bob Beauprez, an alumnus of UC-Boulder, issued a press release calling for Churchill's resignation. Within days, the story was national news, most feverishly embraced by Bill O'Reilly on his conservative talk show, "The O'Reilly Factor." At the end of June, O'Reilly had taken up the Churchill "controversy" on more than 50 programs.
Churchill started to receive death threats, Hamilton heard about anonymous threats of violence, and the event was cancelled. "I don't know how they selected Hamilton," said Churchill, "I guess someone at Hamilton found a copy of my essay, forwarded it to O'Reilly and the Denver media and suddenly it was the hottest thing since hot pants."
His version of the story isn't far off but omits part of a pattern. A few months earlier, Hamilton hired former Weather Underground activist Susan Rosenberg to teach a memoir-writing course. Much like Churchill, however, Rosenberg never made it to campus, thanks to protests at college fundraisers and immense pressure from alumni to rescind the offer to teach.
After the high-profile Rosenberg dispute, a small group of Hamilton faculty members was suspicious of the Churchill invitation and did some digging, finding Churchill's essay about September 11. Though more than 5,000 words long, detractors focused on key phrases to ignite the controversy, including this now well-worn and largely misunderstood line: "As to those in the World Trade Center . . . Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break."
AP wire stories quoted other juicy words from the essay, like "gallant sacrifices" of kamikaze "combat teams" on 9/11 and Churchill's labeling of World Trade Center dead as "little Eichmanns" working for the "mighty engine of profit." The remarks were inflammatory and not necessarily timely. The whole essay put the quotes in some context. But headlines still read "9/11 Victims Had It Coming," "Professor's Future Hinges on Conduct," "Coverage of Professor's 9/11 Essay Feeds his Ego, Terrorism," and "9/11 'Nazi' Prof Quits College Post."
Churchill later publicly clarified his remarks, saying "It should be emphasized that I applied the 'little Eichmanns' characterization only to those [World Trade Center workers] described as 'technicians.' Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen, and random passers-by killed in the 9-11 attack."
But O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and even politicians such as New York Governor George Pataki proceeded to hammer the issue into the national discourse, with O'Reilly covering it for nine consecutive nights. Despite an eventual consensus defending Churchill's right to voice his opinion, even from O'Reilly, the university formed a committee to investigate claims made during the media maelstrom that he plagiarized work and falsely identified himself as an American Indian to further his career. Suddenly the inquisition into the professor's public remarks morphed into an ad hominem attack, legitimized by the official Board of Regents investigation and resolution passed by the Colorado house and senate condemning Churchill's remarks, and urging university officials to fire him.
Churchill calls the allegations "spurious," especially those that he used his race to advance his career saying, "I look white enough. Look at a standard bibliography in American Indian studies and it's overwhelmingly white and male."
War of the Words
The Churchill case gave groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), groups that see the academy as one of the last bastions of leftist power, a taste of victory in this battle on campuses. Using the crowbar of a few phrases taken out of context, they were able to justify opening two committee investigations into Churchill, force his resignation as Chair of the Ethnic Studies department, and may yet succeed in ousting him entirely, despite the often ground-breaking research and numerous books on Native American history and genocide to Churchill's credit.
Whether these groups succeed in ousting Churchill matters little. They've already established a blueprint for other administrators, politicians, and media with an agenda to remove any professor they deem unfit. In a recent treatise on the conservative agenda, Newt Gingrich states that the threat of the leftist professoriat is equal to that of terrorists. "The flow of immigrants combined with the anti-American civilization bias of our academic left ... threatens to undermine and eliminate the history, language, and cultural patterns of American civilization in a secular, multicultural, politically correct, ethnic politician-defined new model," wrote Gingrich"
Colorado Governor Bill Owens, who called Churchill's essay "treasonous," works hand-in-hand with ACTA as part of their Governors' Project and was at the frontlines in calling for Churchill's dismissal. The publicly available "Action Plan" for the Governors' Project includes this line:
If we can get 20 key states moving in the right direction, it will start a national trend. Those states will be prioritized on the basis of (a) the size and prestige of their systems of higher education, (b) likelihood that the governors will be open to our message, and (c) governance arrangements conductive to reform efforts (e.g., a single statewide system appointed by the governor is easier to influence than multiple boards, some of which are elected).Churchill, for one, isn't scared to cry conspiracy, saying, "It's organized and coordinated. It evolves. This has been a consistent pattern for the past 25 years."
David Graeber, a Yale anthropology professor, avowed anarchist, and anti-globalization organizer, also got his pink slip and with no explanation. He isn't as quick to see a neo-con cabal behind his sacking, but adds that he recently defended a grad student attempting to organize a union, a move that pitted him squarely against many of the same faculty that fired him.
Graeber also says that after he was quoted in the New York Times for a story about protesting the World Economic Forum in which he was associated with an anarchist group, there were "suddenly all these conservatives saying to Yale, 'How could you have an anarchist there?'"
While Graeber sees his own dismissal chiefly as the result of power-tripping senior faculty, he does agree there's a larger, national assault on academics. "Someone probably did orchestrate Churchill or Massoud's cases, though. Situations like theirs create this climate where people feel like they can go after 'the anarchist professor.' You can get away with things you wouldn't normally consider."
That anarchists are a rare species that some think should be extinct on college campuses corresponds to the popular conservative view that higher education is one-sidedly leftist and desperately needs righting. An editorial by Mike Rosen in the March 4 edition of the Rocky Mountain News offers a typical right-wing view of the academy. Rosen declares academia as the "power base of the Left" and adds, "The left has taken over academe. We want it back." He goes on to quote a professor worried about the chilling effect the Ward Churchill case might have on other professors and answers, "Good. It's about time. I'd prefer to call it a remedial, correcting effect."
Conservatives such as Horowitz have relied heavily on the studies done by Santa Clara economics professor Daniel Klein, which alleged that anthropology departments have 30 democrats for every republican, and an average of seven to one in the social sciences and humanities generally. What most who cite the study, including a recent, beefy New York Times article, fail to note is that the study appeared in Academic Questions, a publication of the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing group devoted to eliminating "liberal bias" in America's hallowed halls. Even if Klein's work were accurate, despite the taint of its origins, to say those numbers indicate a bias that needs correcting is merely aping the flawed logic that has cowed the corporate media into searching for the nonexistent "balance" between left and right.
Horowitz's response to the perceived bias is his Academic Bill of Rights, a specious document brought to the floor of several state legislatures and designed to remove political "indoctrination" from classes. He hasn't been very successful in getting passage for the inherently political bill but he may not care. His tactics, often successful, are usually devised simply to win attention for his views. In his book Political War, he describes why he considered filing a libel suit against Time magazine for an article claiming he was a racist, saying, "My main objective... was to get my response - or pieces of it - before as large an audience as possible."
While the Academic Bill of Rights may not be winning much credible support, Horowitz has claimed victory on another piece of state legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In early July, lawmakers approved HR 177 by a vote of 111 to 87. The measure creates a committee that will investigate claims by students that professors are doling out low grades because they don't agree with their political opinions. On his web site, Horowitz states the legislation is "squarely based on the Academic Bill of Rights."
Robert Jensen, a University of Texas at Austin journalism professor who often appears on Horowitz's SAF site, calls the bias charge bunk. "The way this discussion [about academia] is proceeding is ridiculous. Everyone agrees education shouldn't be indoctrination and a lot goes on, but it's not towards the left, it's towards the existing system."
Jensen has pointed out that they don't teach alternatives to capitalism in business schools and wonders how people miss the bias towards the status quo inherent in most courses of study. "These people love to argue on the basis of individual behavior because they can avoid any real analysis of the system. And any major bias you can find in looking at it is going to be towards the existing system."
Jensen shrugs off the hate mail and personal threats he has received after he critiqued the likely American response to Sept. 11 in the Houston Chronicle saying, "It's not like the government is dragging me away in the night. Every once in a while I'm on the [Students for Academic Freedom] website. One guy wanted a Bob Jensen deportation site. I'm tenured and I don't care what they think, but often this stuff scares people who want to speak out."
Defending the Thesis
Clearly many of the problems that limit speech at universities are systemic. The American Association of University Professors reports that 65 percent of all university faculty are in non-tenure track positions and 46 percent of professors are part-time, leaving this demographic ill-equipped to espouse controversial positions that might drop them out of favor with university brass.
Additionally, each year average college tuition hikes accelerate and schools turn more to corporations and government for subsidies, scholarships and grants. Firmly indebted, those schools put more dollars into departments that are able to secure money from research and innovations that can be sold to corporate America or the government. In fact, politicians and economic development gurus such as Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class, enthusiastically encourage these sorts of partnerships as essential to keeping American cities competitive in the global marketplace.
When asked what might be done to build and maintain spaces for truly radical scholarship, Graeber could only respond, "I'm not really sure. Rather than give you some glib answer I'm going to say I have to think about that one." He added, "Yale, for example, is a corporation. It's a business that's so far about the reproduction of the ruling class. They're producing people to rule the world. Where does an anarchist fit into that?"
Currently, a number of organizations are working to expose how conservative foundations and think tanks are influencing academia, and several progressive organizations are tracking the attacks on academics. Graeber says that awareness and reasoned opposition is the key to deflecting attempts to squelch radical scholarship. "Sadistic bullies are a small percentage of the population but people often find it inconvenient to fight them. Enough public pressure in the right places can make it inconvenient to not fight them. Exposing them is the most useful thing to do."