Radicals in the academy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu May 31 17:28:12 MDT 2001

Michael Parenti, "Against Empire":

The relatively few progressive dissidents who manage to get tenure usually
discover that their lot is one of isolation within their own departments.
They endure numerous slights and are seldom consulted about policy matters.
They are not likely to be appointed to committees dealing with curriculum,
hiring, and tenure, even when such assignments would be a normal part of
their responsibilities.

At the University of Washington, Philip Meranto, a tenured anti-capitalist
political scientist and noted activist, was frozen out of all departmental
decisions and department social life. Graduate students were advised not to
take his classes. He was given the most cramped and least attractive
faculty office despite his senior rank and was subjected to verbal
harassment from university police. After serving for many years as a
tenured senior faculty member of Queens College, CUNY, noted author and
political analyst John Gerassi was moved to voice his displeasure at the
treatment he had been accorded, including the case of my non-candidacy. In
a letter (May 15, 1994) to his department colleagues, he wrote:

"I have never been asked to participate in anything meaningful in this
department. For example, I have never been asked to be an adviser to
graduates or undergraduates or [anyone else]. . . . Now since my colleagues
tell me they like me, and I assume that they are not saying that just to
humor me, the reason must be political. Indeed, I remember years ago when I
informed my colleagues that a friend of mine who was nationally known, in
fact internationally respected, Michael Parenti, who would be a great draw
because of his reputation, was available for a job (at a time when the
department was actually trying to fill a line), I was quickly informed that
he would not be considered no matter what, and I was told in effect to stay
out of department business."

Gerassi concluded on an ironic note: "If nothing else, may I respectfully
request that while all decisions may be made by a small group of my
colleagues behind closed doors, do, please, let us know what those
decisions are."

The only radical to receive tenure in the department of philosophy in the
1970s at the University of Vermont was Will Miller, a popular teacher,
published author, and political activist [and long-time Marxism list
subscriber]. Though he prevailed in his battle for tenure, Miller was made
to pay for it. He was denied promotion and has remained an assistant
professor for twenty-five years with a salary frozen for most of that time
at below the entry level of the lowest paid faculty member. He was pushed
out of all courses required by philosophy majors. He was passed over for
sabbatical for thirteen years and finally received a one-semester leave
only after threatening court action. And he was perpetually passed over for
reduced teaching load, a consideration regularly granted to his
departmental colleagues on a rotation basis.

Those who control the institutions of higher learning in the United States
should want the same good things for students that they so passionately
advocate for the denizens of "totalitarian" countries, namely the
opportunity to hear, study, express, and support (or reject) iconoclastic,
antiestablishment views in their media and educational institutions without
fear of reprisal. Instead, it is a rare radical scholar who has not
encountered serious difficulties when seeking employment or tenure,
regardless of his or her qualifications.

Conservatives believe otherwise. They see academia as permeated with
leftism, not surprisingly since they describe as "left" anyone to the left
of themselves, including mainstream centrists and "moderates." To be sure,
campus activism did not pass away with the sixties. In the years since
then, protests have arisen against the university’s corporate investments
in an apartheid-ruled South Africa, the nuclear arms race, U.S. involvement
in Central America, the U.S. invasion of Panama, and the U.S. massacre of
Iraq. There have been campus demonstrations in support of women’s studies
and multiculturalism, and against racism, sexism, and Eurocentric biases in
the curriculum.

Such protests have been relentlessly attacked by the corporate-owned media
as "politically correct McCarthyism." Thus the attempts to fight
reactionism are themselves branded as reactionism by slippery conservatives
such as Nat Hentoff, William F. Buckley, and others too numerous to
mention, who suddenly emerged as defenders of diversity, insisting that
sexists, racists, and fascists should be free to express their venom but
that their opponents are not free to denounce them for doing so.

With unspoiled ethnocentrism, the novelist Saul Bellow denigrated
preliterate societies by asking, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The
Proust of the Papuans?" When criticized for his Eurocentric arrogance,
Bellow bellowed in the New York Times (March 10, 1994): "We can’t open our
mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists,
imperialists or fascists." Writers like Bellow, who enjoy every acclaim
from conventional literary quarters and ready access to major media and
leading universities, consider themselves unjustly put-upon when attempts
are made to examine their unexamined biases. So is fostered the mythic
image of a university dominated by feminists, lesbians, gays, Marxists, and
African American militants. In this way are the roles of oppressor and
oppressed reversed.

In dozens of TV opinion shows and numerous large-circulation publications
across the nation, without any sense of irony, scores of conservative and
neoliberal writers have complained of being silenced by the "politically
correct." Their diatribes usually are little more than attacks upon
socio-political views they find intolerable, ideas and histories they want
to eradicate from college curricula— supposedly for the sake of preserving
free speech and political tolerance. Through all these barrages, one never
actually hears from the "politically correct" people who are supposedly
dominating the universe of discourse.

Today there exists a national network of right-wing campus groups, with
budgets ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. This network coordinates most
conservative activities at schools around the nation. It funds over one
hundred right-wing campus publications, reaching more than a million
students (according to a study by the University Conversion Project, an
organization dedicated to promoting peace activism and investigative
journalism on campus). Conservative campus publications and organizations
receive millions of dollars from the Sciafe Foundation, the Olin
Foundation, Coors, and other wealthy, right-wing donors. The nearly
complete lack of alternative funding from progressive groups belies the
charge that political communication in academia is dominated by left-wingers.

In sum, viewpoints that arouse little controversy are considered neutral
and objective when more often they are merely ideologically conventional.
Studies that implicitly share the normative perspective of the dominant
poltico-economic system are assumed to represent a value-free empiricism, a
researching of the world "as it is." Accusations of partisanship hurled by
the ivy-tower guardians are themselves intensely partisan, being leveled
against those who challenge, but rarely against those who reinforce the
prevailing orthodoxies. Most textbooks on U.S. government and U.S. foreign
affairs propagate conventional biases in the guise of political verities,
overlooking or denying the undemocratic enormities of class power and

By accepting the empire on its own terms, then denying its existence and
all the difficult questions it raises, many academics believe they have
achieved a scholarly detachment from the turmoil of reality. And in a way
they have.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/

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