[Marxism] Jon Weiner: the left always gets blamed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 9 13:29:13 MDT 2005


Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2005
When Students Complain About Professors, Who Gets to Define the Controversy?

By JON WIENER

The media storm around Columbia's Middle Eastern-studies department 
provides one of the few cases in which students' complaints about 
professors' classroom conduct have made it into the news. It brings to mind 
a case at Harvard, more than a decade ago, that offers illuminating 
contrasts. Together they raise the question of how the news media frame 
stories about such complaints.

The Columbia story by now is familiar: After students objected to what they 
saw as anti-Israel bias among professors in the Middle Eastern-studies 
department, the university was widely criticized as a place where students 
were intimidated, faculty members were prejudiced, and scholarly standards 
were in decline. And when a faculty committee appointed by the 
administration concluded that there had been no serious misconduct, most of 
the news media rejected that conclusion and demanded additional action by 
the university.

The Harvard story, in contrast, has been largely forgotten, except among 
some conservative writers. When a few students complained in 1988 about 
"racial insensitivity" in a lecture by the history professor Stephan 
Thernstrom, news organizations rose to his defense by describing him as a 
victim of "political correctness." Thernstrom's high-profile outrage made 
him a hero in neoconservative circles, and in 2002 he was appointed a 
member of the National Council on the Humanities by President Bush.

Pundits on the right often complain that the left dominates American 
universities. Both of these stories were framed to advance that 
interpretation. At Harvard, the story was that the professor was a victim 
of left-wing students; at Columbia, the students were victims of left-wing 
professors. In each case, news reports said that the threats to the 
university were coming from the left. In each case, the story told to the 
public was inaccurate.

In the Columbia case, The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York 
Post, and The New York Sun (a conservative-minded daily newspaper) each 
published several articles reporting that pro-Israel students had 
complained they were treated abusively by some faculty members in class 
discussions as well as outside of class.

A Barnard College student said that in a class discussion she had asked 
Joseph A. Massad, a professor of Arab politics, whether Israel gave advance 
warning before bombing a Palestinian building, and that he had replied 
angrily, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against 
Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!" He later denied ever 
telling any student to leave his class, but the faculty committee found the 
complaint "credible." Massad in turn complained that his classes had been 
infiltrated by hecklers and "monitors," and that he had received hate mail 
and death threats.

In the Harvard case, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and 
New York magazine featured Thernstrom's story as told in one of the key 
neocon books of the decade, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (Free 
Press, 1991). In The New Republic, the historian Eugene D. Genovese wrote 
that Thernstrom had been "savaged for political incorrectness in the 
classroom." A cover story in New York magazine featured Thernstrom as a 
victim of "demagogic and fanatical" black students. In the New York Review, 
the Yale historian C. Vann Woodward cited the case as an example of "the 
attack on freedom ... led by minorities."

The story told in the news media was that three black students had accused 
Thernstrom, a distinguished historian, of racial insensitivity in an 
introductory history course, "The Peopling of America." Instead of coming 
to him with their complaints, Thernstrom said, they went to the 
administration and to the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. The 
greatest damage to Thernstrom, D'Souza said, was done not by the black 
students, but by the Harvard administration: "Far from coming to his 
defense," D'Souza wrote, the administration "appeared to give full 
administrative sanction to the charges against Thernstrom."

Thernstrom said he was so discouraged by the students' attack and the 
administration's failure to defend his academic freedom that he decided not 
to teach the course again. Thus the case was framed by the news media as an 
example of a distinguished professor's being hounded out of teaching his 
course by an alliance of militant black students, the campus newspaper, and 
the administrators who supported them. Thernstrom called it "McCarthyism of 
the left."

In fact almost every element of the story Thernstrom told the news media 
was erroneous. The incident in question consisted of three black students' 
complaining about the absence of a black perspective in a lecture on 
slavery. Thernstrom's response focused primarily on the administration.

Because he received so little support from the administration, he told 
D'Souza, "I felt like a rape victim." But, in fact, the administration 
backed up Thernstrom. When the students' took their complaint to Harvard's 
Committee on Race Relations, they were told that it had no jurisdiction 
over professors' teaching, and that they should take their complaint to 
Thernstrom -- which they did. "They felt the university didn't do anything 
to back up their concerns," the former dean, Fred Jewett, told me in a 1991 
interview for The Nation.

Nevertheless the Thernstrom version of the story lives on. As recently as 
February 2005, Michael A. Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute for 
Public Policy Research, wrote that "'freedom of speech' on most major 
university campuses nowadays is a fraud. When America's greatest living 
historian of the antebellum South, Stephan Thernstrom [of Harvard], is 
prevented from teaching that course ["The Peopling of America"] because 
black students protest against a white man teaching it, you know that free 
speech is over."

The students' complaints in both cases share the same problem: As Eric 
Foner, a historian at Columbia, wrote in a letter last month to The New 
York Times, professors who do not treat students fairly should be 
reprimanded; but when students encounter ideas they disagree with, that 
does not constitute grounds for a complaint to the university.

The faculty responses in the two cases also had similarities: At Harvard, 
Thernstrom declared that he would give up teaching the course because the 
university had failed to stand up for him. At Columbia, Massad declared 
that he would no longer teach the course because the university would not 
"ensure my rights and protect me against intimidation." Both thus claimed 
that they were being silenced as the result of the administration's 
failures in the face of students' complaints.

Why, then, did the news media frame the two cases so differently? At 
Columbia, the complaining students had the backing of a well-financed 
pro-Israel organization, the David Project, which organized a sophisticated 
media campaign. With other pro-Israel groups, such as Campus Watch, they 
used the Internet to solicit student complaints in an organized national 
effort aimed at not just Massad but the entire department of Middle 
Eastern-studies at Columbia, as well as other Middle Eastern-studies 
programs across the United States.

The groups sent "monitors" into classrooms to report on what professors 
were saying. The David Project financed a video documentary on the student 
charges, "Columbia Unbecoming," and ran a public-relations effort to 
publicize it, screening the video for selected journalists. In contrast, 
the three students at Harvard who complained had no support from outside 
groups or the media: no documentary, no Web site, no national support 
network. They were on their own.

Thus political forces outside the two universities played key roles in 
shaping what the public was told about the cases. The media campaign 
charging "anti-Israel bias" at Columbia gained political traction, I 
believe, because the university has been hoping to expand its campus, which 
requires city approval. A mayoral race was beginning, and one of the 
candidates made Columbia his issue, promising to "do something" about it. 
Meanwhile, a new, right-wing daily newspaper had begun publication, and it 
fanned the flames by running dozens of stories about the "crisis" at 
Columbia. Columbia's president failed for months to speak out in defense of 
academic freedom, perhaps because he feared that the expansion project 
would be blocked by elected officials.

A decade earlier, in Cambridge, only a few people came to the defense of 
the three black students who wanted more of the slaves' perspective in a 
lecture on slavery. On the contrary, a sophisticated and well-financed 
media campaign distorted the incident mercilessly to advance the 
neoconservative cause. The key activist here was D'Souza, the finest flower 
of a vast neocon talent search supported by foundations and think tanks. 
After 10 years of cultivating young ideologues, the John M. Olin Foundation 
and the American Enterprise Institute finally got everything they could 
have hoped for in D'Souza and his book: a best seller attacking the campus 
left, and, best of all, a right-wing book written by a young person of color.

The news media, for their part, like stories that can be framed as 
controversies, especially when the stakes seem to be so high: nothing less 
than freedom in the university. Still, these controversies could have been 
described differently.

At Columbia the issue could have been defined, in the words of Joan W. 
Scott of the American Association of University Professors, as "the threat 
to the integrity of the university by the intervention of organized outside 
agitators who are disrupting classes and programs for ideological 
purposes." Instead the issue became professors' "anti-Israel bias."

At Harvard the issue could have been a professor's overreacting to 
students' disagreement with one of his lectures. But it came to be defined 
as the victimization of the professor by the forces of "left-wing 
McCarthyism." The key was not the nature or seriousness of the complaints, 
but rather the political forces outside the university that defined the 
issues at stake.

Jon Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California at 
Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics 
in the Ivory Tower (The New Press, 2005).

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