[Marxism] Jon Weiner: the left always gets blamed
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 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
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
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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