[Marxism] A Call to Defend Academic Freedom

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 23 07:53:09 MDT 2007


A Call to Defend Academic Freedom

Saying that they are fed up with “aggressive incursion of partisan 
politics into universities’ hiring and tenure practices,” five prominent 
academics have issued a call to “defend the university” and gathered 
dozens of backers in what they view as a new way to bolster academic 

The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University has issued a statement and 
is asking professors and others to sign on.

“In recent years, universities across the country have been targeted by 
outside groups seeking to influence what is taught and who can teach. To 
achieve their political agendas, these groups have defamed scholars, 
pressured administrators, and tried to bypass or subvert established 
procedures of academic governance,” the statement says. “As a 
consequence, faculty have been denied jobs or tenure, and scholars have 
been denied public platforms from which to share their viewpoints. This 
violates an important principle of scholarship, the free exchange of 
ideas, subjecting them to ideological and political tests. These attacks 
threaten academic freedom and the core mission of institutions of higher 
education in a democratic society.”

While the statement identifies the problem as a broad one, it notes that 
many of the recent incidents have involved the Middle East. “Many of the 
most vociferous campaigns targeting universities and their faculty have 
been launched by groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel. 
These groups have targeted scholars who have expressed perspectives on 
Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which they 
disagree. To silence those they consider their political enemies, they 
have used a range of tactics,” including “unfounded insinuations or 
allegations” of anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism, the broadening of the 
definition of anti-Semitism to include “teaching that is critical of 
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and of Israel,” and “pressures on 
university administrations by threatening to withhold donations if 
faculty they have targeted are hired or awarded tenure.”

The statement goes on to call for professors to resist such outside 
pressure. “Academic freedom means not only the right to pursue a variety 
of interpretations, but the maintenance of standards of truth and 
acceptability by one’s peers,” the statement says. “It is university 
faculty, not outside political groups with partisan political agenda, 
who are best able to judge the quality of their peers’ research and 
teaching. This is not just a question of academic autonomy, but of the 
future of a democratic society. This is a time in which we need more 
thoughtful reflection about the world, not less.”

Signatories to the statement pledge, among other things, to “speak out 
against those who attack our colleagues and our universities in order to 
achieve their political goals” and to “urge university administrators 
and trustees to defend academic freedom and the norms of academic life, 
even if it means incurring the displeasure of non-scholarly groups, the 
media among them.”

The organizers of the effort are Joan W. Scott, a professor of social 
science at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., and 
former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ 
Committee A on Academic Freedom; Jeremy Adelman, chair of history at 
Princeton University; Steve Caton, director of the Center for Middle 
Eastern Studies at Harvard University; Edmund Burke III, director of the 
Center for World History at the University of California at Santa Cruz; 
and Jonathan R. Cole, provost emeritus of Columbia University.

The statement comes at a time of a series of high profile hiring or 
tenure cases involving professors who work on the Middle East and whose 
work has been subject to scrutiny by many non-academics during the 
process they were under consideration. Among the cases are those of 
Norman Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at DePaul University; Nadia 
Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist up for tenure at Barnard College; and Juan 
Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who saw his 
candidacy for a job at Yale University derailed.

And this week, David Horowitz and his campus allies are sponsoring 
“Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” a series of events that will among 
other things say that women’s studies and other left-leaning scholars 
aren’t doing enough to combat radical Islam — and these events are 
already setting off controversies on many campuses, where students and 
professors say that the week is a thinly disguised effort to scare 
people about Muslims.

The new effort also comes at a time when many groups are trying to find 
ways to bolster academic freedom. The American Association of University 
Professors issued a new statement in September to counter certain 
arguments used against professors (such as arguments that their classes 
must all be balanced). The American Federation of Teachers is also 
working on a new statement on academic freedom.

Scott, of the Institute for Advanced Study, said that the statement came 
about because “a number of us were just fed up with the amount of 
pressure that groups which claim to be defending Israel are exerting.” 
Citing such cases as the anthropologist at Barnard, Scott said “outside 
political groups are trying to force the hand of university 
administrators in ways we think are really dangerous.”

The scholars in these cases deserve tough scrutiny, Scott said, but it 
should come from scholars in their disciplines — their departments and 
the outside experts recruited by their departments for evaluations — not 
from the public or people in other fields. She said that critics of 
these professors imply unfairly that their work is never reviewed, when 
their books would never have been published without thorough peer review 
and they never would have been hired without intense questioning about 
their scholarship and teaching.

“It is the prerogative and responsibility of the members of the 
discipline to make these judgments,” she said. “It’s not as if people 
get a free pass. It’s that at every stage, the review has to be within 
the discipline.”

She said, for instance, that it would not bother her if Alan Dershowitz 
offered opinions on law professors, but that he should not have been 
evaluating Finkelstein, a political scientist. As a general rule, she 
said, “biologists shouldn’t tell historians how to interpret Middle 
Eastern history and historians shouldn’t tell biologists what good 
biology is.”

Many colleges — and this was the case at DePaul with Finkelstein — start 
tenure reviews at the departmental level, and then the review passes to 
a university-wide committee. Scott said she saw this as appropriate if 
the second committee was “looking at process, not at substance.” It’s 
important for a second body, she said, to be sure that procedures were 
followed, but not to judge the scholarship.

And Scott said that she senses that the pressure from outside groups — 
having nothing to do with the academy — is most intense when tenure 
reviews leave the departmental level. The environment is especially 
difficult right now, she said, when Horowitz and others are 
orchestrating events designed to incorrectly define Middle Eastern 
studies as anti-American. “This reminds me of nothing more than the way 
fascist youth were mobilized to disrupt classes and to question the 
authority of scholars,” she said. (Via e-mail, Horowitz said that “it’s 
the plans to disrupt and slander our events that reflect classic fascist 

Adelman, the history chair at Princeton, said he joined the effort out 
of concern over “the proliferation of cases.” He said it was inevitable 
that from time to time, a scholar might draw lots of outside attention, 
but the apparent increase in such cases made him think it was time for 
professors to take a more public stand.

Outside groups have every right to analyze and criticize scholars, he 
said, but not to try to dictate tenure decisions. “I have no problem 
with debate. But the critics of the university’s right to make decisions 
about scholarship don’t understand that’s what we are doing.” Scholars 
need to be evaluated on the basis of their scholarship, he said, not 
their views on the Middle East.

While the professors’ statement on academic freedom does not mention 
groups by name, Campus Watch — which publishes information about 
professors of Middle Eastern studies, with much of the analysis critical 
— would appear to be one of the groups.

Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, said that the new group was 
based on false assumptions. The professors believe, he wrote via e-mail, 
that “academics, uniquely among all professionals, are beyond criticism 
— that they make up a sacrosanct, privileged group that demands 
protection from opinions with which they disagree. By implying that 
criticism from external sources, such as Campus Watch, is illegitimate, 
they seek to seal themselves off from the society that supports them.” 
He said that he found irony that “ivory tower intellectuals who 
regularly render harsh judgments against the practitioners of other 
professions, from businessmen to clergy, and from politicians to the 
members of the military — claim immunity from criticism when it is 
directed toward themselves.”

Myers went on to say of the professors’ effort: “Their desire to declare 
themselves off-limits to external criticism is symptomatic of the 
intellectual homogeneity that plagues academe. Were it not for 
extra-university voices, there would be precious little debate within 
academic Middle East studies, so uniform is opinion among professors of 
that field.”

— Scott Jaschik

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