[Marxism] Academic Freedom in Name and Practice at Purdue

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 11 12:14:09 MST 2009

Academic Freedom in Name and Practice at Purdue
by Brian Napoletano

If you were to wander about campus asking students at Purdue about 
the distinguished professor of education and senior university 
scholar at the University of Illinois in Chicago who was invited 
to speak at Purdue, or about the Cummings-Perrucci Annual Lecture 
on Class, Race, and Gender Inequality's inaugural presentation on 
the challenges facing urban schools, you would probably receive 
little more than a blank stare in almost every case.  If, on the 
other hand, you were to ask about the University inviting a 
"domestic terrorist" or an "ex-radical" onto its campus, virtually 
every student would immediately identify William Ayers as the 
dangerous terrorist in question.

In this enlightened age, where education is reputedly controlled 
by the faculty, and several layers of bureaucracy are supposed to 
insulate the professors from the corporate plutocracy, the 
university is believed to be a vibrant center of free thought and 
democratic ideals.  Today's administrators supposedly recognize 
the value of academic freedom, and do their best to ensure that 
the faculty and students are free to debate and exchange ideas. 
Meanwhile professional journalists trained by these same 
universities are ostensibly given the freedom to make sure that 
the debates and ideas are presented accurately to the entire 
community, and the powerful media corporations who own the papers 
claim to leave all editorial decisions up to the newsroom.  This 
atmosphere of free inquiry is supposed to constantly expose 
students to new ideas, help them develop more powerful thinking 
and reasoning skills, and prepare them to emerge as intellectually 
active members of their communities.  This academic freedom, our 
rulers tell us, is why the United States has such a strong 
economy, a vibrant democracy, a healthy and secure workforce, and 
virtually no class conflict.

If we go beyond the rhetoric, however, we find that reality does 
not always conform to this ideal.  On the one hand, faculty 
certainly have a bit more autonomy than they did just over eighty 
years ago, when Upton Sinclair published a damning critique of the 
nation's university administrators in the aptly titled novel, The 
Goose-step.  On the other hand, the ongoing corporatization of the 
Academy continues to undermine the liberal arts and commodify the 
sciences, and the right continues to fight back against every bit 
of ground gained in the struggle for academic freedom.  As 
financial concerns continue to hang over the nation's campuses 
like storm clouds, the ability of private interests to mobilize 
large numbers of alumni and donors could significantly increase 
their influence over the Academy.  At Purdue University, the right 
has traditionally dominated the struggle over academic freedom. 
The faculty and students have won a small degree of autonomy, but 
economics still trumps education, what freedom does exist is under 
constant siege by reactionaries, and the corporate media remains 
at the disposal of the right.  These features are evident in the 
ways that visits by two nationally-recognized guest speakers were 
handled by the University and by the press.

When news of Bill Ayers' pending lecture on 24 September reached 
him, Jared Fagan, director of Citizens in Action, the local 
reactionary mobilization, immediately launched a campaign to shut 
down any discussion of Ayers' thoughts on education on the Purdue 
campus.  Afraid that Fagan's mobilization would include 
disruptions of the presentation itself, Irwin Weiser, interim dean 
of the College of Liberal Arts, responded by changing the 
presentation from a public event to an "invitation only" affair. 
This decision to restrict access to the event, as opposed to 
ejecting individuals after a disruption, also prevented many 
students and faculty who were interested in what Ayers' had to say 
from attending, something that critics of the presentation, such 
as the student chairperson of the University's College 
Republicans, were quick to point out.  At 5:00 PM on the day of 
the presentation, which was scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM, police 
shut down Lawson Hall, which houses the University's Computer 
Sciences Department, and forced all faculty, staff, and students 
out of the building.  The police then secured the building with 15 
officers, a K-9 unit, fire department employees, and county bomb 
squad employees, citing "perceived threats" on the Lafayette 
Journal and Courier's discussion forum as the reason for this show 
of force.  The cost of this security mobilization was charged to 
the endowment, a practice that will likely discourage the faculty 
from inviting prominent controversial speakers in the future. 
Meanwhile, the University's public relations department decided 
that no recording or rebroadcasting of the presentation would be 
permitted, nor would they offer any such services themselves.

Despite the restrictions on attendance, the University took care 
to make sure that the "freedom of speech" of the protesters was 
protected.  Pablo Malavenda, Purdue's Associate Dean of Students, 
was on hand, observing the protesters and attempting to prevent 
them from disrupting University business any more than necessary. 
  The protesters reserved space for their demonstration through a 
student organization in advance, and the crowd was granted 
permission to gather with flags, drums, and megaphones directly in 
front of Lawson Hall, which forced invited attendees to pass 
through the crowd to reach the entrance.  The final estimate of 
the number of protesters was approximately 200 people, while 85 
people were granted access to Ayers' presentation.  It is unknown 
how many of the 15 invitees who did not attend were turned back by 
the crowd, which would turn and "boo" in unison whenever someone 
attempted to enter the building.

Exactly one week after Professor Ayers visited Purdue's campus (1 
October), former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao came and spoke in the 
Purdue Memorial Union at the behest of the Business College as 
part of its Krannert Leadership Speaker Series.  Jared Fagan, the 
director of Citizens in Action and the primary organizer of the 
protesters against Ayers, apparently had no objection to her 
visit, despite the losses suffered by the working class during her 
tenure at the Department of Labor.  In fact, virtually no one even 
took note of Chao's scheduled visit, and no demonstrations were 
scheduled around the Union.  On the night of her presentation, a 
group of five students representing the Purdue Organization for 
Labor Equality did express their concerns about the Department of 
Labor's record under Chao's leadership.  These students had no 
drums, flags, or megaphones, and expressed their reservations 
about Chao's leadership by distributing a flyer that pointed out 
that Chao's policies were detrimental to labor and that she was 
stridently opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.  Although 
these students carefully adhered to University policies, a 
University employee at the Union contacted the police and had them 
escorted off of the campus.

The media was hardly more neutral than the University in its 
handling of Ayers and Chao's visits and the demonstrations that 
ensued.  In contrast to its self-proclaimed image as an 
independent and impartial source of public information, the 
Lafayette Journal and Courier, the community's local Gannett 
newspaper, was the primary factor responsible for the protests at 
Ayers' presentation and the silence at Chao's.

Under the headline "Ex-radical to attend forum at Purdue," 
journalist Bob Scott announced the Sociology Department's 
intentions to bring Professor Ayers to Purdue.  Of the article's 
sixteen paragraphs, Scott devoted six paragraphs to Fagan's plans 
to organize a protest, four to Ayers' involvement in the Weather 
Underground, one to his association with President Obama, three to 
a Purdue Professor's arguments against politicizing Ayers' 
appearance, one to a disclaimer regarding Scott's inability to 
contact Ayers or the Sociology Department, and one paragraph to 
the actual topic of Ayers' presentation.  The announcement that 
the Business College was bringing Elaine Chao to speak had no 
author attributed to it, and appeared to be little more than a 
condensed version of the College's press release.  The 
nine-paragraph article, which appeared under the headline "Former 
labor secretary to give Krannert address," devoted six paragraphs 
to logistics such as ticket sales and timing, two paragraphs to 
praises for Chao's work as the Labor Secretary under the Bush 
administration, and one paragraph to background information about 
the series that Chao was invited to speak in.

Perhaps even more revealing than what the Journal and Courier did 
choose to print is the information that the paper left out.  Bob 
Scott's article announcing Bill Ayers' presentation neglected to 
mention that his visit was not being funded by Purdue itself, but 
by the Cummings-Perrucci Annual Lecture Series.  Scott also 
neglected to mention that, while he openly admits to his 
participation in the Weather Underground, the primary reason that 
Ayers was never charged with a criminal offense was that he, along 
with the rest of the Weather Underground, had been targeted by the 
Federal Bureau of Investigation's illegal COINTELPRO, which 
included illegal surveillance, illegal break-ins and searches, and 
active incitement to criminal activities.  The Journal and Courier 
did not print any indication that the event was funded by a 
private endowment until the day after it took place, and it never 
printed any information about COINTELPRO or the reasons why Ayers 
was exonerated.

The article on Chao, on the other hand, neglected to mention that 
her staff reductions in the Wage and Hour Supervisory Division 
cost labor an estimated $19 billion in unpaid overtime annually 
and that the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration's 
failure to implement an expected safety equipment rule cost 50 
workers their lives.  This article also failed to mention any of 
the legal controversy surrounding Chao's tenure, including the 
fact that a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office 
found that the Department of Labor had been deliberately 
misleading Congress about the expenses it was incurring by 
contracting out its responsibilities to private firms, or that a 
report by the United States House Committee on Oversight and 
Government Reform found that Chao and several other cabinet 
members had violated the Hatch Act by using public funds for 
political campaigns.  Even after the Purdue Organization for Labor 
Equality brought these issues to the attention of the Journal and 
Courier (in addition to mentioning its students' intentions to 
offer some of these details at Chao's presentation), none of them 
appeared in print.

In short, the media openly assaulted William Ayers and helped to 
build the protests against him, while it ignored any indictments 
of Elaine Chao.  Likewise, University staff carefully protected 
the rights of Ayers' opponents to protest, while no such 
protections were offered to Chao's opponents.  The logical 
conclusion to this is that Professor Ayers, who, more than forty 
years ago, had the temerity to disobey the state and call out 
corporations for their role in U.S. imperialism, is fair game as 
far as the University and media establishment is concerned, while 
Elaine Chao, a member of Washington's elite inner circle who 
remained a loyal friend to business and consistently opposed 
relief for the working class, was entirely off limits.  The 
logical conclusion is that freedom of thought and expression is 
welcome at Purdue only insofar as it refrains from challenging the 
basic principles of the class hierarchy.  This is academic freedom 
in practice at Purdue.

Brian Napoletano is a PhD candidate in Forestry and Natural 
Resources at Purdue and a member of the International Socialist 

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