Liberal minds not welcome

September 6, 2002

As September 11 approaches, THES writers look at research in the US and UK in the wake of the attacks and US academia's fight to present a balanced view.

For a fair number of US academics, September 11 has aroused a sense that their country is extremely vulnerable. In renewing their sense of how the academy should respond to such a crisis, a number expressed the conviction that the best defence against irrational acts is the use of knowledge and reason to arrive at understandings that can oppose terrorism. Such opposition would involve recognition of the complexity of causes, pursuit of the give and take of compromise, and formulation of just solutions to violence.

At first, the media depended on academic experts to provide public discussion of the international issues. Authorities on the Middle East, biological warfare and international law and politics were sought to provide commentary. Meanwhile, meetings, classes and teach-ins were organised to explore the moral dimensions of the bombings. On campuses around New York City, students and faculty wept together and talked in new ways about their situation as members of the academy.

Almost simultaneously, however, there was an attack on academic questioning from some conservative commentators who rejected academic questioning as moral confusion in the presence of unmitigated evil. They also reiterated long-term assumptions that the American academy is biased towards the left, that faculty are privileged slackers and that most academic reaction to September 11 echoes anti-war sentiments of the Vietnam era.

Notably, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (co-founded by vice-president Dick Cheney's wife, Lynn, and Senator Joe Lieberman) published Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It . The report employed questionable methods to exaggerate "over a hundred" incidents of campus responses lacking in loyalty. It raised among many academics the spectre of a return to the tactics of the McCarthy era. Although the national leadership was careful not to blame any one racial or ethnic group for the terrorism, its habit of describing the situation as a conflict of absolute evil against absolute good left little margin for scholarly scepticism. The ACTA report drew this narrow boundary explicitly.

In late December, just as the American Association of University Professors issued a statement applauding the fact that academic freedom had been defended by university leaders around the country, a new source of national controversy arose. Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida in Tampa, announced her intention to dismiss computer science professor Sami Al Arian for disrupting the university through his activism in Palestinian causes.

According to the USF administration, he appeared on a television talk show without making sufficiently clear that he did not speak for the university. More important in the dismissal notice was the contention that the university had been disrupted by consequent threats. The case is tied up in legal manoeuvring; in mid-August the university sued the professor in a strategy to obtain a court ruling on whether firing him would deny his academic freedom. The AAUP is in the process of preparing an independent investigative report.

As the school year began, some members of the state legislature in North Carolina tried to block the use of an introductory book on the Koran by Michael Sells of Haverford College at an orientation session for new students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The board of governors, administration and faculty joined in protesting at this censorship, and the courts have refused to grant an injunction against use of the book sought by a conservative group (on the constitutional basis of separation between church and state).

There have been other controversies about course "balance" that have not reached the national press. They involve questions about whether or not courses on the Middle East, especially from the Muslim side, could be balanced enough to merit inclusion in university curricula. At the University of California, Berkeley, a course description that cautioned "conservatives" not to enrol in an introductory course on Palestinian views of the conflict in Israel had to be withdrawn, redrawn and placed under special review to make sure that all its enrolled students would be treated fairly. A course on Islam taught by several of Central Connecticut State's Muslim faculty was questioned by some members of the Jewish community.

At this point, the threat of censorship derives less from federal government than from local politicians and ethnic or religious interest groups. But the largest threat to academic freedom at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year is the desperate condition of state economies. Tax cuts, unforeseen deficits and the collapse of the stock market mean that many public universities are being hit with crippling budget cuts. Some of these have provided cover for retaliation against unpopular views on terrorism.

Whatever the case, there will be difficult challenges to public universities if they are to preserve the traditional core of liberal learning. The attack that took place a year ago continues to raise the issue of the freedom of professors as citizens in a global setting. The AAUP's 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure accepts that university teachers should be accurate, restrained and speak only for themselves on public issues. The statement also insists that professors are citizens.

A Unesco statement on the Status of Higher Education Personnel has adapted the following declaration for the whole international community of scholars: "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline." Clearly, that community is closer now than it has ever been. And so the challenge in the US - as in Britain, Egypt, Israel and Pakistan - is whether or not faculty will be able to build the concept of the "professor as citizen" as an international identity that applies to each individual faculty member, regardless of their nationality or ethnic affiliation.

Mary Burgan is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.


Academics embroiled in 9/11 rows

  • A University of New Mexico professor who joked in his classroom on September 11 that "anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote" was reprimanded but not fired. The professor, Richard Berthold, will no longer be allowed to teach first-year students and has apologised.
  • Lakeland Community College in Florida cancelled plans to have an Islamic cleric, Fawaz Damra, teach "Understanding Islam" at the college after a videotape surfaced showing him making anti-Semitic comments and soliciting donations for Islamic Jihad.
  • The curator of Daytona Beach Community College's Southeast Museum of Photography, Alison Nordstrom, resigned when the Florida school's president cancelled an exhibit of photojournalism from Afghanistan. The president later allowed the show to go on.
  • Alumni of Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago called for the sacking of two faculty members who belonged to a 1970s group that bombed government buildings. The alumni are withholding contributions and giving the money instead to relief funds for victims of the September 11 attacks. The universities say they have no plans to fire the professors.
  • A professor at Orange Coast College, California, who was suspended after Muslim students accused him of calling them terrorists, has been reprimanded but reinstated. The school said the charges could not be substantiated.
  • The University of Texas has delayed a plan to begin conducting criminal background checks on all applicants for faculty positions.

    Other THES "Aftermath of 9/11" stories

    Looking forward, and back from 9/11

    Students clamour for courses

    What if nothing at all has changed?

    Tragedy grapples with gap between human meaningfulness and despair

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