Inside Higher Education

March 7, 2006
Academic Freedom After September 11


Academic freedom is facing its most serious threats since the McCarthy era,
according to essays in Academic Freedom After September 11, published this
month by Zone Books. Essays in the book — which come from scholars such as
Joel Beinin, Judith Butler and Robert Post — both focus on current issues and
offer a historical perspective. Beshara Doumani, a professor of history at the
University of California at Berkeley who edited the volume, recently responded
to questions about its themes.

Q. How severe do you consider the attacks on academic freedom, post-9/11?

A: Academic freedom is facing its most serious threat since the McCarthy era
of the 1950s. Some of the repressive but short-lived measures imposed on U.S.
population after previous crises makes the post-9/11 period look tame in
comparison. But the Global War on Terrorism is distinct from previous wars in
ways that do not bode well for the future of academic freedom. The
unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties following the passage of the
Patriot Act in October 2001, the national “Take Back the Campus” campaigns of
special interest groups, the changes in the grant language of major
foundations, and the attempts to legislate political intervention in area
studies programs are but some of the developments post 9/11 that have impacted
academic freedom in structural ways. This comes at a time when the academy is
in the midst of an economic and institutional transformation driven by the
increasing commercialization of knowledge. Buffeted between the forces of
anti-liberal coercion and neo-liberal privatization, colleges and universities
are more vulnerable than ever to the myriad ways in which outside government
agencies and special interest groups are reshaping the landscape of
intellectual production.

Q: How would you judge the defense of academic freedom by college leaders,
professional societies, and academic groups? Are there groups doing this well?

A: Systemic challenges require a systemic and collective response and that is
not on the horizon (yet). Generally speaking, organizations such as the AAUP,
the ACLU and the Union of Concerned Scientists have spoken loud and clear on
the issues, as have some professional organizations such as the Modern
Language Association and the American Anthropological Association. Opposition
to Title VI legislation on Capital Hill and to attempts to introduce the
Orwellian-named “Academic Bill of Rights” on the state level has been largely
effective thus far, but those battles are far from over. With notable
exceptions, university administrations have not defended their faculty and
students as well as they should have. Increasingly dominated by a corporate
managerial culture, most university administrations have reduced the number of
tenure-track positions, undermined shared governance by faculty, fought
attempts by graduate students who are bearing the bulk of teaching to improve
their working conditions, and tightened their grip on student activities. They
have also been too accommodating to some demands by corporations, donors, and
government agencies that have a chilling effect on the free circulation of
information and on the freedoms of research, writing, teaching, and extramural
speech. By and large the press has not covered this story well nor undertaken
the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that is needed.

Q: Do you think the war in Iraq has changed the state of academic freedom?

A: The war in Iraq is but a part of the Global War on Terrorism and its
spinoffs on the domestic front. It is a truism that war and truth do not go
well together, but we usually take comfort in the fact that wars end while the
pursuit of knowledge is endless. Herein, however, lies the danger of this new
and unique Global War on Terrorism. It is a war without end and it is a
virulently anti-intellectual war in that terrorists are represented as
irrationally evil and freedom is said to be a God given right. Both are
located outside of history and society. The black and white warning by
President Bush, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” not only asks
other countries to surrender their foreign policy. It also asks academics to
give up what they hold most dear: the use of critical reason in the free
pursuit of knowledge.

Q: Professors who study the Middle East say that they have been particularly
vulnerable to attacks. What should these professors and others do about that?

A: While coordinated attacks on specific scholars, course offerings, and
programs of study have targeted a variety of fields of study, they have
focused with greatest intensity in the post-9/11 moment on Middle East and
Islamic studies. Students and faculty connected academically or culturally to
Muslim and/or Middle Eastern countries tend to be identified as suspect both
in their loyalties to the country and in their ethical commitments to the
pursuit of knowledge. Racist profiling and scapegoating are common in Web
sites that compile lists of “Un-American” professors critical of the U.S. war
in Iraq, and charges of anti-Semitism are routinely leveled against critics of
Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. These campaigns of
surveillance, intimidation and control, if unchecked, will not remain confined
primarily to scholars who study the Middle East. These scholars need the
support of their colleagues and communities and academics in general have to
explain to the public why academic freedom is fundamentally important to a
democratic culture.

Q: How would you compare the state of academic freedom today to the Vietnam
era, when many American campuses were also centers of dissent against American
foreign policy?

A: It is of signal importance that the storms of controversy currently
sweeping American campuses are not a result of internal activism or clashes.
Compared to the 1960s, campuses have been unusually quiet despite the
significant popular opposition to the war on Iraq and the domestic policies of
the Bush II administration. Rather, the escalating tensions are a product of
professionally organized external interventions by well-funded special
interest groups intimately tied to the coalition of forces currently walking
the corridors of power in Washington. In contrast to the McCarthy era, private
groups, not the government, are playing the lead role in the campaigns to
quarantine dissent, to dominate the framing of public discourse, and to
re-channel the flows of knowledge production.

The release in 2002 of the report,“Defending Civilization: How Our
Universities are Failing America and What Can Be Done about It,” by the
American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is a case in point. Founded by
figures such as Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, ACTA accused the
universities of being the weak link in the war against terror and a potential
fifth column. There are several other major differences with the Vietnam era.
For instance, the amount of corporate funding of universities has increased
dramatically since the 1980s and institutions of higher learning are
undergoing a major transformation in terms of their mission in society.
Another example is the information revolution and specifically the Internet.
Web sites, e-mail lists, and chat groups have proven to be effective vehicles
of information transfer and political mobilization that are almost unfettered
by volume, time and space. Many of the debates are taking place in cyberspace.

— Scott Jaschik