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Using lens of Sept. 11, scholars share views of academic freedom

Immediately after Sept. 11, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman, published a report accusing universities of being the weak link in the war against terror and a potential fifth column. As if the general hint at treason were not enough, an appendix to the report listed the names of more than 100 ``un-American" professors, staff members, and students, and the offending statements they had made.

A few months after ACTA's study was disseminated, Daniel Pipes, the director of a think tank called Middle East Forum, launched an Internet site called Campus Watch, which publishes dossiers on scholars who criticize US policy in the Middle East or Israel's treatment of Palestinians. On the website, one finds a ``Keep Us Informed" section, where Pipes encourages students to inform on any professor who deviates from ``correct conduct."

As Beshara Doumani, a University of California at Berkeley history professor, points out in his compelling introduction to ``Academic Freedom After September 11," Pipes and friends have cynically appropriated the liberal terminology of the New Deal and civil rights eras, employing code words such as balance, fairness, diversity, accountability, tolerance, and not least, academic freedom in order to justify the enforcement of a political orthodoxy that undermines these very values.

The book describes this new assault on academic freedom in detail, distinguishing the current wave from the one launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy. As Stanford University professor Joel Beinin observes, the geographical and political context has changed, so that if in the 1950s scholars who offered a dissenting analysis of the Soviet Union and Cold War were decried as traitors, today it is Middle East specialists who are being accused of treason.

But the main difference between the two situations is that today private interest groups and not the government are running the show. Of course, major players within these think tanks have unhindered access to the corridors of government and are usually successful in influencing public servants; yet the resources for the campaign to delegitimize academic dissent come from think tanks.

The future of academic freedom, Kathleen J. Frydl predicts in her chapter, will not be determined in the courts but by budgets, whereby those who challenge the powers that be will be cut off from resources, while knowledge will be privatized and become the property of those who have the assets to produce it. The measure of academic freedom, she continues, will not be calculated according to who is fired by the university, but by who is hired -- those who appear to be intellectually recalcitrant will simply not be allowed to enter the academic gates. Finally, tenure will no longer guarantee academic freedom, since job security will be destroyed.

Doumani's volume not only provides an analysis of the assault on academic freedom, but also includes chapters by Robert Post, Judith Butler, and Philippa Strum, who discuss the historical roots of academic freedom in the United States, its philosophical underpinnings, and its legal structure.

Post, a law professor at Yale, takes the reader on a fascinating journey, tracing how academic freedom first developed as a result of efforts to institutionalize a set of employer-employee relationships in a university setting. He shows how the principle of academic freedom emerged in the United States not as an individual right, but rather as the price the public must pay the academic community in return for the social good of advancing knowledge.

Post argues that this is precisely why the International Studies in Higher Education Act -- passed in Congress in 2003 -- contradicts the principle of academic freedom. The act aims to establish a powerful advisory board to oversee International Studies programs that receive federal funding, authorizing the board to review course material, curricula, and faculty hires as well as make funding recommendations to the secretary of education. Two board seats are reserved for personnel from national security agencies. Post concludes this act could ultimately transform international studies into programs that merely promote opinions held by the people who provide funding.

In her brilliant essay Butler shows that the emergence, transformation, and sometimes disappearance of academic norms not only change our conception of what constitutes research and knowledge and how we conceive truth, but also shifts and blurs the boundaries between academic freedom and First Amendment rights, between professional and extramural expressions, and between individual rights and institutional prerogatives. She underscores that one of the roles of academic freedom is to allow and even encourage scholars to critically interrogate the legitimacy of academic norms, the very norms that according to Post serve as the boundary of academic freedom. Because the tension between academic norms and academic freedom can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways, it creates a paradox. Butler would probably say this is healthy, since such paradoxes can expand intellectual frontiers and spur the production of challenging new ideas.

All of which brings us back to Doumani's introduction. It's time, he says, ``to engage as public intellectuals the domestic and international movements for civil rights, democracy, and justice. . . . Let us speak and act before it is too late."

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