Academic Freedom in the Wake of September 11, 2001
Virginia Conference Fall Meeting
George Mason University
28 September 2002
When Christina Turner invited me to speak today, she suggested as the topic, "Academic Freedom in the Wake of September 11," a particularly appropriate one for a meeting held just over a year since the triple massacres of thousands of innocents. I foolishly thought that this speech would write itself, but I had not counted on the almost daily reports of new threats to academic freedom as the anniversary approached.
As did almost all of us on that fateful day, I watched in fascinated horror as the planes sliced through the towers again and again, seemingly without end. Were any of my New York friends or colleagues among the victims? I held my breath when I heard of the downed plane in Pennsylvania, because my uncle and cousins were scheduled to fly to California that day and often fly out of Newark. Thankfully, the hijacked plane had been their second choice, and their flight from another airport was merely canceled. The attack on the Pentagon raised worrisome questions about the safety of AAUP staff at the national office. My experience was certainly not unique. Many of us, especially on the East Coast, shared similar dreads.
The next day, the General Secretary called to say that she had drafted a brief statement and to ask whether I wanted to sign it. It was, in my view, a graceful, sensitive, and appropriate response, and I signed enthusiastically. I share with you the text of the statement, which was posted over both our signatures on the AAUP web site.
The events of September 11, 2001, have undermined our sense of security in many ways. They are not just violations of our people and of our symbols of power. They are violations of our basic trust in reason. Despite some internal national conflicts, our members have chosen to work within our democracy with a sense that we could make a difference in deciding how to use our great power justly in the world. Although we have been deeply disturbed about injustice, poverty, and inequity and the violence they instigate, we have also harbored a belief that we could find ways to remediate these evils by understanding them. And now the evidence of such immense violence, used so irrationally, has challenged our belief that we could make sense of things to ourselves and to others.
In the presence of such a rebuke to our deepest convictions, it is tempting not to think at all, but to act instinctively. As an association of university professors that is distinctively American, however, we are called by all the elements of our identity to reaffirm our faith in the power of knowledge to hold back the irrational. We therefore affirm, for our colleagues throughout this country, that we will continue to fight violence with renewed dedication to the exercise of freedom of thought and the expression of that freedom in our teaching.
Responses from AAUP members and the general public ranged from high praise for the poetic and rational tone of the statement to vicious hate mail accusing us of being unpatriotic and stupid in the bargain. A member of AAUP Council, who lost a daughter in the attack on the Pentagon, resigned from both the Council and AAUP after an impassioned speech on the floor of the Council in which he accused us in the most intemperate language of profound obtuseness. Apparently, in the view of many, this was not a time for dispassionate discussion.
Not surprisingly, colleagues at the City University of New York were among the first to experience the wrath of nervous trustees and a chancellor who reacted to inflammatory news coverage of a teach-in organized by our affiliate, the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY. Neither the chancellor nor the trustees had attended the event, but relied on the notoriously biased reporting of the conservative New York Post, which quoted, out of context, two professors who criticized our foreign policy.
Two members of CUNY’s Board of Trustees drafted a statement condemning the comments, saying that the professors who made them had "with their selfish, tasteless, and unjustified conduct, brought shame to the City University of New York." One trustee, lamenting the fact that he could not fire the professors, was quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying, "They have the invitation to take a hike."
Committee A met less than two months after the attacks. One member of the committee reported that some of his colleagues at CUNY had received hate mail, including death threats, from a variety of sources, including other faculty members. Despite the severity of the situation at CUNY, the committee, after a lengthy discussion of the atmosphere on campuses around the country, issued the following statement:
The Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, holding its autumn meeting close to two months after the despicable mass murders and destruction inflicted by terrorists on September 11, reviewed the reactions to the tragedy on college and university campuses. Committee A is aware of a few disturbing lapses in which the exercise of academic freedom encountered hostility that threatened to impede the free expression of ideas. Overall, however, the Committee was pleased to observe that the quality of the discussion and debate, the commendable degree of interest, and the civility shown by members of the higher education community in the philosophical and moral issues of concern, have boded well for academic freedom and thus the pursuit of the common good. Still, unsettling events in the aftermath of September 11, in this country and abroad, may well be with us for some time, putting continued respect for academic freedom to a severe test. Committee A, like all of us in higher education, will need to maintain a close watch on the situation. In the words of one university president, "It is incumbent upon universities and their leaders to protect the freedom to assemble and debate, explore questions and test ideas. That can be difficult in a time of stress and pain, but it is never more important."
We were overly sanguine, perhaps. It soon became clear that a close watch was, indeed, necessary. What follows is a condensed chronicle of one of the most controversial and headline-grabbing cases to occur in my memory. On September 27, 2001, Judy Genshaft, the president of the University of South Florida, had placed Sami Al-Arian, a tenured associate professor of computer science, on paid leave one day after a television appearance that generated a storm of negative publicity. Bowing to threats to withhold financial contributions to the university, as well as fears of possible violence, Genshaft informed Al-Arian on December 19 of her intent to terminate his employment. The reason she gave for her decision was that his extramural utterances had created "a situation in which the University cannot effectively provide for your safety and safety of your students and colleagues or even to carry out its mission in an efficient and productive manner." In other words, he was to be punished in anticipation of the criminal acts of those who might find his positions offensive.
AAUP staff immediately offered their services to all concerned parties in an effort to mediate and, it was hoped, reverse the decision to dismiss Al-Arian. President Genshaft indicated that she would co-operate and, in fact, appeared to welcome our counsel. Nevertheless, a new semester began, and Professor Al-Arian was still on paid leave and banned from the campus. In an unprecedented act, the General Secretary, with the advice of AAUP staff, on February 6, 2002, authorized an investigation without knowing whether Al-Arian would be dismissed. Our concern centered on the threat to academic freedom posed by the novel notion that a tenured professor might be dismissed because of threats to his safety or because potential donors might withdraw financial support if he remained on the faculty.
William Van Alstyne, former General Counsel of the Association, and noted constitutional scholar, chaired the ad hoc investigating committee, which spent three days in March interviewing the concerned parties as well as student and faculty groups at the University. An interim report urged President Genshaft to return Professor Al-Arian to his duties by the beginning of the summer, but no later than the beginning of the fall semester. The committee informed Genshaft that AAUP would very likely vote to censure FSU if Al-Arian were dismissed on what we perceived to be pretextual grounds.
In a bizarre twist, Genshaft re-cast the issues in two important ways. In a public statement made on August 21, in which she acknowledged both the importance of academic freedom and her reliance on advice from AAUP, she attempted to justify the possibility of firing Al-Arian by claiming that he has ties to terrorists, although a decade-long FBI investigation had produced no evidence warranting a formal indictment. She also took the unusual step of seeking declaratory relief from a state court, that is, asking the court to advise whether firing Al-Arian would abridge his First Amendment free speech rights.
In the meantime, AAUP has been accused of defending a terrorist who should not only be fired, but extradited. The most common argument favoring his dismissal has been that academic freedom extends only to relevant classroom utterances, not to extramural ones. Proponents of that view have read only the sections of the "1940 Statement" that pertain to the classroom They conveniently ignore the portion of the "Statement" that says, in relevant part, "College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline..."
In a recent online "Colloquy" sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a number of participants questioned our involvement in the case, accusing us of defending a terrorist. My response was:
What the AAUP is defending is academic due process. Allegations of professional misconduct should be adjudicated by one's academic peers. Allegations of criminal misconduct should be adjudicated in the courts in a manner consonant with our democratic principles. In the case of Professor Al-Arian, no criminal charges have been filed, nor has he been afforded a hearing on the professional misconduct charges.
We now await the judgment of the court and Genshaft’s next move. I point out that nothing I have said here today is privileged information, but freely available in various press reports or on the AAUP web site.
The Al-Arian case is arguably the most dramatic one to emerge in the past year, but it is by no means the only one. The North Carolina House of Representatives threatened to withhold funds to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because all incoming first-year and transfer students were asked to read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, a professor at Haverford College. Federal Judge N. Carlton Tilley, Jr., refused to grant a Christian group represented by three anonymous students, an injunction preventing the discussion of the book. The discussions took place in groups of 30 without negative incident. One freshman was quoted by the Chronicle as saying, "I'm embarrassed for the state of North Carolina, because I worry that opposition to the book has made us look like a bunch of bigots. By assigning this book, UNC isn't telling us how to think. It's not like we're going to be praying to Mecca every day now." James C. Moeser, the chancellor of the Chapel Hill campus was quoted in the same article as saying that "Academic freedom is safe at North Carolina."
Other troubling cases involve attempts by legislative bodies in Minnesota and Missouri to control universities by withholding funds. The Minnesota case was in response to the publication by the University of Minnesota Press of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, by Judith Levine. The University of Missouri System was penalized because the director of the public television station on the Columbia campus prevented his staff from wearing American flag pins on camera and because a Kansas City professor had written a book a decade ago entitled The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality, and Pedophilia.
The University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado College were the targets of intense criticism for inviting Hanan Ashrawi to speak on their campuses. Ashrawi is a noted Palestinian writer and politician who has been active in the Middle East peace movement. She received a doctorate in medieval and comparative literature from the University of Virginia and now holds the position of secretary general of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. She has, in the past, spoken at several American colleges and universities, including George Mason. The President of Colorado College, Richard Celeste, eloquently defended the invitation to Dr. Ashrawi in an opinion piece published in the Rocky Mountain News: "In a real sense, the more contested and heated the argument, the more important it is that places like CC let contending sides be heard."
Just when I thought I had listed all the major stories, the Chronicle reported the formation by the Middle East Forum of a web site called "Campus Watch" that will monitor professors who might be guilty of an anti-Israel bias. I visited the site two days ago and discovered that eight professors and fourteen colleges and universities, including Harvard, NYU, and Stanford, have "dossiers" on the site, meaning that they are under surveillance by "Campus Watch." Two of the five main objectives of the group, as listed on the site are to "[i]dentify key faculty who teach and write about contemporary affairs at university Middle East Studies departments in order to analyze and critique the work of these specialists for errors or biases" and to "[d]evelop a network of concerned students and faculty members interested in promoting American interests on campus." When students and colleagues are encouraged to spy and report on faculty, the potentially chilling effect on academic freedom is obvious. The temptation to self-censor in such a climate, especially without the protection of tenure or a sympathetic and courageous administration, can be overwhelming.
In response to these events, AAUP has established a special committee to analyze the state of academic freedom in the year since the horrific events of September 11. Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, will chair the committee, which includes six other distinguished scholars.
The incidents I have described are dramatic and newsworthy. They underscore the need to be ever vigilant in the defense of freedom, and I certainly do not underestimate their impact. But I wish to leave you with the thought that there are less dramatic, but no less dangerous, threats to academic freedom. They are chronic and insidious. Most troubling is the fact that too many of our colleagues have either failed to recognize the threats or have been complicit in allowing them to thrive. They are an unholy trinity: (1) unreasonable requirements for achieving tenure, (2) the pernicious notion that students are customers, and (3) the continuing and alarming trend to hire new faculty off the tenure track.
When we recommend tenure and promotion only for junior faculty who have published more than we have, who have virtually perfect student evaluations, stellar service records, and the potential to be stars in their field, we are guilty of fostering a misplaced elitism. The pressure to pursue safe lines of research, that is, au courant and publishable; to obtain glowing evaluations from students; and to demonstrate collegiality by taking on onerous committee assignments is a real, if subtle, threat to academic freedom. It also serves as a deterrent to attracting recruits to our profession. How can any rational person expect highly qualified individuals to pursue graduate degrees at great personal and financial expense only to obtain underpaid, temporary positions with no hope of promotion or expectation of job security? Other professions that offer greater rewards for similar effort will skim off the best and brightest.
When we tell students that they are customers, we must expect them to behave like customers. They will reward us with good evaluations when we give them high grades for little effort. An article in the Summer 2002 issue of Chance, a publication of the American Statistical Association, concluded:
...the results from this analysis provide conclusive evidence of a biasing effect of student grades on student evaluations of teaching.
From a policy viewpoint, the findings of this study are important. As an increasing number of universities use student evaluations of teaching in administrative decisions that affect the careers of their faculty, the incentives for faculty to manipulate their grading policies in order to enhance their evaluations increase. Because grading policies affect student enrollment decisions and the amount students learn in their courses, the ultimate consequence of such manipulations is the degradation of the quality of education in the United States.
Perhaps the greatest threat to academic freedom, however, is the dangerous trend towards hiring off the tenure track. Many of us have been concerned for a number of years about the use and abuse of part-time, adjunct faculty, who lack the protection of tenure and whose working conditions and compensation are often execrable. The startling news is that, in the last decade, depending on how one views the data, between 52% and 55% of all new full-time faculty hires were off the tenure track. I repeat--between 52% and 55% of all new full-time faculty hires were off the tenure track. Without the protection of tenure, academic freedom is fragile and imperiled.
As faculty committed to academic freedom, we must refuse to adopt criteria for promotion and tenure that we could not meet. We must work for the conversion of part-time, contingent positions to full-time, tenure-track ones, dying at our desks unless we have a written guarantee that we will be replaced by someone on the tenure-track. We must stop referring to students as customers, presidents as CEOs, and bursars as CFOs. Language matters. Above all, tenured faculty must exercise academic freedom or risk losing it. The price of tenure is a continuing and life-long moral obligation to exercise academic freedom by speaking out against assaults on our principles. We are not always right when we speak out, but we are always wrong when we do not.