It is not so long ago that I thought everyone shared exactly the same grasp of the concept of academic freedom. Stated plainly it is defined as affording teachers in schools and universities the liberty to teach, pursue, and discuss knowledge without restriction or interference, by either school administrations or public officials. The concept had its origins in Germany in the 1850s and became institutionalized in the United States when the American Association of University Professors laid down its principles in 1913 and later clarified them in 1940. The AAUP Declaration of Principles not only protected teachers, but also protected students who were to be free of ideological coercion from their instructors

Since then, it has become a fundamental building block of the modern democratic state – so essential to the maintenance of an open and free society that it is spoken of in the same breathless, sacrosanct tones as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

But what happens when professors on our university campuses use the shield of academic freedom to promote antisemitism, racial prejudice, Holocaust denial and support for America’s enemies? Are they deserving of the same protections afforded others with controversial views? 

That question was brought poignantly to my attention this week when the communications of a University of Santa Barbara professor’s anti-Israel slurs became very public. 

The facts are these: On January 19, 2009, UC Santa Barbara professor, Bill Robinson, a tenured sociology professor, e-mailed his Globalization class students an inflammatory anti-Israel written article by Judith Stone along with 42 photos of Nazi atrocities which were mirrored  by 42 photographs of Israel’s purported atrocities in its war in Gaza earlier this year.  His introductory comments equated Israel’s military operations in Gaza with Nazi atrocities, asserted that Israel was committing genocide and that the state was founded on the negation of another people.   When one surprised student emailed asking whether this was an assigned reading, Professor Robinson admitted it had nothing to do with the course, but “was just for your interest, as I should have clarified.”

Two students promptly dropped the class. They later filed grievances, claiming that Professor Robinson had violated the Faculty Code of Conduct  in that:
1. There should be no significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course
(II A, 1, b); 
2. That faculty members should not use their positions of power to coerce judgment or conscience of a student ((II, A, 4);
3. That faculty should not use University resources for personal, commercial, political, or religious purposes (II, C, 3)). 

The UCSB Faculty Code of Conduct is perfectly in line, in these matters, with the traditional  protections afforded by academic freedom. The Code in fact follows many of the faculty directives of other universities around the country.

But Robinson was outraged at what he considered to be a Zionist conspiracy to silence him and strip him of his supposed academic rights. Within days of the filing of the complaint, a new campus organization, the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom  at UCSB sprang into life, with dozens of UC Santa Barbara professors signing on and hundreds of students declaring their support for the beleaguered professor. Robinson, writing in his own defense, focused on what he regarded as the violation of procedural issues and then went on to claim that  “I find this complaint to be a potent, ominous, politicized violation of academic freedom. My right, in accordance with the (UCSB Faculty) Code to ‘present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction’, is being violated. ”  His supporters, among them noted professors at UCSB, claimed that Robinson is the victim of a witch hunt. 

At issue, of course, is the question of whether professors can say anything they want, whenever they want and, while providing their students with materials which subscribe to highly controversial points of view, fail to offer countervailing opinions or materials.  It should be no surprise that professors such as Robinson, and his counterparts in anti -Israel and anti-American invective such as Norman Finkelstein and Ward Churchill, regularly use academic freedom to mask the propagation of their radical points of view.  Nor should it surprise anyone that the radicalization of the campus has not been enough for such men. The desire to offend and to even speak flagrant untruths seems to be now claimed as protected aspects of teaching that comes under the rubric of academic freedom

On the right, the complete collapse of academic freedom, wherein conservatives can barely express an opinion nor be taken seriously as competent in their fields, is a fixed belief.   Last week, at about the same time I was learning about Robinson’s case, a Californian female professor seeking employment out of state informed me that at the interview with the university in question, she had been intensely grilled about her suspected conservative views and affiliations. She instinctively knew that any admission that she harbored such views or affiliations, would have doomed her candidacy.

That academic freedom – or its abuse-  is being claimed by both right and the left to defend various points of view was made clear to me last year when I was putting the finishing touches on AFA’s own academic freedom conference How Free Is the University? 

In the course of our research we discovered that several other academic freedom conferences had been organized within months of our own.  The University of Chicago held a one day conference on October 12, 2007 titled In Defense of Academic Freedom  which featured the redoubtable leftist  beneficiaries of academic freedom Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer and Tony Judt themselves.

In early February, 2008, academics at De Paul University, reacting angrily to the tenure denials of Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee ( who were denied their full professorships, it seems, on the basis of the shoddiness of their research rather than the controversy of their views) ran its own conference titled the De Paul Academic Freedom Conference   which featured a number of practitioners of “balanced” political instruction such as Bill Ayres, Asad AbuKhlalil and Juan Cole.

A few weeks later it was New York University’s turn to join the chorus, decrying the collapse of academic freedom when it ran its own conference First National Teach-In on Freedoms at Risk in America.

 This time around, the gathering of the persecuted included the aforementioned Norman Finkelstein ( last seen on al Jazeera Television espousing support for a terrorist organization and denouncing Israel) and Lynne Stewart, convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to provide and conceal material support for terrorists.

So on the one hand you have conservatives denouncing the absence of academic freedom for their positions, while on the other, you have exactly the same hue and cry is being whelped by radical leftists who feel similarly abandoned in the cold.

Newspaper editors often argue that if you are offending both sides equally then you know you are doing a good job.

Who is right then?

The harsh, brutal answer is that the words ” academic freedom” themselves no longer have much meaning  for anyone other than historians.  That is because academic freedom did not develop as a means of promoting any particular point of view but was a vehicle to assist academics in their quest for truth. On this path, academics should be balancing a wide variety of materials and arguments, the better to test the credibility of any given proposition or theory.   In such a pursuit of knowledge and truth ‘balance’ is an absolutely critical ingredient -a requirement which really forms the bedrock of the academic freedom philosophy. 

But with such a highly charged atmosphere on campus these days it is almost impossible to obtain that kind of objectivity from anyone – administrators included.  Even in the sciences, where one would believe that the data speaks for itself, politics has intruded, barring any discussion of such sensitive subjects as the theory of intelligent design, the growing evidence against man-made climate change or the discovery of e in the universe of proof for the uniqueness of our planet.

Yet the tug of war between the two sides has essentially split the baby in two, rendering the entire concept of academic freedom, rather than a universally accepted philosophy, now more of one of personal preference to be decided on an individual  basis. The concept of academic freedom probably then needs an overhaul ,to be replaced by an entirely new philosophical construct – one that is primarily based on the demands for balance and the objective pursuit of truth. How such a philosophy can be discussed or constructed, let alone agreed to in the oxygen starved atmosphere of the modern university campus, remains to be seen.

But while we are waiting for the academy to be rehabilitated, one thing remains clear: any academic – liberal or conservative, radical leftist or fundamentalist right winger, who espouses any personal point of view without at least considering an opposing position, cannot be trusted. His or her written work should not be taken seriously; their teachings should be regarded as suspect and their scholarly failings rightfully exposed.

Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky should take note. And so should Professor William Robinson at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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