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Academe in a Time of Crisis By: John Gravois
The Chronicle of Higher Education | Thursday, September 14, 2006


Five years ago, academe braced itself.

In the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, when title logos like "America Under Attack" still loomed over newscasts, some scholars said they could already feel the free exchange of ideas constricting. As news commentators proclaimed an end to the age of irony, many professors feared the start of a new McCarthy era.

Half a decade on, it appears that reports of irony's death were greatly exaggerated. And according to a few leading advocates of academic freedom, so were, for the most part, the forebodings of a new McCarthyism.

In the years since September 11, 2001, the institutions that exist to protect free inquiry have indeed had to put up a number of fights. But the institutions themselves have remained healthy and robust -- and more often than not have won those battles.

Matthew J. Streb, an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, edited with Evan Gerstmann a new book called Academic Freedom at the Dawn of a New Century: How Terrorism, Governments, and Culture Wars Impact Free Speech (Stanford University Press). His research for the book, he says, left him "cautiously optimistic."

"In most of the controversial cases we came across," he says, "academic freedom was upheld." What has changed since September 11, free-speech experts say, is that the public has taken an unusually keen interest in what professors say -- particularly when their words tend toward the incendiary.

"A lot of the academic-freedom cases we've seen have been, in a sense, no different from the academic-freedom cases we saw in the 80s or 90s," says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "It's just that more people seem to know about them."

According to David Horowitz, the prominent conservative activist, that extra public scrutiny stems from widespread exasperation with the professoriate in a time of crisis. "If we weren't in the war on terror, the stakes would be a lot lower," he says, "and the public wouldn't be paying attention."

But Mr. Lukianoff says that frustration with "out of touch" professors is not the only reason academic freedom controversies have taken up more airtime in recent years. The tension between liberty and security -- and the need to protect the former -- has itself become a staple concept in the national consciousness, he says. After September 11, 2001, people are "more aware of academic freedom," he says. "Public outrage doesn't just go one way."

According to Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, an autonomous organization with close ties to the University of Virginia, the legal and non-governmental institutions that safeguard academic freedom have not been cowed since September 11.

Soon after the attacks, the Commerce Department proposed a new regulation that would have required institutions to obtain export licenses whenever they hired foreign scholars for research in a broad range of fields. According to Mr. O'Neil, who is also a past chairman of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the proposal met with a "vigorous and sustained protest" from a united front of academic advocacy groups. Perhaps as a result of that protest, he said, the proposal was modified early this year. Then in June, it was scrapped entirely.

Another hopeful sign for Mr. O'Neil came in the form of an August ruling by a federal judge in Detroit. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency for its program of wiretapping civilians' telephone and electronic correspondence without warrants. Two of the plaintiffs in the ACLU's case were Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and Barnett R. Rubin, the director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. Both men said that the prospect of having their correspondence secretly wiretapped interfered with their ability to conduct sensitive research over the phone with subjects in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

The judge, Anna Diggs Taylor, decided that the wiretapping program was unconstitutional, and she cited the two scholars' work in her decision. (The government has appealed.)

Mr. O'Neil acknowledges that many civil-liberties advocates would much prefer a climate where actions like the security agency's wiretapping program did not have to be fought. But the important difference between the McCarthy era and now, he says, is that redress is possible. "Somebody is listening," he said. "There are a number of examples in which protest has been made and has been registered and has produced a mitigating outcome."

One hallmark of academic-freedom controversies in the news since September 11 is that many of them have been about September 11.

On the afternoon of the day of the attacks, a professor at the University of New Mexico named Richard Berthold said offhandedly to a classroom of students, "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote." (The Chronicle, October 19, 2001).

Later, Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, described the white-collar victims of the World Trade Center attack as "little Eichmanns" in an essay, suggesting that their participation in the American financial system was on par with Adolf Eichmann's work for the Nazis (The Chronicle, February 2, 2005).

And in recent months, Kevin Barrett, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has attracted the ire of several state politicians because of his outspoken public support for Scholars for 9/11 Truth, a group that believes the U.S. government was complicitous in the attacks (The Chronicle, July 3).

All three of those men, who represent only a tiny sampling of the professors who have sparked controversies because of comments about the attacks, were met with firestorms of criticism in the press and on the Internet. (The post-September-11 era is also the age of blogs; outrage travels faster, further, and with more venom than ever before.) All three men had politicians and alumni calling for them to be fired. And all of them were put under investigation by their universities.

Mr. Berthold was served with a reprimand, was dogged by the controversy for months, and ended up taking early retirement. The University of Colorado at Boulder began the process of firing Mr. Churchill after the scrutiny prompted by his "little Eichmanns" essay turned up charges of plagiarism. Mr. Barrett emerged from his university's investigations of his teaching relatively unscathed, and is teaching a class called "Islam: Religion and Culture" this fall.

Even if none of those men was fired outright for his speech, Mr. Streb and Mr. Lukianoff say, their cases do set an ominous example. Other professors may wonder: In such a climate, even if the law protects my speech, is it really worth it to speak up?

"The real threat is the threat of self-censorship," says Mr. Streb. Many professors, he fears, are shutting themselves up for fear of backlash.

Mr. Lukianoff agrees, though he submits that such backlash sometimes goes with the territory. Especially in a time of lingering crisis, he says, "it takes a kind of bravery to participate in the marketplace of ideas."

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