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Truth-Free Exchange on Campus By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 14, 2006


What do you call a cadre of partisan groups determined to muzzle debate about the ills of modern academia? If you’re the ACLU, a leading teachers union, and eight other well-financed groups allied with the political left, you call it the coalition for “Free Exchange on Campus.”

From the first, the coalition left little doubt about its aims. Its primary concern was not the well-documented abuse of academic standards in the name of politics but the fact there were those--like David Horowitz and FrontPageMag.com--who were willing to call attention to that uncomfortable reality and proposals--like the Academic Bill of Rights--to do something about it. Thus the coalition launched its first campaign on March 16, to coincide with the publication of David Horowitz’s The Professors, a systematic critique of the post-modern academy and its more unhinged and unprofessional denizens. The book had to be stopped.

Free Exchange For Me But Not For Thee

Challenging the book’s central arguments, however, was not what the Free Exchangers had in mind. Instead, they opted for the victory-by-persistent-distortion school of intellectual argument. In their hands The Professors was no mere critique by a concerned outsider, but an academic “blacklist” that placed untold professors’ jobs in peril. (How it actually did this, since the academic job market was controlled by people like themselves and the author of The Professors remained simply that, an author, the Free Exchangers never explained.) Free Exchange press releases contradictorily denounced The Professors for being at once partially “misleading” and wholly “fictitious,” for seeking both to establish conservative dominion over the nation’s universities and, in the words of Roger Bowen of the American Association of University Professors, to “undermine the well-placed confidence of this nation its exemplary higher education system.” Adam Jentleson of Campus Progress, a member of the coalition, accused the book of being “damaging to the idea that professors should be able to exchange ideas freely.” And its power to do so was apparently without limit, casting a dark “pall on the campus.”

For all their indignation, Free Exchangers betray little evidence that they’ve actually read the book. For instance, in an interview with FrontPageMag.com, Adam Jentleson insisted that the book was utterly without merit. “The claim that a cherry-picked list of 101 people is a representative sample of the 2 million faculty members currently teaching in the United States is absurd from any statistical or methodological standpoint,” Jentleson said. Informed that the book made no such claim --that, in fact, it argued that a ten percent minority of radical professors, who did not reflect the academic disposition of vast majority of faculty had exerted a disproportionate influence on university curricula and hiring practices -- Jentleson became defensive. “Free Exchange is not conceding anything against even the one three-thousandth of the faculty in America against whom you, Mr. Horowitz and your colleagues have made specific allegations,” protested Jentleson, thus declaring his loyalty to a position without any basis in fact. And despite his revealed ignorance, Jentleson stubbornly insisted that he had “indeed read the book” and, even if the evidence argued otherwise, “understood its argument.”

If their familiarity with The Professors’ argument leaves something to be desired, Free Exchangers nevertheless feel no compunction about impugning its author’s motives. Megan Fitzgerald, a paid operative at the Center for Campus Free Speech, a coalition group, has denounced David Horowitz as an “anti-free speech” activist. Since Horowitz has been a leading opponent of campus speech codes, FontPageMag.com asked her whether she had any evidence to support the charge. She responded by citing The Professors – a book -- which, she claimed, attacked professors “for their personal political beliefs” and Students for Academic Freedom, which she accused of publishing “unsubstantiated and anonymous claims of classroom bias for administrators, students and legislators to see.”

In fact, The Professors specifically defends the right of all professors to hold and express political beliefs, as does Students for Academic Freedom and its Academic Bill of Rights. The Professors is a wide-ranging catalogue of academic decline that highlights the predilection of radical professors to use their classrooms as political soapboxes – a violation of the academic freedom guidelines of the American Association of University Professors and the Faculty Handbooks of most universities themselves.

As for Students for Academic Freedom, it does indeed bolster its findings with evidence, in stark contrast to the Free Exchangers themselves. And indeed, under pressure Fitzgerald moderated her earlier remarks, telling FrontPageMag.com that the major flaw of The Professors and SAF was that neither encouraged “faculty to express views that disagree with Mr. Horowitz’s.” That claim, too, is demonstrably false. Here is what The Professors actually says: “This book is not intended as a text about leftwing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom.” (p. xxvi)

Yet, even as the Free Exchange coalition will oppose any criticism of academic misconduct, tar critics as enemies of free speech and their work as undeserving of a serious hearing, it describes its own mission, without a trace of irony, as a “campaign for free speech.”

Diagram of a Distortion

A claim that figures prominently in the Free Exchangers campaign is that critics of academic radicalism rely on “distortions” to make their case. Most recently, the Free Exchange Web site – which is a website dedicated to assailing David Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights – featured the case of Larry Estrada, one of the professors who appears in Horowitz‘s book. Estrada is an associate professor at Western Washington University and a self-proclaimed supporter of the Chicano supremacist group MEChA. Estrada complained that his profile in The Professors was filled with “distortions, damaging inferences and out-and-out fabrications.” His claims did not withstand scrutiny. There were in fact no fabrications in the profile and the only distortions were furnished by Estrada himself in order to mask MEChA’s racist core principles and obscure his defense of the substance of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s Internet apologia of anti-American terrorism.

On the other hand, “distortions, damaging inferences and out-and-out fabrications” would reasonably describe the Free Exchange coalition’s tactics. Consider, to cite but one instance, the Free Exchangers allegation that the Academic Bill of Rights has made academic scientists reluctant to research controversial subjects like global warming for fear of administrative repercussions.

The charge can be traced to the remarks of Lisa Klein, a tenured professor of material science at Rutgers University and a member of the AAUP, a leading opponent of the Academic Bill of Rights and a Free Exchange coalition partner. In a March 17 Free Exchange press release devoted entirely to deploring the Academic Bill of Rights, Klein said that because of the bill, “we have already seen challenges to academic freedom in the sciences.” In particular, she cited the area of global warming where, as paraphrased in the press release, she saw that “hard data is often challenged and professors personally attacked for their research.”

That there was no basis for Klein’s claim -- the Academic Bill of Rights expressly endorses “exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints” -- was no obstacle to Free Exchange activists, who seized on Klein’s spurious linkage as proof of its adverse effect on academic freedom. In an interview with a student newspaper at James Madison University, Free Exchange spokesman Jamie Horwitz (an Associate Director of Public Affairs at the American Federation of Teachers, another coalition member) asserted that the Academic Bill of Rights would take “away rights from faculty and students and the ability to exchange ideas.” As evidence, he repeated Klein’s charge about global warming. “Many professors are scared to speak freely on issues like global warming for fear some people may say they have a political agenda,” Horwitz warned. The fact that the Academic Bill of Rights would support professors who research global warming did not give Horwitz the slightest pause in defaming it.

The student newspaper at James Madison did not, of course, challenge Horwitz’s claim. But when FrontPageMag.com contacted Lisa Klein, she conceded that her earlier comments about global warming – publicly used by Horwitz and Free Exchange press release to create out-and-out fabrications about the Academic Bill of Rights -- had nothing at all to do with the bill. In fact, Klein’s comments had nothing to do with any real professor: “In my comments, I gave a general example where science is being politicized. I was not referring to a specific professor who was attacked for conducting research into global warming,” Klein acknowledged. Jamie Horwitz, who has a record of mis-stating and mis-representing the Academic Bill of Rights, did not respond to FrontPageMag.com’s request for an interview, and has yet to issue a correction.

The Non-Partisan Partisan Agenda

In the Free Exchange coalition’s self-serving description, it is a non-partisan group “committed to advocating for the rights of students and faculty to hear and express a full range of ideas unencumbered by political or ideological interference.” By contrast, critics of the modern university, especially David Horowitz, are engaging in a “politically motivated attempt to curb learning on campus by forcing an ideological agenda and curbing the free exchange of ideas.” There’s only one problem with the coalition’s account. It gets things exactly backward.

Whereas the critics seek to restore traditional standards to the universities, Campus Progress, the project of the Center for American Progress--a Washington D.C.-based pro-Democratic “research and educational institute” run by President Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta and staffed by former Clinton operatives – has clearly partisan goals. Campus Progress’s mission is to advance left-wing political agendas, or as it puts it, to “strengthen progressive voices on college and university campuses nationwide” and “empower new generations of progressive leaders.”

Essential to this mission is Campus Progress’s claim that university campuses are dominated by conservatives -- so much so that groups like the Center are required to “counter the growing influence of right-wing groups on campus.” Correspondingly, the group's Web site states that “While the media perceives U.S. campuses as bastions of liberalism, the right wing has spent 30 years organizing to gain the upper hand.”  Campus Progress’s leaders repeat this mantra as if it were unassailable fact. Asked by FrontPageMag.com whether the charges that university faculties are dominated by the political Left and hostile to contrary perspectives was accurate, the Center’s Adam Jentleson dismissed the claims offhand. “No, of course I don't think either one is fair or accurate,” he said.

Not only are these talking points disclaiming leftwing dominance unsupported by the evidence -- studies of political affiliation consistently show that faculty members overwhelmingly tilt to the left -- but they are disbelieved by Jentleson‘s staffers. Writing on the CP’s in-house blog on March 24, for instance, Ben Adler, the associate editor of its Web site, Campusprogress.org, made a striking confession: “Academia has plenty of academic diversity,” Adler noted, “it's just that the spectrum is often from center-left to far-left (which is actually a much wider, and, to my mind, more interesting, gap than center-left to center-right).”

It’s not easy to reconcile such statements with the Free Exchanger’s professed commitment to intellectual pluralism, or their insistence that campuses are models of intellectual diversity, but the coalition is determined to try. Hence the Free Exchange website informs readers that “By every reasonable measure, America's colleges and universities are considered the most diverse, challenging and successful higher education institutions in the world.” That’s not exactly honest, but it is precisely the kind of rhetoric that the strategists of Free Exchange hope will convince the next generation of “progressive ” campus leaders that conservatives are lurking under every dorm-room bed.

Other coalition members are no more candid about their politics. Take the Center for Campus Free Speech which assures students that it aspires only “to protect and to promote free speech on campuses.” But a review of the Center’s activities tells a different story.

When not condemning the Academic Bill of Rights and David Horowitz, the Center for Campus Free Speech focuses on its main cause: aggressively defending the “right” of left-wing groups to solicit compulsory student fees, made possible by students’ ignorance about where the funds are going. According to the Center, such “civic engagement,” especially when it concerns “groups dedicated to social and political education and advocacy,” is an “integral part of the higher education experience.” (The fact that conservative student groups are regularly denied funds to bring their speakers to campus is of no concern to these champions of free speech.)

To see the “civic engagement” referred to by the Center in action, one need only look to the 2004 controversy Utah Valley State College. Led by its radical vice president, the school’s student government availed itself of student funds -- as much as $50,000 worth according to some reports -- in order to bring dimwitted documentarian Michael Moore to campus to promote the presidential campaign of John Kerry. One outraged UVSC student sued the group for misuse of student fees, withdrawing it only after the student resigned his position. Yet the Center for Free Speech considers such challenges to one-sided partisanship from students and their supporters to be the real problem. Accordingly, its website is full spleen against “extremely conservative legal foundations, industry lobby groups, and right-wing religious organizations” who have the temerity to insist that the students who are taxed to provide capitation fees should decide how their fees are spent.

In this, CCFS resembles nothing so much as a the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), the supposedly “non-partisan” network of student groups founded by anti-capitalist crusader Ralph Nader to promote “apolitical” causes (like environmentalism and opposition to Social Security reform), and which is notorious for skimming funds from the tuition of unknowing students to support its lobbying initiatives and other causes consistent with its decidedly left-wing priorities.

The similarities are hardly coincidental. The Center for Campus Free Speech is little more than a front for the U.S. PIRG. Not only does it promote an identical agenda, but it is staffed by current and former U.S. PIRG operatives. Center for Free Speech director Megan Fitzgerald, for instance, is a veteran of several U.S. PIRG state chapters, where she has functioned as a paid staffer. The Center’s five-member advisory board includes Jess Tweedy, the Vice Chair US PIRG, as well as a former organizing director of the Massachusetts PIRG and a onetime employee of the PIRG’s Oregon branch. Still another advisory board member, David Vladeck, is the director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the self-styled “citizen advocacy organization” founded by Ralph Nader in 1971.

Despite its clearly political character, the Center’s Fitzgerald insists that it has only the interest of students in mind. “The Center’s mission is to preserve the marketplace of ideas on college campuses,” Fitzgerald told FrontPageMag.com. What seems clear, however, is that the spectrum of ideas the Center for Free Speech is concerned to preserve is a spectrum that includes only the left. And nowhere is that spectrum narrower that within the Free Exchange coalition itself. Not only is the PIRG front group – the Center for Campus Free Speech – a member of the Free Exchange coalition, but the National Association of State PIRGs is a coalition member, too.

The American Association of University Professors, yet another coalition member, has long portrayed itself as “the voice of the profession,” even as it almost never uses that voice to defend conservative professors. (Conversely, the AAUP wasted little time fashioning Palestinian terrorist operative cum University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian into a martyr for “academic freedom.”) The American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, campaigns against anything that might offend left-wing union interests. Similarly, the United States Student Association lobbies against any efforts to promote intellectual pluralism on campus -- a potential threat to the USSA’s unabashed cheerleading for racial preferences in academia and its staunch opposition to U.S. military efforts. That the ACLU and the People for the American Way -- two more coalition members and pillars of the "legal left" – are political formations is something only they and their coalition partners continue to deny.

Follow the Money

If the Free Exchange coalition’s pretensions to non-partisanship strain credulity, its claim to be combating deep-pocketed partisan interests is even more disingenuous. Presenting itself as a valiant David vying against moneyed, right-wing Goliaths, the Free Exchangers accuse their targets of running a “well-funded campaign.” Yet the charge is more accurately employed as a self-description.

Although the group’s press releases are not eager to divulge the fact, Free Exchange draws its strength from some of the most powerful funders on the political left. For instance, the American Federation of Teachers, which has long cast itself as the victim of “well-funded” “far-right” groups, has a budget that could cover the expenses of all right-wing campus groups combined. In 2005, the AFT laid claim to net assets of over $65 million. And few groups are better financed than the ACLU, whose annual budget exceeds $60 million and which counts on generous support from leftist billionaire George Soros, as well as the billion-dollar Ford Foundation. The same holds true for the ACLU’s ideological cousin, People for the American Way, created by centi-millionaire Norman Lear. In 2004, the group’s lobbying arm, the People for the American Way Foundation, reported total revenues of over $21 million. The National Association of State PIRGs operate under the aegis of the US PIRG, which reported total revenues of approximately $5.6 million in 2004. That makes it by far the poorest of the aforementioned groups. Not far behind is the American Association of University Professors. Thanks to the steady patronage of the Ford Foundation and other leftwing sponsors, the AAUP boasted a $5 million budget in 2005.

What it is true for the grownups applies equally well to their young compatriots. Campus Progress, fond of portraying itself as an embattled island of “progressive” politics in a sea of campus conservatism, actually has a $1.25 million budget, while its parent organization, the Center for American Progress enjoys the backing of George Soros and the New York Community Trust, a foundation with assets of over $1.8 billion. As for the United States Student Association, it may self-righteously style itself the “voice for students,” but a glance at its financial backers -- who include the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other left-wing money banks – reveals that it also answers to the left’s leading shareholders.

Unsurprisingly, Free Exchange member groups are tight-lipped about their financial resources. When pressed about his organization’s budget, Adam Jentleson of Campus Progress downplayed its importance. “Campus Progress' budget is irrelevant,” he told FrontPageMag.com, but then failed to explain why the funding of right-wing group is. Jentleson also insisted that whatever the individual assets of its member groups, Free Exchange’s budget was negligible. Considering that it’s entire focus is one individual, David Horowitz, and his Academic Bill of Rights, just how big would it’s budget have to be? Jentleson declined to cite an exact figure.

The Alliance for Inaccuracy in Academia

Thus far, the success of the Free Exchange campaign has not matched the stridency of its claims. With the exception of a fawning profile of Campus Progress in The Nation -- just about the only publication willing to lend credence to the group’s surreal depiction of universities as citadels of conservative power -- the coalition has met with collective indifference from the media.

It does not understate matters to say the list of those who place any stock in its claims can be reduced to politically innocent campus newspapers and, of course, the radical academics profiled in The Professors, who have taken advantage of the Free Exchange website to ventilate their complaints about David Horowitz and other critics of academic degeneracy. Besides the coalition of eager censors, those professors are the only ones who see a critical discussion of the state of modern universities as a threat, and who view campaigns of distortion and name-calling, and self-refuting calls for a “free exchange on campus” as a useful means for suppressing just that.

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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com


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