George Orwell began one of the most famous essays in the English language with this observation: “In Moulmein, in Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people. It was the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” As a result of my efforts to remove political agendas from academic classrooms, I have come to appreciate this Orwell comment.
Recently, I traveled to Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania to debate the Academic Bill of Rights and the legislative hearings on academic freedom, which the Bill had inspired. My opponent was Bloomsburg philosophy professor Kurt Smith, who had been a hostile witness at the hearings. In his testimony, Smith framed the proceedings in the context of Socrates’ execution for “corrupting the youth,” Hitler’s imposition of loyalty oaths on German professors, Mao’s cultural revolution which “killed or removed [professors] to labor camps” and Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, an eccentric choice but also a favorite target of MIT radical, Noam Chomsky.
The Bloomsburg debate was held on September 19, 2006 and moderated by the university’s president, Jessica Kozloff, whom I had met earlier in the day. She informed me that in response to my reform efforts the university had already amended its existing academic grievance policies, and gave me a copy of the new regulation, which stipulated that students should not be penalized in their grades for their political views.
The hostility Smith displayed towards me in our debate that evening turned out to be mild in comparison with what followed. Two months after my Bloomsburg visit, I mentioned it in a speech I gave at the Restoration Weekend, which was posted at Frontpagemag.com. This prompted Smith to launch an intemperate attack in two articles on FreeExchangeOnCampus.org, a website created by the American Federation of Teachers for the express purpose of attacking me and my campaign.
According to Smith, virtually everything I had reported about my appearance at Bloomsburg was false: “With the exception of his physically being at Bloomsburg and having dinner, [Horowitz] gets almost every other ‘fact’ wrong.” Among the items I got wrong, according to Smith, was the simple fact that I had come to Bloomsburg “to speak.” “For starters,” Smith corrected me, “Horowitz did not come to Bloomsburg to speak. As your readers know, he came to debate the future of academic freedom.”
This hair-splitting was extreme even for a philosophy professor, but a small dose of what was in store. Smith described me as “a sophistical bully who bends and stretches the ‘truth’ (or just plain lies) to further his own ends.” One of these ends, apparently, was to get rid of professors like himself: “Horowitz’s fascist ideology … casts ordinary, politically centrist Americans like me as leftists and enemies of the state.”
I have never used the phrase “enemy of the state” to refer to anyone. On the contrary, I have publicly stated in my book The Professors and elsewhere, that far from being “enemies of the state” academics with leftwing views must be an integral component of a university education worthy of the name. Smith knows this because I said as much that evening at Bloomsburg. The label “fascist” Smith sought to pin on me was particularly bizarre given the fact that I came to Bloomsburg as the founder of a campaign for academic freedom that was based entirely on liberal principles devised by the American Association of University Professors, and have never called for the firing of a single academic because I disagreed with their political views. Slanders like this are hardly the hallmark of a political “centrist,” as Smith presents himself.
The union site which featured Smith’s article contains a section called “Horowitz Fact Checker,” which is part of a national campaign to discredit evidence of the faculty infringements of academic freedom that I have brought to light. The malice displayed on sites such as Free Exchange and by professors such as Smith tends to focus on me personally, but it is really directed at the students who risk faculty reprisals if they report abuses and who therefore are in need of advocates to raise these issues. The agenda of this campaign is to create in advance the supposition that if students seek my help in publicizing their political harassment at the hands of their professors, either they are lying or I am.
The events at Bloomsburg are a pristine example of how these tactics are used by faculty members to silence students who feel their academic freedoms have been violated.  During my visit, I dined with a group of about seven College Republicans. Three of them were Iraq war veterans who voiced some disturbing complaints about a political science professor named Diana Zoelle. One of the complaints concerned an exam Zoelle had given. According to the student, it contained a question asking him to explain why the Iraq war was morally wrong. The exam was given in 2003 when the student was about to be shipped to the field of battle. He wrote an essay supporting the war and -- again according to him -- received a “D.”
A second student declared that Zoelle had refused to allow him to make up assignments he missed while fulfilling his military obligations in the Army Reserve. These required him to travel to Maryland for training. Despite his appeals, Zoelle insisted on giving him zeros for the assignments he missed, which adversely affected his grade.
These two students’ views were supported by a third veteran of the war in Iraq who was sitting at the table and had also taken a course with Zoelle, and shared their views of her in-class behavior.
Zoelle’s anti-war views are part of her academic record. She has been a visiting professor at the leftwing Joan Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at Notre Dame. What she believes as a private citizen is her business. All three students, however, felt that she regularly brought her politics into class. A remark that bothered one of the Iraq veterans was this: “When Republicans are in office, people are forced to scrub toilets or go into the military.” A comment that rattled another was her answer to a question about the decline in gas prices just before the 2006 election: “The Republicans always lower the gas prices so they can be re-elected.” Constant remarks of a similar nature caused this student to “turn her off.” If these students are correct, this is neither a professional way to run a class nor a pedagogically productive one.
Because three students had testified to the in-class bias of Professor Zoelle, and because the exam question given to a student on his way to Iraq seemed particularly abusive, I decided to mention it during my debate with Smith that evening. Because I only had their testimony and not hers, I also decided to refrain from identifying Zoelle by name.
But almost as soon as I left the campus after the debate, Professors Zoelle and Smith went into action against the students whom I had met. They called all the College Republicans with whom I had dinner – including the three veterans who had been her students -- to a meeting in the Political Science Department. I was told about the meeting the evening before it was scheduled, when one of the students phoned to ask my advice. It was clear to me that this was an act of intimidation, which showed exactly why a student bill of rights was necessary at Bloomsburg. I advised the students not to attend the meeting but to go directly to President Kozloff and tell her what had happened. At the same time I sent my own emails to President Kozloff, the chairman of the Political Science Department, and Dr. George Agbango, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, protesting the summons.
The students disregarded my advice and went to the meeting. When they arrived, Professor Smith was in charge and told them they were there to discuss what had been said at dinner and “possibly to have charges filed against them for violations of academic integrity.” They noted that Smith had brought a tape recorder, which further impressed them with the seriousness of the proceedings. Several of the students involved were political science majors. “Violations of academic integrity” is a threatening phrase. Evidently both professors regarded the discussion of a past exam question, even one three years old, as off-limits -- the First Amendment notwithstanding.
In his Free Exchange article, Smith describes the meeting as though it was called as a friendly fact-finding mission whose purpose was to see whether I had put words in the students’ mouths: “Subsequently, we asked a co-advisor of the College Republicans who had arranged the dinner between Horowitz and members of the club to ask the students if they would be up for filling us in on what was in fact said at dinner -- our initial suspicion being that Horowitz (and not the students) was at the bottom of the tale. But, we wouldn’t know until we asked the students.” In this rose-colored account, Smith reveals his patronizing attitude towards the students, whom he regards as my puppets, retailing charges I had incited or invented. Worse, he presents a false version of what happened.
In his Free Exchange article, for example, Smith quotes my accurate account of the dinner and then spins it to create the impression that I am lying. This is word for word what I said at the Restoration Weekend, as reported by Smith:
Horowitz writes: “One of the students, Jason Boyer, told me that he had been given a final exam in political science by Professor Diana Zoelle which included a required essay on the topic: Explain Why the War in Iraq is Morally Wrong. For the record, I have not seen the actual exam question and therefore this wording may be imprecise. However, Jason told me that he had to write that the Iraq War was wrong. Instead he wrote that it was right. He got a ‘D.’”
Smith’s comment on this statement begins by challenging my veracity: “There is no Jason Boyer here. Rather, there is a Jason Walter, as Horowitz will say below, but he isn’t the one who claims to have taken the exam. It is another student, X (as I will call him), who claims this.”
In fact, every statement in the paragraph that is a statement by me is true, with one trivial exception – the student’s name was John Boyer not Jason. I did not assert that what the students told me was true, merely that they should have a forum to air their complaints. I reported accurately what they told me. I limited any claim I might be making by specifically indicating that I had not seen the exam question at issue – although this was not the only claim against Zoelle they made. I could not have been more candid or precise or careful not to create an atmosphere unfair to Zoelle herself. Even my transposition of the names “John” and Jason” understandable, since Jason Walter was a student at the dinner and was present at the Political Science Department meeting, and like John Boyer was an Iraq War veteran with a complaint.
Yet this is the paragraph Smith cites as proof that I bend the facts and stretch the truth. Why does Smith refer to “another student, X” rather than naming him as John Boyer? Confidentiality is not the issue, since Smith doesn’t feel an obligation to protect the identity of Jason Walter. In fact, Smith refers to the student as “X” simply to conceal the fact that his insinuating that I was lying was based on a trivial confusion of first names. There is really only one issue for Smith, and that is to make my testimony look untrustworthy.
Smith knew the student I had referred to was John Boyer, since the three of us were standing within five feet of each other discussing Boyer’s exam following the debate. Smith also presided over the Star Chamber proceeding in the Political Science Department to which John Boyer, Jason Walter and Joel Breting, the third Iraq war veteran were summoned. In other words, Smith’s subterfuge in referring to a “Student X” was a ridiculous attempt to portray me as a fabricator, on a par with insinuating that I was lying in saying that I “spoke” at Bloomsburg when I came to debate.
Smith also knows that the exam question did, in fact, disturb Boyer. He reveals as much, albeit inadvertently, in the article he wrote for Free Exchange, where he gives this version of events: “As an aside, I showed X the exam and asked him if this is what he was referring to when talking with Horowitz. Now that three years have passed, the student said that he now doesn’t find the question inappropriate.... To be sure, he remembers being offended when taking the exam three years ago.”
In other words, John Boyer did take an exam prior to being shipped to Iraq which contained a question which he believed related to the war and which offended him at the time, and this was the question which he brought up at the dinner with me. It was immediately clear to Smith and Zoelle which exam Boyer was referring to and it was immediately clear to Smith and Boyer, when they looked at the exam, which question on the exam was problematic.
Because John Boyer has refused to discuss these matters, I asked his roommate, Jason Walter, about Smith’s rosy version of these events. Walter told me that even after being shown the exam by Smith, Boyer still felt the question was inappropriate. He backed off from his claim only under the pressure of the meeting in the Political Science Department. According to Jason Walter, Boyer felt intimidated by the professors and did not want to confront them. All the students I spoke to, still feel this worried that they might suffer reprisals for speaking up.
Fortunately, the students did not merely go like sheep to the meeting Zoelle and Smith had organized. Before the meeting, Jason Walter went to Dean George Agbango to discuss their summons. Dean Agbango said that he could not attend the meeting because he was a member of the political science department and this might be a conflict of interest. He sent his Assistant Dean, Professor James S. Brown, who was a professor of literature, to go in his place. Soon after the meeting began, Dean Brown intervened and said “Why is this meeting even taking place?”
Dean Brown’s intervention changed the tone and tenor of the proceedings. The students regarded his action as “coming to their defense.” Under his guidance it was agreed that the exam question they had been summoned to discuss was a “departmental matter” and this was an “inappropriate” meeting and setting in which to discuss it. After the meeting had gone on for a little longer, Dean Agbango appeared and said “This meeting is over.” Two days later, Dr. Agbango asked the three students – John Boyer, Joel Breting and Jason Walter to stay after his class for a few minutes, during which time he apologized to them on behalf of the university saying they should never have been summoned to the meeting in the first place.
If there were any honesty on the other side of the academic freedom debate, this little incident – and the fact that the Dean and Assistant Dean of the College felt it necessary to terminate it and to apologize to the students -- would in and of itself settle the question as to whether there were problematic interactions between faculty members and students who disagreed with them politically. In his Free Exchange article, Smith defends the action he and Zoelle took against the students as perfectly in order. But obviously that is not how the Dean and the Assistant Dean of the College saw matters.
The resolution of this matter by the thoughtful intervention of Deans Agbango and Brown served to confirm my opinion that there is still a widespread university consensus on what is fair and on what constitutes appropriate academic behavior. Nevertheless, it took the authority of two deans to rein in the unprofessional behavior of Zoelle and Smith. This, again, underscores the importance of creating a formal policy on students’ academic freedom rights and a grievance machinery to support them.
While I did not name Professor Zoelle during the Bloomsburg debate, a stringent critic might object to my mentioning the exam issue at all, since I hadn’t seen the exam or the question myself. I decided to mention it because in my view the fact that a young man who had risked his life to defend his country felt that his reasons for service had been disrespected by his teacher deserved attention.
I did identify Zoelle in a conversation with President Kozloff, when we had a moment backstage before the debate. During our conversation I told Kozloff that it was not my intention to polarize her campus or put her professors on the spot. My goal was to persuade her to institute a more comprehensive academic freedom policy than presently existed, and to see that it had provisions that provided protection for students. In my view, the problem was that there was not strong enough institutional support inside the academy for insisting on professional behavior by faculty. I also made my position on this issue clear to Smith both during the debate and when we met afterwards. But he chose to ignore all these facts in order to portray me as a bully out to persecute “enemies of the state.” Of course, this did not prevent Smith himself from bullying the students who talked to me.
Smith’s deceptive account of these events has been uncritically taken up by his political allies and used to expand the attack on my character and to further divert attention from the problems students encounter at schools like Bloomsburg. On the well-trafficked website of Brad Leiter, a law professor at the University of Texas, for example, one can find the following headline: “Philosopher Kurt Smith v. Pathological Liar David Horowitz.” This was actually the second Leiter post on the subject, the first being “Philosopher Kurt Smith Pulverizes Pathological Liar David Horowitz,” which reproduced Smith’s fanciful account of what transpired in our debate. Professor Leiter had no interest in ascertaining the facts of the Bloomsburg student cases or of the Bloomsburg debate; his post merely referred readers to Smith’s defamatory comments and to a leftist account on the far-left website CounterPunch.org.
These events illustrate the strategy that has been adopted by opponents of academic freedom: Deny that a problem exists at all, and then discredit anyone who says that it does. This explains the zeal displayed in the Bloomsburg case to dismiss and thereby suppress the complaints of the students; and it explains Smith’s determination to discredit me as their advocate.
Denial that a problem exists is the central thesis of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? the first book-length text to oppose the academic freedom campaign. It was the principal argument in the testimony of union witnesses at the Pennsylvania hearings. It was the position taken by Democratic legislators on the panel, who spent their off-time demonstrating at union rallies against their own Committee and who denigrated the hearings as “a colossal waste of time” and “a hunt for BigFoot.” Both Democrats and union leaders also denounced the hearings as a “witch-hunt” and an exercise in “McCarthysm,” even though the Committee operated under a self-imposed rule that no individuals could be named in testimony and that the Committee would concern itself with policy alone.
Such dishonest attacks would never have gained traction without the willing complicity of the education media covering these events. Prominent among them were InsideHigherEd.com and its editor Scott Jaschik, whose partisanship shaped their reporting of both the Pennsylvania hearings and the Bloomsburg case.
The Internet journal InsideHigherEd.com reaches a wide academic audience and has featured many articles on the academic freedom campaign, mostly written by Jaschik himself. Scott Jaschik is a hard-working editor and reporter. Our personal relations have been reasonably good. I invited him to moderate a panel at an academic freedom conference I hosted, and he conducted himself admirably, without bias or favor. He has expressed to me a will to be fair, and he has occasionally published articles I have written. As a reporter, he has called me regularly for comments on issues that concern the academic freedom campaign.
On the other hand, the articles he has written and the bulk of the commentary he has run have consistently reflected the political message of the teacher unions and other radical opponents of my efforts. Because his Internet journal presents itself as a reporter of education news, these biased accounts have provided powerful support to the opponents of academic freedom and the vilification campaign directed against me. By the time Jaschik came to focus his attention on the Bloomsburg episode, he had already written several inflammatory features which misrepresented events in which I was involved and lent authority to the claim that abuses I had correctly reported were in fact made up.
The most famous of these articles concerned a student’s complaint about a final exam that had been given at the University of Northern Colorado and that had obvious parallels to the Bloomsburg case. The student’s complaint had become a target of attack after I mentioned it briefly in an article in which I defended the Academic Bill of Rights against an official denunciation of the Bill that been issued by the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP described my Bill as “Orwellian” and said it was “a grave threat to academic freedom.” In defending the Bill, I pointed out that it was actually based on the AAUP’s own academic freedom principles, and lamented the fact that “when student rights have been widely infringed by faculty and university administrations, the AAUP has tended to overlook the infringements and even defend them.”
The Colorado case was one of five incidents I mentioned in the article to demonstrate that a problem existed. In other words, in and of itself, the Colorado exam was but one of many incidents that revealed a general problem. Space permitting, I could have described many more. My opponents, however, had no interest in the actual point of my argument, namely that a problem did exist on American campuses. In all the attacks that subsequently appeared, not one of my opponents has ever bothered to mention, or refute, the other four examples I gave. Their strategy has been to focus their attention on discrediting one case in an effort to discredit all the rest without giving them a hearing. In other words, the case of the Colorado exam has been treated by the left as a symbol for all the rest.
The complete reference to the Colorado exam, as it appeared in my article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is this:
Nor are the problems of professorial excess absent today. This year, for example, a criminology class at a Colorado university was given an assignment to write a paper on “Why George Bush Is A War Criminal.” Bad enough. But a student who chose to submit a paper on “Why Saddam Hussein Is A War Criminal” received a failing grade (for political incorrectness)….
This was then followed by the other four cases.
The student who attended the University of Northern Colorado had filed a formal complaint about the exam with the university’s grievance committee, which had then favorably adjusted her grade. The case had been referred to by the university president during a public hearing on academic freedom which was held by the education committee of the Colorado legislature. Yet the opening attack on my claim denied the very existence of the student, the professor and the exam.
This attack came from Mano Singham, a professor in Ohio, where a version of my Academic Bill of Rights was being considered by the state legislature. Singham’s comments appeared as a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, under the headline, “That Liberal Fiend Can’t Be Found.”
“That Liberal Fiend” referred to the professor who gave the exam. As with Kurt Smith’s false claim that I regarded him as an “enemy of the state,” the “liberal fiend” in Singham’s column was his own invention. I had not identified the professor’s politics at all, since this was not relevant to the case or to my campaign, which is not about liberal bias but about maintaining professorial behavior in the classroom. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if the professor who gave the exam was a Republican. The student’s complaint was that her professor had provided an exam question on a controversial matter to which she was allowed only one correct answer. This was a violation of the student’s academic freedom, regardless of whether the answer was one preferred by the political right or the political left.
As in the Bloomsburg case, the issue – academic freedom -- was of no interest to my detractors. Their goal was to suppress the issue by creating doubt that the incident had occurred at all. Thus Singham claimed in his column that he had called the University of Northern Colorado and questioned its faculty, and could find no one to verify the incident. The faculty members he talked to had apparently never heard of such a professor or exam. He also claimed that he could not locate a student who had lodged a complaint.
While Singham’s charges were spreading rapidly across the web, the university refused to release information that would settle the matter. At the same time, frightened of possible reprisals from her teachers, the student would not identify herself or appear for interviews. Thus my hands were tied in responding to Singham’s irresponsible and baseless charges as they were repeated on multiple venues including MediaMatters.org and other widely read partisan attack sites.
An additional problem -- mentioned by none of my critics -- was the fact that the professor had destroyed the original exam, violating university regulations in the process. The fact that the professor destroyed the evidence never became a subject of interest to the academic media. Yet the copy of the exam which he eventually provided to the university grievance committee and which was eventually released by the university administration and taken at face value by the education press was, in fact, only his reconstruction of the original exam and not the exam itself.
In the midst of this controversy, Scott Jaschik chose to write a summary of the false charges that Singham and others had made against me and then to publish it as a journalistic “report.” The headline of Jaschik’s article paralleled the headline in Singham’s column in the Plain Dealer and mimicked its bias: “The Poster Child Who Can’t Be Found.” In other words, without investigating the case, Jaschik gave a platform to Mano Singham’s inventions, adding another false claim -- that the Colorado case was of special importance to my campaign, when in fact it was one of five examples I had offered in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education as an indication that there was a problem which the Academic Bill of Rights was designed to address.
Jaschik did call to interview me for his piece, and correctly reported that I was trying to get both the university and the student to provide a definitive response to the charges that Singham had irresponsibly made. But summarizing groundless charges about an alleged “poster child” who couldn’t be found, as Jaschik did, merely added authority to a malicious and groundless attack.
When I voiced my objections to Jaschik, he did make an effort to investigate for himself. But he limited his inquiries to two interested and hostile parties -- the university administration and the professor -- whom he discovered (contrary to Singham) did actually exist and whom he named. This was Robert Dunkley, an Assistant Professor of Criminology. Both the Administration and Dunkley, of course, had an interest in suppressing the facts of an embarrassing student complaint and were busy covering their tracks.
When my office called the university, for example, its spokeswoman, Gloria Reynolds, would not disclose the grade the student had complained about on the original exam, and which caused her to make her successful appeal. On the advice of the university lawyers, as Reynolds explained to my office, she would only release the student’s final grade for the class, that is, the grade she received after she successfully appealed the exam and secured an upward adjustment. Neither the university nor InsideHigherEd.com made any effort to clarify this confusion about the grades or clarify it to the public. My critics took advantage of this confusion to assert that my claim (actually the student’s claim) that she had originally gotten an “F” was wrong. “Reynolds added the student did not receive an F,” Jaschik reported. Actually, since Reynolds has withheld the relevant information and her remark refers only to the final grade in the class, there is absolutely no factual basis for doubting the student’s word that she originally got an “F” on the exam.
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