A new saga in the assault on academic freedom unravels
by Bruce S. Thornton
If you’ve ever wondered how American universities can continue to allow political advocacy and indoctrination to flourish in their classrooms, consider the recent controversy over Columbia University’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). In a documentary calledColumbia Unbecoming, 14 Columbia students describe what they considered expressions of anti-Israel bias and intimidation in some MEALAC department courses. In response, Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger last winter appointed
a faculty committee to investigate the matter. This was the second committee the president appointed, the students and others having rejected the first committee’s obvious attempt to brush aside the charges.
As reported recently in the New York Times, this new committee found no proof of anti-Semitism, but did “describe a broader environment of incivility on campus, with pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies and some faculty members feeling that they were being spied on.” In other words, not only are the professors in MEALAC doing nothing wrong, they are in fact the real victims. This interpretation harmonizes with the left’s take on the whole issue, which is that the complaint is really just another right-wing, McCarthyite assault on academic freedom. I suppose that’s why the New York Civil Liberties Union weighed in on the side of the professors, going so far as to assert that students have no academic freedom in the classroom, unless the professor deigns to bestow it upon them—another example of how the civil liberties lobby considers some people more equal than others when it comes to freedom.
The report, though, and the Times‘ coverage of it involve some sneaky sleight-of-hand. The main charge of Columbia Unbecoming, according to a Campus Watch analysis (www.campus-watch.org/article/id/1638), was not anti-Semitism per se but rather “Systematic anti-Israel bias and breaches of academic integrity in curricula and course offerings; Intimidation and humiliation of students because of their opinions regarding Israel, and; Abuse of the classroom as a platform for political propaganda and pressure.” In other words, by focusing on anti-Semitism rather than on the political corruption of the classroom, the university constructs a diversionary straw man, knocks it down, and then walks away from the real issue, which is the politicizing of the academy by faculty who see their role not as teachers dedicated to the pursuit of truth no matter whose ox is gored, but as activists entitled to push their presumed liberationist and social-justice politics.
But even the dismissal of anti-Semitism comes off as highly suspect given the language of the report: the committee found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” As an example of academic weaselese, this statement is priceless: “reasonably” according to whom and “construed” by whom? The committee? The MEALAC faculty? The subjectivity built into this formulation creates a loophole a Mac truck could drive through. But such wiggle room is critical for camouflaging the bigotry and ideological bias of many academics. If you say, for example, that Jews are the spawn of pigs and dogs that should be destroyed, you’re indulging anti-Semitic hate-speech. But if you say thatZionists are the spawn of pigs and dogs that should be destroyed, you’re merely using impassioned “political rhetoric”—as “reasonably construed” by the faculty.
Yet the larger problem involves the whole notion that the university can investigate itself without creating at least the perception of a conflict of interest. Given the overwhelming liberal if not leftist bias of university faculty—particularly among the humanities and social sciences faculty from which Bollinger picked his committee—the president would have had to make a careful effort to put together a committee that would not be predisposed to side with the faculty, if not on ideological grounds then at least on the basis of professional solidarity. And indeed, the faculty assigned to Bollinger’s committee should’ve raised a red flag, for many of them have track records of anti-Israel bias and leftist proclivities. Perhaps that’s why, out of 60 testimonies from 60 students, the committee focused only on 3, dismissing the others despite the courage these students had to have to go on record criticizing the faculty on whom their future careers depend. As Campus Watch predicted before the report was released, “The composition of the committee appears designed to thwart both a serious investigation and any remediation of the problems that led to its creation.”
One committee member, for example, was the dissertation sponsor of one of the MEALAC faculty under investigation for asking an Israeli student and veteran of the Israeli Defense Force how many Palestinians he had killed. The wife of the vice-president to whom the committee reported is a member of the MEALAC faculty. Another member has written critically of Israel and has dismissed the evidence of anti-Semitism in Europe, alleging that the Jews should blame Ariel Sharon for their problems. Worse, two members of the committee were among the 3% of the Columbia faculty who signed a petition calling on the university to divest from all companies that sell arms to Israel; one of the architects of the petition, which Bollinger himself has called “grotesque and offensive,” was the same vice president to whom the committee reported. As the backer of the documentary, the David Project, put it,
“This is a biased report by a biased committee which ignored the facts to protect its own.”
The smoking gun, however, is the inclusion in the committee of people who signed the divestiture petition, for that sorry document expresses the bizarre, ideologically driven bias against Israel characterizing too many academics, as can be seen in the initiative’s preamble: “We, the undersigned, are appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government, the continual military occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by Israeli armed forces and settlers, the forcible eviction of Palestinians from their homes, and the demolition of Palestinian dwellings, neighborhoods and towns.” Not a word about terrorism and Islamikaze homicide bombers, not a word about Palestinian Authority corruption and abuses against their own people, not a word about Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, not a word about the Arab nations’ three attempts to destroy the state of Israel. Even more offensive is the implied analogy with apartheid South Africa, the last nation to face the tactic of divestiture. This vicious analogy is utterly false, but it reflects the U.N. sanctioned slander that Zionism is a racist ideology. That academics, presumably trained to think critically and to respect truth, should publicly associate themselves with such an ideologically driven distortion of the Israeli-Palestinian Arab crisis bespeaks the extent of the political and intellectual corruption of higher education.
However, it is important to understand just how embedded this corruption is in every level of the academic institution, from its administrative structure to the kinds of scholarship it now rewards, for the politics and bias in the classroom ultimately are just one aspect of a larger set of assumptions and ideologies dominating higher education. Take, for example, committee member Jean E. Howard, a professor of English who signed the divestiture petition. Howard’s approach to literature is a mixture of feminism and “new historicism,” a fancy phrase for an old-fashioned marxiste determinist reduction of literature and ideas to material causes, particularly the social and political distribution of power.
For a flavor of Howard’s kind of analysis and its jargonish prose, consider the following: “Materialist feminism is . . . [a] situated project of knowing, opposed to the class reductionism and economic determinism of classical Marxism but committed to the materialist position that oppression, whether by gender, race or class, involves more than ‘prejudice’, but is instantiated in exploitative divisions of labor, in unequal access to cultural resources (money, birth control, technical training, leisure).” In other words, literature is really about politics, and politics is about oppression and exclusion in much wider terms than “classical Marxism[‘s]” limited ones of class and economics. But oppression and exclusion require oppressors and excluders, and who do you think those villains are? What do you bet they’re white males and capitalists and conservatives? This approach to literature is necessarily biased politically, and it grinds its ideological ax with the aim of changing students’ minds to conform to the professor’s ideology. Yet Howard was considered objective enough to judge fairly whether political bias exists in MEALAC courses.
Indeed, the disconnect between Howard’s ideas and her role on the committee is glaringly obvious. If Howard’s theory is right, then isn’t the committee itself also “situated,” doesn’t it necessarily reflect an unequal distribution of power and access to resources, given that it has all the “technical training,” “leisure,” and “money”? And aren’t the students the powerless ones, resisting the attempt of the powers-that-be to construct a “project of knowing” that oppresses them and limits their rights? If Howard had any integrity and truly believed in her ideas, she would’ve been on the side of the students. But of course, the theory is subordinated to the politics, to be discarded or ignored when it’s inconvenient for getting political or ideological work done.
Worse, not only does the university hire and promote and tenure such intellectually incoherent propagandists, it also distributes its choicest institutional plums to those adept at this sort of politicized scholarship. For Howard is not just a professor of English but also the Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives, a truly Orwellian title concealing the political agenda many universities have embraced at the expense of the search for truth. The connection between the scholarship and the administrative position, however, is completely logical. Both are expressions of the notion that the university should advance a political agenda: the “empowerment” of the previously excluded through the transformation of the curriculum, as Columbia itself made clear when announcing Howard’s appointment: “As vice provost, Howard will lead the University’s efforts to increase substantially the representation of traditionally underrepresented groups on the faculty and in the senior levels of the administration. In addition, she will forge efforts to link hiring initiatives to curricular and programmatic change and will promote scholarly efforts to understand the challenge of diversity in the global context of the 21st century.”
Note well: the issue is not just hiring more women or “people of color,” but changing the curriculum and creating programs and subsidizing scholarship that advances the politically and ideologically tendentious notion of “diversity,” which in actual practice means faculty and courses that reflect orthodox leftist and identity-politics critiques, all justified by the grandiose liberationist aim of “social justice”: “”I am delighted to take on the challenge of this job,” Professor Howard said. “Educational excellence and social justice are intimately connected, and the goal of building a more inclusive and diverse university is one to which I am deeply committed. This means, of course, not only changing the demographics of the University, but also its ways of creating knowledge so that, for example, scholarship on race, sexuality, gender, ethnicity and religious difference is put at the center rather than at the margins of our intellectual endeavors.””
This statement is a microcosm of higher education’s corruption. How exactly are “educational excellence” and “social justice” connected? Educational excellence means graduating students with powers of critical thought, mastery of cognitive skills and professional methodologies, and content knowledge; or, in Cardinal Newman’s words, “The force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.” What’s “social justice” have to do with any of that? And whose “social justice”? Why, the professors’ of course, who will define “social justice” in terms of their own political prejudices, biases, and ideologies. And those will then be used to define “educational excellence,” which will in truth mean the students’ abilities to endorse and parrot those same prejudices, biases, and ideologies.
Then there is that phrase about changing “ways of creating knowledge” so that an ideologically driven identity politics—one that reduces certain select groups to perpetual victims tyrannized by oppressors (conservatives) and in need of liberators (liberals)—will be “put at the center” of the university’s mission, necessarily replacing the old ideal, perhaps best expressed by Matthew Arnold: to pursue “the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever.” What this replacement means in practice, moreover, is that the old “ways of creating knowledge,” those based on disinterested scholarship and a respect for the facts and truth, will be discarded in favor of trendy new “ways” that confirm the professors’ political prejudices, since the old “way” in fact challenges and often refutes that politics. But as all totalitarian societies know, if the facts are inconvenient for the ideology, then figure out ways of creating new facts that aren’t.
Given how engrained the bad habits of politicized scholarship and classroom activism are in higher education, there was no way such a committee from within the university could get at the truth behind Columbia Unbecoming’s charges. If I were a prospective donor or alum of Columbia, the next time the university panhandled me for money I’d suggest that the president establish an outside committee to investigate the charges. For the sad truth is, asking a faculty committee on most American universities to investigate charges of politics in the classroom is like asking a committee of foxes to investigate the disappearance of chickens from the henhouse.