Is UCLAProfs end academic freedom or McCarthyism?
by Bruce S. Thornton
The politicizing of the American university is a fact. Polls and surveys of faculty voter registration, commencement speakers, curricula, reading lists, on-campus lecturers, and public pronouncements of administrators consistently reveal that our colleges and universities are dominated by a liberal-left ideology, one that brooks little dissent and aggressively silences all but the most thick-skinned of critics.
Yet despite all this evidence, most universities continue to deny what every freshman learns the first semester on campus: professors and administrators may pay lip-service to academic freedom, an openness to non-conformist ideas, and a tolerance for dissenters, but in actual fact by their own words and deeds make it very clear that there will be a price to pay for anyone daring to stray from the well-worn ideological grooves. And of course, conforming to unexamined ideas and received wisdom dispensed by lectern sages will earn impressionable students acceptance and praise, meaning that the most important purpose of the university — to teach and apply a critical consciousness dedicated to the search for truth no matter whose ox is gored –– has been abandoned.
This continuing, self-serving denial of the truth means that we must still keep hammering away at the politicized university, holding professors and administrators to account and shining the light of public scrutiny on their antics. That’s one reason why the Bruin Alumni Association was formed, to investigate and publicize the political indoctrination that goes on in one of California’s most prestigious public universities (full disclosure: I am a member of the board). In order to collect evidence of classroom political preaching and abuse of dissent, the BAA has started UCLAProfs.com, a website that provides empirical evidence on the behavior of individual professors.
To help gather this evidence, UCLAProfs created a program to solicit data from students, including taped lectures, notes, and classroom handouts; a modest honorarium was to be provided to participating students. The aim was to move beyond anecdotal evidence, subjective interpretations, misquotation, or other distortions generated by faulty memory or personal resentments. A First Amendment expert vetted the program for legality.
This program, however, has been strangled at birth, for the usual reasons. Those old rotting red herrings, “McCarthyism” and “blacklists,” have been dragged out to obscure the real problem, the indoctrinated classroom. Now, as a so-called conservative in the liberal university, I yield to no one in my respect for academic freedom. Students should be taught to examine their own beliefs and construct arguments for them rather than just repeating whatever they’ve picked up in their brief lives. Sometimes this process is unsettling, but that’s the pain of intellectual growth.
But like all freedoms, the academic version entails responsibility as well. One of these responsibilities is to the student: his dissenting opinion should be encouraged, given an opportunity to be voiced, and protected — not from criticism or the demand that it be substantiated, but from intimidation and insult meant to silence it, particularly in the case of younger students who are vulnerable to peer-pressure. A climate of tolerance for all reasonable opinions should be fostered, and no one made into a pariah because of his political or religious orientation. There should not be good or bad opinions, but only good or bad arguments.
Another responsibility of academic freedom is to own up to your exercise of it, and this is where the protests against UCLAprofs’s attempt to gather reliable date are puzzling. If you believe in what you say in the classroom, if you think these ideas are legitimate and important enough to communicate them to your students, why would you care if anyone hears them outside the classroom? Indeed, wouldn’t you prefer this sort of reliable data to the subjective hearsay of anecdotal evidence?
No doubt some profs fear some sort of “backlash” against them, but from whom? Their colleagues, most of whom agree with them? The administration, which is more likely to be in the same political camp? Or are they afraid of public scrutiny and being called to account for their ideas by people who are not callow members of a captive audience dependent on them for grades?
The fact is, the professor has all the power and institutional support, not the student or the outside critic. The leftist academic’s role of daring dissident taking on the oppressive establishment is a self-serving lie, for he is the establishment. On my campus, the non-tenured radical environmentalist who brought convicted felons to campus for a “conference” not only was not punished, but was tenured and then made an associate dean, despite the uproar in the community over state tax dollars being used to propagate an ideology that advocates the use of violence.
But resurrecting the battered ghost of McCarthy neatly deflects our attention from the real scandal, the use of public money to subsidize indoctrination rather than education. Hysterical squeals of “academic freedom” — which usually means “academic freedom for me, but not for thee, thou Christian or Republican or conservative infidel” — are the equivalent of the Wizard of Oz’s desperate plea to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” It’s time we start demanding academic responsibility from those to whom we entrust our culture’s future.