Hysteria in Urbana-Champaign · 13 June 2006

Filed under: Illinois

By Matthew J. Franck--National Review Online--06/13/06

At the webzine Inside Higher Education, a professor of English at the University of Illinois has gone into palpitations over the recent Supreme Court ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In that case, the Court ruled on May 30 that a Los Angeles deputy D.A. was not shielded by the First Amendment from being fired for what he said and wrote about the business of the office in his official capacity on the job. Pretty simple, right? When you're on the job, even in the public sector, you answer to your superiors for what you say in the course of your duties.

But the U. of I.'s Professor Dennis Baron is all aquiver with anxiety. He cites a brief exchange between Justice Souter (in dissent) and Justice Kennedy (for the Court) in which the status of public university faculty is raised by Souter and waved off as irrelevant to the case at hand by Kennedy. This means that the academic freedom of university professors hangs by a slender thread!! Or so thinks Baron, but with little reason and less evidence (though he surely has tenure, he seems not to have heard of it).

But wait! All of us college faculty should tremble in fear, for "conservatives," Baron assures us, are pressing for the adoption of David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," which is "aimed not at protecting academic speech but at ridding colleges of left-leaning faculty." Oh sure. Leaving aside the facts that conservatives are not monolithically united around Horowitz's idea, and that few state legislatures can be expected to adopt it, Baron might at least read the ABR and find out that it explicitly declares politically-based firings to be beyond the pale.

Not content to reason poorly and to misread a text (a lamentable failing for someone who teaches literature), Baron compares the "climate" in higher ed today to the bad old days when "Senator McCarthy and HUAC took on the universities." No student of the history of higher education could possibly think that the universities lost that round, at a time when its critics, the just and the unjust alike, were much more powerful than those they face today.

Dennis Baron can sleep soundly, I promise him. If manifest failure to employ one's reasoning powers were a firing offense in the modern university, he would be entitled to insomnia. But that has never been the case as long as I've been in the business. Baron's job is safe, and he will probably be feted for "speaking truth to power" in the cornfields of Illinois.