The Future of Academic Freedom · 12 March 2007
WASHINGTON D.C. -- While political insiders and Washington veterans were trying to chart the course of the conservative movement at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the next generation of activists was focusing on an equally pressing challenge: reforming higher education.
The Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. that served as CPAC’s home base this year also played host to the second annual Academic Freedom Conference. Sponsored by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the conference drew hundreds of students from at least 24 states, as well as professors, politicians and journalists, for two days of events about the ailments -- from abusive professors to politicized curricula -- afflicting modern universities.
Where last year’s academic freedom conference placed the emphasis on diagnosing the problems in higher education, especially the politicization of America's K-12 schools and universities, this year’s conference sought to provide solutions. “We hope people will see that something can be done about the state of academic freedom on campus,” said Sara Dogan, the national campus director Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), a group that seeks to end political abuse in universities, and one of the organizers of this weekend’s conference.
It was a message that visibly resonated with the student attendees. Many shared stories of their own attempts to shake up a monolithic political culture on their campuses. Ken Alvord of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, recounted his efforts, as president of the school’s College Republicans, to form an SAF chapter in the hopes of promoting a more inclusive approach to intellectual issues on campus. Alvord found the faculty and many students resistant to the idea. “They were happy to promote gender and racial diversity, but they drew the line at intellectual diversity,” he said. Despite initial setbacks, Alvord refused to give up his goal, and on February 20th he succeeded in getting the school to recognize SAF as a student group, thereby allowing Alvord and two of his fellow Lawrence students to gain access to students funds an attend this weekend’s conference.
The conference itself began on Saturday evening, with an opening address by the former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum. In introducing the senator, David Horowitz, the intellectual architect of the academic freedom movement, listed its successes to date. “In just three years we have put this issue -- that teachers should teach not preach; that students deserve an education, not indoctrination -- on the national radar,” Horowitz said. Not content to rest on these laurels, Horowitz revealed that he next intends to challenge the antiwar academic consensus by promoting a nationwide screening of Obsession, a 2005 documentary that focuses on radical Islam’s war against the West.
That war was the crux of Santorum’s speech. In keeping with the theme of the conference, Santorum made education -- about the dangers of radical Islam -- his main theme. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a speech before a largely conservative audience, Santorum began by criticizing President Bush for failing, as Santorum saw it, to call the current war by its proper name. In private conversations, according to Santorum, the president showed an impressive understanding of the nature of the enemy, yet persisted in referring to the conflict as a “War on Terror.” Santorum disagreed: “Terror is a tactic. It‘s not the enemy” he said. “We are at war with Islamic fascism, with politicized Islam.” Santorum argued that the president’s reluctance forthrightly to identify the threat of radical Islam was the principle reason for the general public’s ignorance about Islamic terror. “We’ve been at war with these people since 1979, yet America has no idea who they are,” he said.
In Santorum’s view, dwindling public support for the “War on Terror” illustrated this ignorance. “The American public believes that it we pull back, [the Islamic terrorists] will leave us alone. They believe this because they don’t know what we’re up against.” To counter this trend, Santorum encouraged students to engage critics on the Left by, for instance, holding debates with feminists and gay and lesbian groups on the subject of how women and homosexuals are treated in Islamic countries. Calling the struggle against Islamic extremism “The Long War,” Santorum urged students to shoulder the struggle in the years to come. “This will require more of your generation than even the Greatest Generation gave America,” Santorum said. Santorum’s remarks drew appreciative applause from a standing-room-only audience of approximately 500 people. In an interview following his speech, Santorum expressed appreciation for Horowitz’s academic freedom campaign. “I think it’s right on target what he’s doing,” he told FPM.
The conference continued on Sunday with a full program, including two student panels and a debate between David Horowitz and self-described “tenured radical” Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the current president of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that has frequently condemned Horowitz‘s campaign, even calling it “McCarthyite.”
In the first panel, eight students discussed their experiences with political harassment at the hands of faculty and school administrators. Matt Farrar, the chairman of an SAF chapter at Florida State University, recalled his experiences in a “Science of Nutrition” class he took at the school. On one occasion, a guest lecturer used class time to launch a harangue against President Bush, whom he lambasted as “an incompetent hick who wants too many freedoms.” A more pernicious form of political harassment, according to Farrar, was the disproportionate allocation of school funds to left-leaning student groups. After researching FSU’s budget records since 1989, Farrar found that the school dispersed six to ten times more in funding to liberal groups than to conservatives ones. “That’s just unfair,” Farrar commented. In closing, Farrar added that by spotlighting such politically motivated inequities, the academic freedom conference was “helping us right the balance.”
Another panelist, Logan Fischer, a recent graduate of Temple University who campaigned for his school to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights, said that his struggle to convince faculty to observe standards of professional conduct and keep politics out of the classroom -- the motto of the academic freedom movement -- was in some ways bittersweet. “As much as I enjoyed my time as a campus activist, students can’t always fight the battles that universities are supposed to fight for them,” Fischer said.
That university administrators often were cold to the plight of students with conservative views was a theme subsequently taken up by another panelist, Matt Sanchez, a Columbia University student and a reservist corporal in the Marine Corps. The Puerto Rico-born Sanchez told of how a Columbia student group, the International Socialist Organization, tried repeatedly to make campus life miserable for him. In addition to berating him in public -- one the group’s members lectured Sanchez that he was “too stupid to understand that you’re being used as cannon fodder” by the military -- the group circulated posters with his likeness branding him a “baby killer.” When Sanchez attempted to file a harassment complaint with the school, administrators declined to take action -- a clear indication, for Sanchez, of where their sympathies lay.
Georgia Tech student Ruth Malhotra encountered similar abuse when she challenged, together with Georgia Tech student Orit Sklar, her school’s unconstitutional speech code. For taking this politically incorrect stance, Malhotra was demonized as “intolerant” by the campus. Ironically, the only actual intolerance was demonstrated by campus radicals. Claiming that Malhotra, who is of Asian descent, was a traitor to minorities, they passed out Twinkies to suggest that she was yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Malhorta also received repeated threats of violence, including death threats, as well as abusive emails including one this Valentine’s Day promising her that “you will be raped.”
David Horowitz praised the students for refusing to retreat in the face of extreme opposition. “If I had to write a book on these students, I would call it Courage Under Fire,” he said. Meanwhile, many of the students in the audience, which numbered around 100, found that they had similar experiences as the panelists. Eric Schaefer, chair of the College Republicans at Michigan’s Delta College, recounted how university officials at his school recently seized an entire press run of the conservative campus newspaper, Vox Veritas. College administrators declared that the paper had been improperly distributed, but the paper’s staffers saw it as an act of selective censorship of an unwelcome -- i.e., religious-conservative -- point of view. Schaefer found himself impressed with the accounts of the panelists. “I can relate to a lot of what they were saying,” he said, adding, “It’s good to see people taking action.”
How to take action was the precisely subject of the next panel. Involving five students who had taken part in the academic freedom campaign, the panel focused on ways that students could challenge political indoctrination in the classroom. Nate Walton, chairman of the College Republicans at Bates College in Maine, summarized his campaign in support of an Academic Bill of Rights. Though he met with formidable opposition, including from most of Maine’s educational establishment, teachers unions, and groups like the ACLU, Walton said that the stakes for higher education made his efforts worthwhile. At issue, he said, was the “intellectual solvency of the next generation.” Walton encouraged conservative students to start campus newspapers, join the College Republicans, petition administrators for equal funding, and most of all to get involved. The greatest foe of the academic freedom movement, Walton remarked, was not a corrupt status quo but widespread indifference to it. “We have to combat apathy,” he said.
Especially well-received was the presentation of another panelist, Tom Robbins, the chairman of Utah State University's College Republican chapter. Robbins shared several amusing anecdotes about his attempts to overcome indifferent and occasionally hostile academic administrators in an effort to recruit conservative students across the state. Robbins drew laughs from the audience when he recounted his efforts to break his school’s dining services’ monopoly on selling Coca Cola. Robbins proposed that book stores be permitted to carry the soft-drink at a discounted price. For their part, school administrators promised to fund a study to evaluate the merits of the suggestion. Robbins assured them that no such study was necessary: Cash-strapped students would happily support paying less rather than more for beverages. Like Walton, Robbins stressed that the key to successful activism was getting involved. “The principle is that things get done by people who show up,” he said.
Following the panels, the stage was set for the conference’s main event: a debate between David Horowitz and the AAUP’s Cary Nelson. In an interview with FPM prior to the debate, Nelson, who last year reviewed Horowitz’s book The Professors by urging his readers to “ignore” both the book and its author, explained why he was not following his own advice. “It’s pointless to pretend that [Horowitz] can be ignored,” Nelson explained. “He has had so much publicity around the country.” Nonetheless, Nelson said that he remained a critic of Horowitz’s academic freedom campaign, whose effects he described as “largely negative.” As Nelson saw it, Horowitz’s campaign “has made some faculty afraid to state their opinions and has created a climate of fear” on university campuses.
Horowitz began the debate by deploring the “divisive” tenor of much of the discussion about academic freedom. To bridge these divisions, he called for reasonable voices on both sides of the political isle to identify areas of common ground, starting with the idea that “institutions of higher education are our common culture.” Among other possibilities, Horowitz cited the need for faculty independence and the importance of treating professors, students and visiting speakers fairly as matters that should be uncontroversial irrespective of one’s political preferences.
Nelson, in his reply to Horowitz, sounded a less conciliatory tone. He began by describing Horowitz’s book The Professors, which profiles 101 professors, as “101 personal attacks.” Nelson then proceeded to give a vivid demonstration of the genre by assailing Horowitz as “a new breed of attack dog” who sought to “impose an extremist notion of balance,” and to “micromanage…all forms of campus life.” The debate over academic freedom, Nelson charged, was really “about the far-right trying to take over another institution” in American life. Rejecting the common ground proposed by Horowitz, Nelson disagreed that academic freedom imposed certain obligations on professors -- for instance, to conduct themselves as professionals -- and ventured his own definition of academic freedom as the “opportunity to do as I please within a complex system of academic constraints.”
Nelson took strong exception to the notion that political agendas had no place in courses removed from politics, noting that, as a professor of poetry, he regularly introduced politics into his class discussions. “You can’t take politics out of the classroom any more than you can take it out of life,” Nelson insisted. Concerning the problems in higher education documented by Horowitz, Nelson allowed there were isolated incidents of abuse by professors but maintained that “there was no systemic problem.”
In his response, Horowitz pointed out that Nelson had mischaracterized his positions. For instance, Horowitz noted that he has never called on universities to adopt a “balanced” curriculum, as Nelson suggested. Rather, Horowitz explained, he wanted students to have “access to materials that would allow them to think for themselves.” Nor did he seek to remake higher education in a conservative political image. Indeed, Horowitz stressed that the Academic Bill of Rights he has championed is a politically neutral document and that he favors the same neutrality in all hiring decisions. Moreover, Horowitz said that his main interest was in seeing that universities enforce the very roles of professional academic conduct by which they claim to abide. “As soon as universities do something about the problem, I’ll move on to something else,” Horowitz.
To demonstrate that the problem was indeed real, Horowitz cited an example from his new book, Indoctrination U: The Left's War Against Academic Freedom, which details Horowitz’s battles with the academic establishment in his effort to promote intellectual diversity and academic standards. A course description for one representative course examined in the book begins “Because gender is socially constructed….” “I have no quarrel with professors who want to advance this theory,” Horowitz said. “I do have a problem with professors who present it as scientific fact and give students no opportunity to come to their conclusion on this controversial.” The fact that such courses where common in modern universities was a revealing indication that the problem extended beyond some isolated cases, Horowitz observed.
The debate took a startling turn when Nelson attempted to rebut Horowitz’s assertion that universities had largely failed to address the problems in their midst. As contrary evidence, Nelson cited his own school, the University of Illinois, pointing to the case of a physics professor who many faculty members had judged incompetent. The fact that this professor has not received a pay raise in 20 years, Nelson said, demonstrated that universities were fully capable of disciplining problem professors. Horowitz won the debate’s longest applause when he countered that the mere fact that the professor was still employed after two decades of incompetence, rather than supporting Nelson’s case, underscored the glaring absence of accountability in contemporary academia.
Although many students enjoyed the debate, some where put off by Professor Nelson’s strident tone and his often ad hominem attacks on Horowitz. Brittani Yriarte, a freshman at the University of California in Los Angeles, gave the professor poor marks for his performance. “I thought he started off well, but then within a minute it turned ugly. It was all downhill from there,” Yriarte said. Fellow UCLA student Tiffany Del Rio agreed. “I thought Professor Nelson proved a point that you often hear made about liberals: When challenged with evidence, they turn to insults,” she said.
Horowitz, even as he acknowledged his differences with Nelson, took a more positive view. “I hope this is the beginning of a new dialogue,” he said. As for the students, many were encouraged to see their concerns about education finally attract notice. Praising David Horowitz for taking seriously the problems of political indoctrination, University of Michigan student Ryan Fantuzzi said, “I’m glad he is talking about it. No one else is.”
Jacob Laksin is a senior editor for FrontPage Magazine. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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