The Crisis in the Universities Goes Mainstream · 17 April 2005

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Art Eckstein and Jeannie Rutenburg--04/18/05

The political crisis in the universities has now become so obvious that in recent days even the mainstream media has started to take alarmed note of it. An official editorial in The New York Times blasted Columbia University for its inadequate report on pro-Palestinan propagandistic teaching and the intimidation of Jewish students in the Middle East studies program on that campus, while a major column on the front page of the "Outlook" section of the Sunday Washington Post declared that unless universities changed their political ways, they were about to sink into financial decline because of loss of public support. You cannot have better venues than these for the formation of "respectable" opinion-i.e., what it now becomes permissible to say at a Georgetown or Upper West Side dinner party.

The New York Times editorial (April 7, 2005) was starkly entitled "Intimidation at Columbia." It criticized the Columbia administration for its long-standing reluctance to deal with a flood of student complaints about biased teaching and personally abusive behavior within the Middle Eastern studies program-"The school has botched this emotionally charged issue from the start." The editorial then criticized the Columbia administration because when finally forced by continuing incidents and strong public pressure to appoint a faculty investigatory committee to look into the problem, "It botched that job too." That was because most of the personnel chosen for the panel had apparent political conflicts of interest in favor of the accused faculty in the program: out of a panel of five, one had been the dissertation advisor of one of the accused professors, three more were outspokenly hostile to Israel. The composition of the panel, The Times continued, ensured that any results of this panel's work-no matter how carefully done--would be received with skepticism. And that is what has occurred. Indeed, the panel's report includes no comment on its own clear evidence that two of the accused faculty-Joseph Massad and George Saliba-lied to the panel itself concerning three incidents of personal abuse of students, these professors having developed convenient total-memory-losses about the incidents (one of them being a 45-minute long and very contentious conversation with a student after a class).

But even more importantly,The Times then rightly pointed out that the panel's mandate was from the beginning so restricted as to ensure that the vast majority of student complaints about the situation in Middle East Studies were never heard at all. This is because the panel was limited exclusively to an investigation of direct one-to-one intimidation of students by faculty. But the problem was both larger and more subtle than that: "Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian bias on the part of several professors." That is, most allegations were about heavily-politicized and one-sided propagandistic courses. Yet the committee's mandate forbade investigation of precisely these complaints. (Of 62 complaints only three were investigated.)

The result, The Times concluded, was a report with severe faults, a report which failed to confront the wide range of bias in Columbia Middle East studies because of its own imposed structural limitations established from the beginning (though, The Times showed, not because of any bad conduct on the part of the investigators). The report therefore minimized the problems of continual and strident propaganda throughout the program. Yet, The Times noted, the report's publicized findings were sharply contradicted by an action taken by the Columbia administration itself: the administration "recognized that the Middle Eastern Studies department was out of control and, with the goal of strengthening its scholarship, has wrested away its power to appoint and promote faculty."

Readers of Frontpage will find none of The New York Times' editorial conclusions surprising. What IS surprising is that the editorial appeared at all in such a conventionally liberal venue. That is news. It suggests that the crisis caused by politically-biased radical teaching in the universities (especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences) has now become so pervasive and so obvious that even the mainstream media organs are expressing alarm.

Three days after the appearance of the Times editorial, The Washington Post (April 10, 2005) prominently published an op-ed piece, "Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth," by Steven Roy Goodman. Goodman is a Washington-based educational consultant who advises college-bound students and their families. Goodman writes that more and more of his upper middle-class clients are increasingly resentful of "paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses," and tired too of "politically absurd campus climates." As typical examples of expressed parental complaints, Goodman cites Duke University's hosting of a savagely anti-Israel group's annual conference last fall, the Columbia University imbroglio with its virulently pro-Palestinian Middle East studies program, and Hamilton College's expensive invitation to the fraud and polemical hack Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado to come and speak at Hamilton (at $3500 per one-hour lecture). There is some pressure troubling parents that comes from the right as well: a George Mason University professor was forced to disinvite the leftist film-maker Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11") because opposition from Virginia state legislators forced the cancellation of his talk there..

As Goodman points out, in contrast to the 1960s the current political disturbance on campus nowadays comes not from students but from the professoriat. But there is no mystery here, since many current faculty are veteran '60s student radicals, a large majority of faculty have fond memories of those days, and this is ever more true the higher you go on the academic ladder, until you finally reach Harvard-"the Kremlin on the Charles," as the Harvard Crimson recently described the situation. In any case, "In 18 years of counseling kids on their college choices, I've never seen the unhappiness as widespread as it is today." The problem is twofold: the huge and continually-rising cost of sending a child to the university, which is now causing major financial strains to the average family, combined with the sharp decline in respectable teaching and scholarship that can actually be accepted by the broad public.

Goodman has only anecdotal information available, but it suggests to him that parents of bright children are increasingly looking to places other than the Ivy League to spend their $30,ooo-$40,000 a year on tuition and fees: the University of Virginia, say, instead of Columbia (a specific case), or anywhere but Duke (another specific case). He concludes that "to many consumers of higher education, colleges have lost their way and have strayed outside the mainstream." The result, Goodman believes, is that a popular backlash against the universities' radical alienation from the rest of American culture-combined with their sky-high costs--has already begun. The backlash comes in the form of college choices of college-bound children, reduced university funding from state legislatures-and in reduced alumni donations, down sharply in each of the last three years.

Goodman urges that universities begin a program to begin a program to win back the public's confidence and support; this will translate into increased public and private funding. He clearly thinks that in order to regain strong public confidence in higher education, the growing influence of radical faculty will somehow need to be neutralized or balanced. But he offers no program for how to do this. All he can urge is that "universities engage in some real soul-searching."

Again, readers of Frontpage will find nothing much new in what Goodman says. It is where he says it that is important: on the front page of the Sunday editorial section of none other than The Washington Post. The alarm bells are beginning to ring. At Brown, the administration is suddenly so desperate to prevent the radical left from being the only voice in the university, the only voice of the university, that the President has instituted a special lecture program to bring non-radical speakers to the campus (!). Well, that's one solution. The problem of one-sided propagandistic course-content remains, and it is worsening.

We wish to end by underlining what Professor Timothy Burke has recently said about the increasingly shaky place of universities in American life: there is a specific basis to widespread public acceptance of the principle of academic freedom, and it is being increasingly undermined by unprofessional, politically corrupt behavior within the universities. Public acceptance of academic freedom is based on the belief in the university as a body of trained and objective professionals capable of monitoring and disciplining itself in order to maintain a high intellectual standard of internal discourse. Universities insist that they have developed many sophisticated institutions to evaluate faculty, institutions which are selective for high standards of intellect and behavior: the search committee, the salary committee, the tenure dossier, the promotion committee, the faculty seminar with colleagues.

These internal monitors -what is usually called "peer review"--are, allegedly, the guarantee that universities can govern themselves intellectually. But what if the personnel involved in these monitoring institutions are increasingly incapable or unwilling to distinguish between careful if controversial scholarship and thoughtful but challenging teaching on the one hand, and polemical hackery and propagandistic indoctrination on the other? What are we to do when radical hacks and outright frauds such as Ward Churchill, and conscious propagandists such as Joseph Massad, are continually given legitimacy by the universities' administrative institutions? After all, it was a search committee that found Joseph Massad for Columbia; it was a promotion committee at Colorado that recommended making Ward Churchill a full professor, and then Chair of his Department; it was the President of Duke who invited the pro-terrorism group to hold its national convention at on that campus-for reasons of "academic freedom."

Such practices are delegitimizing the regulating institutions of academic life, and hence the justification for academic freedom--real and valuable academic freedom--within the broader society. But because most academics associate mainly with other academics, all together in a warm bath of liberalism and radicalism, the sinister implications of awarding legitimacy to people such as Massad and Churchill or the Palestine Solidarity Movement go unnoticed. University faculty are unaware of how they look to the rest of society. They are oblivious to the problem-though now even the mainstream media do see it. But if the universities don't conduct much better monitoring of themselves, reinstituting real peer review, then television personalities such as Bill O'Reilly, or state legislators, will end up doing it for us. And it will do no good for us professors to sneer at them.