Academic Freedom on the Rock(s)

Aaron Barlow
Original Publication Date

Threats to academic freedom -- direct and indirect, subtle and not so subtle -- come from a variety of sources: Politicians, the general public, news media, administrators, corporations, and students. In my academic career, I have been criticized from all of those quarters. Though these attacks have been relatively easy to fend off in my particular case, the threats are real and should trouble us; they require of us sharper analysis and a strategic plan to fend off attempts to constrain inquiry. But, even with that understanding of the seriousness of these external threats, I will argue that the most important aspect of the current controversies is how they mark the complacency and timidity of faculty members themselves. I will focus on two specific incidents in my career -- one involving administrators and the other students -- that illustrate these threats. Then, I will examine the responses of faculty members on my campus to the events, and offer suggestions for analysis and action. Throughout I will remain rooted in my own experience at the University of Texas at Austin. While Texas may in some ways be idiosyncratic, I do not believe my experience at that university is radically different from others around the United States. My concern with this issue is not rooted in optimism for the short term. While I would like to see U.S. academics, as a class, take a leading role in movements to assert radical humanistic values that have the possibility of transforming society; I don't believe it is likely, or even possible, in the near future. In fact, I assume that in the short term there is very little progressive political change likely in the United States, with or without the assistance of university-based academics. Instead, I will argue we should work to hold onto what protections for academic freedom exist to provide some space for critical thinking in an otherwise paved-over intellectual culture, with an eye on the long term. Toward that goal, I will suggest ways to approach these threats to academic freedom and attempt to assess realistically the conditions under which such defenses go forward.

History and Context

Although threats to academic freedom, and freedom of expression more generally, can come rooted in many political projects, it is in times of war and national crisis (real or manufactured) that such threats intensify and have the potential to undermine democracy most severely. Such is the case in the post-9/11 world. In this sense, the "war on terrorism" serves a similar function to the "cold war" as a way both to obscure the fundamental motivations behind U.S. foreign policy (to extend and deepen U.S. domination over the strategically crucial areas of the world through a combination of diplomatic, military, and economic control mechanisms) and focus public attention on threats that, while not completely illusory, are overdramatized. In each case, politicians also hype the threat to make it easier to marginalize any domestic dissent to that project of control and domination. One can see echoes of the late 1940s/1950s in the post-9/11 United States. In such situations, dissident intellectuals and their academic freedom become easy targets.

Despite these similarities, it is crucial to recognize that the repression of the cold war dwarfs anything we've seen in recent years. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940.1The law made it a crime to discuss the "duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government," an odd statute in a country created by a revolution against the legal government of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the act.2 In that repressive social climate, principles of academic freedom and administrative protections around tenure meant little, as universities routinely ignored both principles and rules, with no objection from the courts.3

Both the general public and academics live with far more expansive freedoms today, primarily as a result of the popular movements of the 1960s and '70s, which pressured elites to expand free speech and association rights. We should recognize that since 9/11, for example, many people critical of U.S. foreign and military policy have written and spoken in ways that would have without question landed us in jail in previous eras (and would land us in jail, or worse, in many other nations today). Of course, it is crucial to note that such protection is still incomplete and is most available to those who are from the dominant sectors of society. I am white and American-born, with a 'normal' sounding American name (meaning, one that indicates northern European roots), and while I have been the target of much hostility, I have never felt that my safety or job were threatened in any serious way. The hostility toward some faculty members has not stayed within such civil boundaries, most notably toward Sami Al-Arian, the tenured Palestinian computer science professor at the University of South Florida who was vilified in the mass media and fired in December 2001 for his political views, and then subject to federal prosecution.4 Being a white boy with tenure offers added protection.

So, much of the discussion about academic freedom these days is not about direct attempts to remove or punish faculty members for their ideas (with some notable exceptions, such as the cases of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Joseph Massad at Columbia University). Instead, we are struggling with issues about the climate, on campuses and in society more generally. These questions are no less important, but we should keep in mind the relative level of the threat as we strategize.

From administrators: "An undiluted fountain of foolishness"

About mid-afternoon on September 11, 2001, I began writing an essay that argued the United States should not use the attacks to justify aggressive war, one of several similar pieces that quickly circulated in left/progressive circles. At the end of the evening, I sent it to Common Dreams and other such political websites under the headline "Stop the Insanity Here." 5 Just as I was shutting down the computer for the evening, on a whim I decided also to send the piece to several Texas newspapers for which I had occasionally written, though I did not expect that any would publish it given the emotional/political realities right after the attacks. Surprisingly, the Houston Chronicle ran the piece at the end of the week, under the headline, "U.S. Just as Guilty of Committing Own Violent Acts." 6 By mid-morning, right-wing talk show hosts in Houston had read the piece on the air and encouraged people to call and write University of Texas officials to demand my firing. The deluge of mail, to me and my various bosses, continued for weeks. On September 18, UT President Larry Faulkner began circulating an official response, which was published the next day in the Chronicle:7

In his Sept. 14 Outlook article "U.S. Just as Guilty of Committing Own Violent Acts," Robert Jensen was identified as holding a faculty appointment at the University of Texas at Austin. Jensen made his remarks entirely in his capacity as a free citizen of the United States, writing and speaking under the protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. No aspect of his remarks is supported, condoned or officially recognized by The University of Texas at Austin. He does not speak in the University's name and may not speak in its name. Using the same liberty, I convey my personal judgment that Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy. Students must learn that there is a good deal of foolish opinion in the popular media and they must become skilled at recognizing and discounting it. I, too, was disgusted by Jensen's article, but I also must defend his freedom to state his opinion. The First Amendment is the bedrock of American liberty.

This was the first time in anyone's memory that a high-ranking university official had publicly condemned a faculty member by name for a political or intellectual position. In addition to this public rebuke, some other administrators circulated notes privately with similar views. For example, UT Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson wrote, in a note he copied to me: "What came to my mind when reading his column was a statement, at the moment I do not recall who said it, that the price of freedom of speech and the press is that we must put up with a good deal of offensive rubbish. For me, Professor Jensen's comments fall deeply into this category."

I had previously crossed paths with Faulkner and the UT administration during campus organizing efforts around affirmative action and the wages/working conditions for non-teaching staff. I had met Faulkner once during the former campaign, and I was aware that I was not on his list of favorite faculty members. But at the time of this incident I assumed (and nothing since then has changed my assumption) that his letter denouncing me had little or nothing to do with me and was simply a reaction to pressure from various key constituencies: alumni, donors, legislators, and the general public. I didn't take Faulkner's rebuke personally, because it clearly wasn't about me.

For some weeks after that, I was asked how I felt about Faulkner's statement and what effect it had on my behavior. I stated repeatedly in public that I didn't feel anything in particular; administrators' opinions about my writing had never been of great importance to me. Nor was I affected by the denunciation; I continued my political work without interruption and taught my classes as I would have if there had been no controversy. When people asked me if I thought my academic freedom had been compromised, I was tempted to laugh. I am a tenured professor at a moment in history in which tenure is honored in all but a handful of extremely controversial cases. My academic freedom was, at that moment, not in jeopardy. But I did critique Faulkner for his comments, on two points.

First, Faulkner's statement modeled bad intellectual practice. He engaged in an ad hominem attack, condemning me for my views without attempting to explain what substantive disagreements he had with my position. As far as I know, he has never made such an explanation in a public forum, though I know of one case in which he turned down the chance to engage me directly (on an NPR radio show). While refusing such an engagement was strategically sensible given his objectives, it was intellectually and morally cowardly.

More important, of course, was the possible chilling effect of Faulkner's broadside on others, especially junior professors and students. Whatever Faulkner's strategy -- whether he was simply trying to placate important constituencies or actually intended to create a climate on campus hostile to dissent -- I heard directly from one untenured professor and several graduate students that they had modified or ended political activities when they read the statement. I assume many others made similar choices.

Was any of this an attack on academic freedom? Not in direct fashion; no one's rights were abridged. But it was not the kind of practice one would hope for from the leader of a major university.

From students: the guise of teaching potential journalists to 'think.'

In 2004 a conservative student group at the University of Texas published a "professor watch list" of instructors who "push an ideological viewpoint on their students through oftentimes subtle but sometimes abrasive methods of indoctrination." [8] After a lifetime of being second-tier, I was finally number one in something, albeit a list of allegedly deficient professors.

I have long held that one of the most serious problems on my campus -- which is among the largest in the country, with 50,000 students -- has been that the student body is largely depoliticized. Given that lack of political engagement, I was grateful for anything that gets students talking about politics, especially the role of politics in the university. So, when my name ended up on this list of the alleged indoctrinators (with no clear indication whether I am subtle or abrasive), I wasn't upset, even though the group's description of my "Critical Issues in Journalism" course didn't quite square with my experience in the classroom:

In a survey course about Journalism, one might expect to learn about the industry, some basics about reporting and layout, the history of journalism, the values of a free press and what careers make the news machine function. Instead, Jensen introduces the unsuspecting student to a crash course in socialism, white privilege, the 'truth' about the Persian Gulf War and the role of America as the world's prominent sponsor of terrorism. Jensen half-heartedly attempts to tie his rants to 'critical issues' in journalism, insisting his lessons are valid under the guise of teaching potential journalists to 'think' about the world around them. Jensen is also renowned for using class time when he teaches Media Law and Ethics to 'come out' and analogize gay rights with the civil rights movement.9 Ostensibly, this relates somehow to his course material.10

It's possible that this watch-list strategy sprang fresh from the minds of the Young Conservatives of Texas, but it's more likely they were influenced by the national group Students for Academic Freedom11 and leftist-turned-right-wing-activist David Horowitz.12 The strategy is simple: Rather than attack specific professors for holding views critical of the dominant culture and its institutions, better to claim that the universities are dominated by these critical intellectuals who are crowding out other perspectives. Instead of calling for the firing of lefties, the group calls for promoting greater balance, out of its dedication to "restoring academic freedom and educational values to America's institutions of higher learning" through pursuit of four key goals:

1. To promote intellectual diversity on campus

2. To defend the right of students to be treated with respect by faculty and administrators, regardless of their political or religious beliefs

3. To promote fairness, civility and inclusion in student affairs

4. To secure the adoption of the "Academic Bill of Rights" as official university policy

Especially brilliant is the cooptation of the concept of diversity to argue that conservative forces (forget, for a moment, that conservatives, and fairly reactionary conservatives at that, just happen to run most of the world these days) are barely surviving under the jackboot of Stalinist intellectuals.13 The strategy of the right14seems fairly clear: To avoid looking fascistic, these groups cloak themselves in an odd combination of core Enlightenment values (the importance of the university as an open intellectual space) and a caricatured postmodern relativism (everybody's truth is valid, so the goal is simply balance because no definitive judgments are possible).

In such a world, it seems to me that one of the main tasks is to challenge a key assumption of the right-wing project: Professors can, and should, eliminate their own politics from the classroom. For example, the UT professor watch list valorizes one professor who "so well hides his own beliefs from the classroom that one is forced to wonder if he has any political leaning at all." These illusions of neutrality only confuse students about the nature of inquiry into human society and behavior.

All teaching -- especially in the humanities and the social sciences -- has a political dimension, and we shouldn't fear that. The question isn't whether professors should leave their politics at the door (they can't) but whether professors are responsible in the way they present their politics and can defend their pedagogical decisions. It's clear that every decision a professor makes -- choice of topics, textbook selection, how material is presented -- has an underlying politics. If the professor's views are safely within the conventional wisdom of the dominant sectors of society, it might appear the class is apolitical. Only when professors challenge that conventional wisdom do we hear talk about "politicized" classrooms.

But just because the classroom always is politicized in courses that deal with how we organize ourselves politically, economically, and socially, we should not suggest that it's all politics. Because there's a politics to teaching doesn't mean teaching is nothing but politics; indeed, professors shouldn't proselytize for their positions in the classroom. Instead, when it's appropriate -- and in the courses I teach, it often is -- professors should highlight the inevitable political judgments that underlie teaching. Students -- especially those who disagree with a professor's views -- will come to see that the professor has opinions, which is a good thing. Professors should be modeling how to present and defend an argument with evidence and logic.

For example, in both my introductory and law-and-ethics classes, I offer a critique of corporations in capitalism. For most students, corporations and capitalism have been naturalized, accepted as the only possible way to organize an economy. I suggest to them a fairly obvious point: The modern corporation -- a fairly recent invention -- should be examined critically, not taken as a naturally occurring object. Given the phenomenal power of corporations, including media corporations, in contemporary America, how could one teach about journalism and law without a critical examination of not only the occasional high-profile corporate scandals but the core nature of the institution?

The conservative group claimed its goal is "a fair and balanced delivery of information" in the classroom. If that really were their concern, of course, the first place they would train their attention is the business school. I've heard scandalous reports that some faculty members there teach courses in marketing, management, finance, and accounting that rarely, if ever, raise fundamental questions about capitalism. Highlighting the selective way in which accusations of politicized classrooms are identified and faculty are targeted for sanction is crucial.