Academic Freedom on the Rock(s): The Failures of Faculty in Tough Times - Part II

Robert Jensen
Original Publication Date

What I am not saying, politely ...

I am not arguing that all faculty members must commit themselves to my politics or my style of public political engagement.

I am not bitter. Given the contemporary political landscape, I do not expect support from faculty members for my political activities.

I am not disappointed. As a class, faculty members act in ways that one would expect a privileged class to act.

I am not overly optimistic that these conditions -- either in the political culture generally or in academia specifically -- will change in the short term. The struggle is best understood as a long-term effort on all fronts. I am not spending a lot of time worrying about this, given the myriad other ways I can spend my time and energy in political engagement in the world. Academic freedom matters, but not to the exclusion of other pressing issues.

And, I am not trying to paint with too broad a brush. I am aware that throughout the United States there are faculty members who take academic freedom seriously and are diligent in attempts to defend it.

What I am saying, bluntly ...

The AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles -- freedom of (1) inquiry and research, (2) teaching within the university, and (3) extramural utterance or action -- is worth defending, but not because most faculty members can be expected to make serious use of these privileges to challenge power, and not because at this moment in history the university is a space where most faculty members pursue truly critical, independent inquiry. I find much of the university with which I am familiar (the humanities and the social sciences) to be populated with self-important and self-indulgent caricatures. Much of the intellectual work is trivial, irrelevant, and/or flabby. Most components of the contemporary U.S. university have been bought off, and bought off fairly cheaply. As a result it is, in the words of my friend Abe Osheroff, the institution is generally 'a fucking dead rock.'

Osheroff is a radical activist who more than anyone I have ever met exemplifies an organic intellectual. In a 2005 interview in which we discussed a wide range of contemporary intellectual and political issues, I asked Osheroff -- then 89 years old -- about his experience with universities and faculty members:

You can take this as a criticism, an indictment, of your profession, but most academics aren't worth shit as activists. You're overpaid, and you still all complain about the workload. I was lucky. I got out of the academic game early. What saved my ass was becoming a carpenter, and the fact is that I have contempt for most of academia. Not just criticism, but contempt for it as an institution. I know there are some wonderful teachers here and there, but to me the universities are mostly fucking dead rocks. There are some diamonds and some gold that you can discover, but basically it's a fucking dead rock. I have a professor friend who tells me about his investment in his career. Yea, well while academics are doing their thing, some guys were down in a hole in the ground digging coal and making concrete and building your houses. Let's think about those people. Don't talk to me about your fucking investment. Academia was not too difficult a road. There are things worse than having to sit up at night and read books. Try 'em. Go out and dig a hole in the ground every fucking day, eight hours a day, and then you come back and we'll talk about it. I'm a little extreme, I must admit, but just the word academia makes me growl.17

Those of us who have the privilege of making a living as academics would do well to take Osheroff's words to heart. Osheroff is not anti-intellectual. He has taught in a university as an adjunct and is a serious student of history, recognizing the relevance of history and theory to political activism. Osheroff is not simplistically glorifying manual labor but instead suggesting that an extremely privileged group of people should reflect on that privilege toward the goal of avoiding self-indulgence. His target is not the increasingly large number of low-paid apprentice and itinerant academics (graduate teaching assistants and permanent adjuncts, routinely exploited by universities to lower labor costs) but the tenured and tenure-track faculty members who make a comfortable living doing generally enjoyable work with more autonomy than most workers. While Osheroff may be a bit harsh in his condemnation of professional academics, the spirit of his remarks seem fair to me. It is a reminder that we all -- even those of us who try to commit significant amounts of our time and energy to our obligations as citizens and human beings, and who attempt to leverage some of our institutional resources for progressive public activity -- should always be asking a simple question: Are we doing enough? I know no one, including myself, for whom the answer is a definitive yes.

The impetus to protect academic freedom should be seen in this context, as part of a long-term strategy of protecting a saving remnant of intellectual integrity that at some point in the future may provide the core of a politically activated group that can be part of a meaningful shift in values in this society. There are no guarantees. But we can be reasonably sure that the common faculty reactions today -- (1) duck-and-cover when things get edgy, or (2) whine when there really is little at stake -- guarantee failure.

About the Author: Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center . He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang).

Other ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: JeninRI, Aaron Barlow, cho, standingup and roxy



1 Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951).

2 Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957).

3 See Noam Chomsky, et al., The Cold War and the University (New York: New Press, 1997).

4 See link -- Al-Arian was indicted in 2003 by the U.S. government on charges that he used an academic think-tank at USF and an Islamic charity as fronts to raise money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A jury in December 2005 acquitted Al-Arian on eight counts but deadlocked on nine others. To avoid another trial, Al-Arian in April 2006 pleaded guilty to one count of providing services to the group's members and was sentenced to four years and nine months, with credit for the three years and three months already served. See also.

5 Common Dreams

6 Robert Jensen, "U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts." Houston Chronicle, September 14, 2001, p. A-33.

7 Larry R. Faulkner, "Jensen's words his own," Houston Chronicle, September 19, 2001, p. A-39.


9 At one point I did publicly identify as gay. At this point, I am most accurately categorized as bisexual. For details, see Robert Jensen, "Homecoming: The Relevance of Radical Feminism for Gay Men," Journal of Homosexuality, 47:3/4 (2004): 75-81. Reprinted in Todd G. Morrison, ed., Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography: Pornucopia (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2004).



12 For details on Horowitz, see Horowitz also has pursued this strategy in his book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2006). The description of me in that book borrows from the YCT list.

13 For an analysis of the limits of diversity talk, see "Against Diversity, For Politics" in Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (San Francisco: City Lights, 2005), pp. 77-87.

14 For an assessment of Horowitz's and SAF's tactics and honesty, see Molly Riordan, "Academic Freedom Takes a Step to the Right," PR Watch, 2005. The group Free Exchange on Campus has also scrutinized Horowitz's book and found numerous errors and distortions.

15 To be fair, this is perhaps not completely accurate. When I made this point in a committee meeting, a faculty member objected, saying he had been on the Parking Committee, which had the ability to set policy. To date, I have not taken the time to find out if this is true.


17 Robert Jensen, "Abe Osheroff: On the joys and risks of living authentically in the empire," October 2005.