Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Academic Freedom and Middle East Studies

INFOCUS   |  December 1, 2008 by Erin O'Connor and Maurice Black

It has become fashionable in academic circles to declare that academic freedom is under attack. Ever since September 11, 2001, the argument goes, legislators and outsiders have intruded unconscionably upon professors’ freedom to teach, research, write, and speak. Professors complain that these critics have tried to control curricula, blackball controversial teachers, manipulate tenure cases, and even reshape university life according to partisan ideological agendas.

In 2007, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement on “Freedom in the Classroom” intended—in the words of AAUP president Cary Nelson—to say “don’t mess with me” to those interested in ensuring that professors behave appropriately in the classroom. A month later, a group of well-known academics calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University issued its own statement asserting that professors’ academic freedom is threatened by non-academic forces. Hundreds of academics signed the petition, committing “to speak out against those who attack our colleagues and our universities in order to achieve their political goals.”

To be sure, some concerns about academic freedom are justified. Academic freedom is increasingly under threat in America—but not quite for the reasons cited by the AAUP and the Ad Hoc Committee. Academic freedom is in jeopardy primarily because of the widespread and erroneous assumption that academic freedom is synonymous with freedom from criticism. Nowhere is this erroneous assumption more widespread and more corrosive than in the contentious field of Middle East studies. In this discipline, a cadre of academics is working hard to cloud the definition of academic freedom—often undermining it in the name of defending it. The field is suffering as a result.

Clouding Definitions

“Academic freedom” is something of a misnomer. While often understood as a term delineating the liberties of professors, it actually speaks to their unique obligations. Far from exempting academics from constraint, “academic freedom” has historically been defined as a mode of professional conduct that honors the imperative of free inquiry, while at the same time outlining a clear code of scholarly, pedagogical, and professional etiquette. One of those duties is accountability to the public.

The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles takes special care not to place academics above public criticism and scrutiny. The declaration pledges that, “the profession will earnestly guard those liberties without which it cannot rightly render its distinctive and indispensable service to society.” But it also pledges “to maintain such standards of professional character, and of scientific integrity and competency, as shall make it a fit instrument for that service.”

Indeed, the AAUP conceived of academic freedom as a two-way pact with the public. Far from insulating academics from accountability, academic freedom was proposed as the single best mechanism for ensuring that universities could fulfill their commitment to the greater good.

The AAUP’s subsequent 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure reinforces these sentiments. It states that, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

Unfortunately, many academics today demand an extraordinary degree of autonomy from the public without offering a correlative compact to the public. Academic freedom is too often understood to mean exemption from scrutiny and the questions that come with it—and the consequences have been dire for scholarship, for teaching, and for students’ educations.

Clouding Middle East Studies

Academics and professional organizations have clouded these definitions. For example, the aforementioned Ad Hoc Committee seeks to “defend the university” by arguing that “scholars who have expressed perspectives on Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” should be shielded—not only from inappropriate legislative and judicial interference, but also from any criticism by “groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel.” While academics should be shielded from wrongful interference, they should not be shielded from reasoned debate or criticism. Indeed, it is their duty to respond.

Self-serving reinterpretations of academic freedom can also be found in policy statements, including one issued by the Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology. This organization published Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility After 9/11: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers in 2006. The handbook presents itself as a primer on academic freedom for a profession in a state of emergency. Noting that “some of the most pressing issues of academic freedom today revolve around teaching and research about Islam, the Arab world, and U.S. policy in the Middle East,” the handbook states that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, scholars specializing in these areas have been subject to “attacks,” “harassment,” and “threats” that undermine academic freedom.

The handbook, however, fails to distinguish legitimate (if unwelcome and uninvited) criticism from the very real problems posed by overzealous and intrusive legislators, administrators, and colleagues who advocate firing, punishment, and censorship when confronted with unwelcome academic views.

These documents are remarkable testaments to the defensiveness currently characterizing Middle East studies. They are, in fact, efforts to restructure the reciprocal rights and responsibilities that define academic freedom. As such, they constitute nothing short of an effort to redraw the parameters of academic professionalism. As they present it, academic freedom is all about academics’ rights. Responsibility and accountability have fallen by the wayside.

Scholars working at the center of hotly contested issues, such as those inextricably tied to Middle East studies, will almost certainly be subject to public scrutiny. Naturally, they want to protect themselves and their discipline from misguided or malicious attempts to silence controversial views, interfere with free inquiry, control the curriculum, or tamper with the scope and direction of scholarship.

The threat is certainly real if, for example, legislators call for outspoken academics to be fired on account of their views. But there is a crucial difference between real threats and legitimate criticism. In conflating the two, scholars damage their own cause and render outside intervention all the more likely.

As former University of Colorado President Hank Brown stated, “It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so.”

In the case of Middle East studies, this conflation has been costly. It has compromised a significant scholarly discipline precisely when that discipline most needs to establish its integrity.

Suppressing Divergent Views

When scholars equate academic freedom with freedom from criticism, they do more than indicate a desire to be free from public accountability. They reveal a desire to suppress divergent viewpoints, and to quash the open exchange of ideas at the heart of the academic enterprise. In Middle East studies, that impulse is carried out in myriad ways.

Students with politically incorrect views about the Middle East and Islam have been repeatedly targeted. In 2005, Columbia University made headlines when Jewish students alleged that they had been intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors. In 2006, San Francisco State University sought to punish students for trampling Hezbollah and Hamas flags during an anti-terrorism rally—in flagrant disregard of their First Amendment rights. That same year, students at the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere were disciplined for displaying cartoons about Mohammed.

The academic will to censor runs very deep when it comes to the Middle East. Britain’s main faculty union has repeatedly voted to boycott Israeli academics, alleging that Israel’s universities have been complicit in Palestinian “apartheid.” Dutch universities have silenced academics researching the taboo topic of Islamic anti-Semitism. In the United States, a professor of Islamic history persuaded Random House not to publish Sherry Jones’ novel Jewel of the Medina because of objections to its portrayal of Islam.

The field is now so politicized that the usually arcane details of tenure cases and hiring decisions have become matters of public debate and national controversy—as University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, former DePaul political science professor Norman Finkelstein, and newly tenured Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj can attest. The turmoil surrounding their cases, as well as many others, is a clear sign of the public’s misgivings over whether these scholars specializing in the Middle East were actually engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth.

The subject is so fraught—and the stakes are so high—that academics approach it at their own risk. Meanwhile, a vital academic discipline hangs in the balance. Columbia, for example, ultimately exonerated most of the Middle East studies professors accused of intimidating students. Students say the university did not take their complaints seriously, while faculty members now claim that they avoid teaching charged material for fear of reprisal. As of this writing, the tenure case of one accused faculty member floats in limbo, months after it would typically have been decided.

Beyond Middle East Studies

The above examples underscore troubling currents within Middle East studies. But it would be a mistake to think that the problems are confined to this discipline alone. Rather, this contentious, contested, highly politicized field crystallizes problems that are broadly characteristic of the academy today.

Nearly every American college and university claims to uphold academic freedom. However, many disregard its core tenets in practice. Speech codes chill debate on campuses across the nation.

A 2007 controversy at the University of Delaware spotlighted how residential life programs sometimes seek to “reeducate” students about political and social issues. And our colleges and universities are not as intellectually diverse as they could be. At the University of Chicago, professors protested the establishment of the new Milton Friedman Institute because they objected to its namesake’s viewpoint, potentially blocking a rich new scholarly undertaking. Hamilton College’s Alexander Hamilton Institute met with similar ideological resistance to its goal of studying Western civilization.

Mixed messages and competing claims exist at every level of academia. Faculty members deny students’ charges and defy outside criticism. Students, for their part, attack professors and fellow students for the crime of causing offense. Administrators are classic enablers, imposing speech codes while failing to ensure proper oversight of professors’ classroom conduct.

The solution may be as simple as the problems are complex. Academia must return to its first principles—a profession-wide recognition that academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism, that it cannot accommodate censorship, and that intellectual life as we know it will not survive attempts to rewrite academic standards along defensive and intolerant lines. Then, and only then, will it be possible to preserve and protect academic freedom.

Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).


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