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Issue 34

Under Attack: Free Speech on Campus
By Justin M. Park

Can anyone explain the sudden free speech frenzy at America’s colleges and universities? At the University of Colorado at Boulder, a radical professor’s scholarship and ethnicity is the subject of an official review. Yale fired an anarchist professor and refuses to explain why. Some conservatives are calling for an end to tenure and others want to use the legislature to write codes of conduct for professors and their students. Are these items part of a conservative thrust to squelch dissent on campus? Answer and explain your reasoning in 500 words or less.

A question like that could get a professor chalked up on a conservative campus watch list like the one maintained by Students for Academic Freedom for being politically charged and trying to inculcate students with a singular point of view. After appearing on the web, the professor’s transgression might be picked up by a local newspaper, then local television and radio, maybe even make its way to Fox News or CNN. Given the right amount of media attention, the pressure on the university could result in a committee review by the school and possibly termination, despite the fact that she has tenure. As ludicrous as that chain of events sounds, a similar timeline recently brought UC-Boulder ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill into the national spotlight and under review by his school.

Also a very real possibility is the idea that conservatives are out to remake campuses in their image — one professor or one piece of legislation at a time. Charges from fascism to neo-McCarthyism have been levied against the perceived campaign. Conservatives make the countercharge that McCarthyist liberals are keeping them out of the Ivory Tower. Would the real neo-McCarthyists please stand up?

The New McCarthyism

Yeshiva University history professor Ellen Schrecker, author of numerous books on the McCarthy Era including No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, puts things in perspective. “The current climate and the McCarthy Era are of course both similar and different,” she explained about the post-9/11 United States. “We never see history repeat itself exactly. There’s no Congressional investigating committee now, but we see the same process of demonizing enemies and seeing some kind of threat to security that has whipped up a furor with connections to partisan politics.”

Ward Churchill thinks the comparison to the Red Scare days is insufficient to describe the current witch-hunt on campus. “There are parallels to McCarthy’s days, but the techniques have advanced,” said Churchill in an interview with Clamor. “What that era didn’t have is an articulated plan to convert the institutions of higher learning to the dominant ideology.”

Schrecker sees an evolution as well, saying, “What’s different between now and the McCarthy Era is that then attacks were on individual professors for extracurricular activities with communist groups or whatever. At no time was anybody’s teaching or research brought into question. What’s different today, and I think more scary, are things directed against curriculum and classroom and attempts by outside political forces to dictate the syllabus.”

Middle East Studies professor Joseph Massad endured an investigation into his teaching by his employer, Columbia University, stemming from anti-Israel charges brought on by the pro-Israel group the David Project. And cases such as that of University of Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian, whose extracurricular activities with Muslim organizations have him awaiting trial for terrorism charges, illustrate that not all the attacks on professors have shifted to their lecture materials.

McCarthyism was a complex social and cultural phenomenon, not just an organized effort headed by one maverick Senator. Likewise, it would not be wise to casually brand the current campus inquisition as a clandestine plan organized by neoconservatives in a back room of the White House. But it’s important to seriously look at cases like those of professors Churchill, Al-Arian, and others in order to determine what kind of Cold War is currently being waged on campus, who the combatants are, and what can be done to stop it.

Big Man on Campus

The Churchill saga has become a cause celebre for all sides of the controversy. Late last January, Churchill was preparing to leave for Hamilton College, in upstate New York, . But the weekend before his scheduled appearance, remarks he made in an essay titled “Some People Push Back,” written the day after September 11, more than three years earlier, became the topic of national conversation. On January 26, 2005 the story was covered by the Associated Press and released on the statewide wire service. At 3:46 A.M. the next morning, Colorado Republican Congress member Bob Beauprez, an alumnus of UC-Boulder, issued a press release calling for Churchill’s resignation. Within days, the story was national news, most feverishly embraced by Bill O’Reilly on his conservative talk show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” At the end of June, O’Reilly had taken up the Churchill “controversy” on more than 50 programs.

Churchill started to receive death threats, Hamilton heard about anonymous threats of violence, and the event was cancelled. “I don’t know how they selected Hamilton,” said Churchill, “I guess someone at Hamilton found a copy of my essay, forwarded it to O’Reilly and the Denver media and suddenly it was the hottest thing since hot pants.”

His version of the story isn’t far off but omits part of a pattern. A few months earlier, Hamilton hired former Weather Underground activist Susan Rosenberg to teach a memoir-writing course. Much like Churchill, however, Rosenberg never made it to campus, thanks to protests at college fundraisers and immense pressure from alumni to rescind the offer to teach.

After the high-profile Rosenberg dispute, a small group of Hamilton faculty members was suspicious of the Churchill invitation and did some digging, finding Churchill’s essay about September 11. Though more than 5,000 words long, detractors focused on key phrases to ignite the controversy, including this now well-worn and largely misunderstood line: “As to those in the World Trade Center . . . Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break.” (You can read the full essay at, or see for info on Churchill’s book inspired by the essay, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.)

AP wire stories quoted other juicy words from the essay, like “gallant sacrifices” of kamikaze “combat teams” on 9/11 and Churchill’s labeling of World Trade Center dead as “little Eichmanns” working for the “mighty engine of profit.” The few who bothered to read more than sound bites from the essay might have understood these remarks in their context, but corporate media coverage echoed the same cherry-picked and inflammatory phrases. Headlines read “9/11 Victims Had It Coming,” “Professor’s Future Hinges on Conduct,” “Coverage of Professor’s 9/11 Essay Feeds his Ego, Terrorism,” and “9/11 ‘Nazi’ Prof Quits College Post.”

Churchill later publicly clarified his remarks, saying “It should be emphasized that I applied the ‘little Eichmanns’ characterization only to those [World Trade Center workers] described as ‘technicians.’ Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen, and random passers-by killed in the 9-11 attack.”

But O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and even politicians such as New York Governor George Pataki proceeded to hammer the issue into the national discourse, with O’Reilly covering it for nine consecutive nights. Despite an eventual consensus defending Churchill’s right to voice his opinion, even from O’Reilly, the university formed a committee to investigate claims made during the media maelstrom that he plagiarized work and falsely identified himself as an American Indian to further his career. Suddenly the inquisition into the professor’s public remarks morphed into an ad hominem attack, legitimized by the official Board of Regents investigation and resolution passed by the Colorado house and senate condemning Churchill’s remarks, and urging university officials to fire him.

Churchill calls the allegations “spurious,” especially those that he used his race to advance his career saying, “I look white enough. The advantage is to look white. Look at a standard bibliography in American Indian studies and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. At worst, this is flagrantly racist.”

The ordeal has been rough on Churchill and his wife, Natsu Taylor Saito, but he admits, “With the work I do and the positions I take, there’s always a possibility of an organized neutralization campaign.” He added that he has considered just retiring and avoiding the controversy but said, “There’s an extraordinarily dangerous precedent in my case. I didn’t elect to be in this position, but since I’m in it I can’t concede its legitimacy.”

War of the Words

The Churchill case gave groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), groups that see the academy as one of the last bastions of leftist power, a taste of victory in this battle on campuses. Using the crowbar of a few phrases taken out of context, they were able to justify opening two committee investigations into Churchill, force his resignation as Chair of the Ethnic Studies department, and may yet succeed in ousting him entirely, despite the often ground-breaking research and numerous books on Native American history and genocide to Churchill’s credit.

Whether these groups succeed in ousting Churchill matters little. They’ve already established a blueprint for other administrators, politicians, and media with an agenda to remove any professor they deem unfit. In a recent treatise on the conservative agenda, Newt Gingrich states that the threat of the leftist professoriat is equal to that of terrorists. “The flow of immigrants combined with the anti-American civilization bias of our academic left ... threatens to undermine and eliminate the history, language, and cultural patterns of American civilization in a secular, multicultural, politically correct, ethnic politician-defined new model,” wrote Gingrich.

Those statements ring eerily similar to the desire for “consensus history,” described by author and professor Schrecker. The Consensus History movement, which peaked in the 1950s, overlooks internal conflicts and the non-white population. “There is a certain pressure in American history to write consensus history,” said Schrecker, “Not among historians but from outside, from people like Lynne Cheney. More celebratory history that says ‘We’re the greatest country in world’ type stuff.” Ethnic and gender studies programs, won in the reforms of the 1960s, greatly trouble the very notion of “consensus history” by pointing out and examining histories, like those of Native Americans, that have been whitewashed or overlooked in order to present a cohesive ideal of American progress.

The Vice President’s wife founded ACTA, a lobby group that has shunned introspection à la Bush to suggest America was “attacked [on 9-11] not for our vices, but for our virtues.” The group also established the brazenly ethnocentric Defense of Civilization Fund to “support the study of American civics and history and of Western civilization.”

Colorado Governor Bill Owens, who called Churchill’s essay ”treasonous,” works hand-in-hand with ACTA as part of their Governors’ Project and was at the frontlines in calling for Churchill’s dismissal. The publicly available “Action Plan” for the Governors’ Project reads like Karl Rove could’ve been holding the pen:

If we can get 20 key states moving in the right direction, it will start a national trend. Those states will be prioritized on the basis of (a) the size and prestige of their systems of higher education, (b) likelihood that the governors will be open to our message, and (c) governance arrangements conductive to reform efforts (e.g., a single statewide system appointed by the governor is easier to influence than multiple boards, some of which are elected).

Churchill, for one, isn’t scared to cry conspiracy, saying, “It’s organized and coordinated. It evolves. This has been a consistent pattern for the past 25 years.” Churchill went on to recount the ousting of Emory historian Michael Bellesiles in 2001 as a recent precursor to the tactics being used in his case. Bellesiles was fired after a right-wing blitz started by the National Rifle Association over his book on gun culture, Arming America, prompted a university investigation into his research methods. The investigation concluded that he omitted some inconvenient data.

David Graeber, a Yale anthropology professor, avowed anarchist, and anti-globalization organizer, also got his pink slip and with no explanation. He isn’t as quick to see a neo-con cabal behind his sacking, but adds that he recently defended a grad student attempting to organize a union, a move that pitted him squarely against many of the same faculty that fired him.

Graeber also says that after he was quoted in the New York Times for a story about protesting the World Economic Forum in which he was associated with an anarchist group, there were “suddenly all these conservatives saying to Yale, ‘How could you have an anarchist there?’”

While Graeber sees his own dismissal chiefly as the result of power-tripping senior faculty, he does agree there’s a larger, national assault on academics. “Someone probably did orchestrate Churchill or Massoud’s cases, though. Situations like theirs create this climate where people feel like they can go after ‘the anarchist professor.’ You can get away with things you wouldn’t normally consider.”

That anarchists are a rare species that some think should be extinct on college campuses corresponds to the popular conservative view that higher education is one-sidedly leftist and desperately needs righting. An editorial by Mike Rosen in the March 4 edition of the Rocky Mountain News offers a typical right-wing view of the academy. Rosen declares academia as the “power base of the Left” and adds, “The left has taken over academe. We want it back.” He goes on to quote a professor worried about the chilling effect the Ward Churchill case might have on other professors and answers, “Good. It’s about time. I’d prefer to call it a remedial, correcting effect.”

Conservatives such as Horowitz have relied heavily on the studies done by Santa Clara economics professor Daniel Klein, which alleged that anthropology departments have 30 democrats for every republican, and an average of seven to one in the social sciences and humanities generally. What most who cite the study, including a recent, beefy New York Times article, fail to note is that the study appeared in Academic Questions, a publication of the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing group devoted to eliminating “liberal bias” in America’s hallowed halls. Even if Klein’s work were accurate, despite the taint of its origins, to say those numbers indicate a bias that needs correcting is merely aping the flawed logic that has cowed the corporate media into searching for the nonexistent “balance” between left and right.

Horowitz’s response to the perceived bias is his Academic Bill of Rights, a specious document brought to the floor of several state legislatures and designed to remove political “indoctrination” from classes. He hasn’t been very successful in getting passage for the inherently political bill but he may not care. His tactics, often successful, are usually devised simply to win attention for his views. In his book Political War, he describes why he considered filing a libel suit against Time magazine for an article claiming he was a racist, saying, “My main objective... was to get my response — or pieces of it — before as large an audience as possible.”

While the Academic Bill of Rights may not be winning much credible support, Horowitz has claimed victory on another piece of state legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In early July, lawmakers approved HR 177 by a vote of 111 to 87. The measure creates a committee that will investigate claims by students that professors are doling out low grades because they don’t agree with their political opinions. On his web site, Horowitz states the legislation is “squarely based on the Academic Bill of Rights.”

Robert Jensen, a University of Texas at Austin journalism professor who often appears on Horowitz’s SAF site, calls the bias charge bunk. “The way this discussion [about academia] is proceeding is ridiculous. Everyone agrees education shouldn’t be indoctrination and a lot goes on, but it’s not towards the left, it’s towards the existing system.”

Jensen has pointed out that they don’t teach alternatives to capitalism in business schools and wonders how people miss the bias towards the status quo inherent in most courses of study. “These people love to argue on the basis of individual behavior because they can avoid any real analysis of the system. And any major bias you can find in looking at it is going to be towards the existing system.”

Jensen shrugs off the hate mail and personal threats he has received after he critiqued the likely American response to Sept. 11 in the Houston Chronicle saying, “It’s not like the government is dragging me away in the night. Every once in a while I’m on the [Students for Academic Freedom] website. One guy wanted a Bob Jensen deportation site. I’m tenured and I don’t care what they think, but often this stuff scares people who want to speak out.”

Churchill, too, sees little free space for those who want to express radical ideas. “They say with me, ‘Not on taxpayer dollars!’ The reason you can’t speak in the university is that taxpayers shouldn’t be obligated to fund anti-state rhetoric. At private institutions like Hamilton, reactionary Wall Street alumni will punish you. There’s no scholarly setting in the country in which views from this orbit are entitled access — public, private, or indifferent. The emails I get say, ‘Get your goddamned soapbox.’ You’re entitled to starve on your soapbox if you have the wrong thoughts.”

If Jensen or Churchill’s case doesn’t have a chilling effect on faculty, Al-Arian’s ought to. In addition to being a tenured professor, he was very active in the Muslim-American community and had been accused by local Tampa media for being involved with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In May of 1996, the University of South Florida put Al-Arian on paid leave while waiting for the outcome of a federal investigation into his fundraising and organizing for Palestinian causes. He was reinstated two years later when no legal action had been taken and the charges were seemingly forgotten until he made an appearance on, you guessed it, “The O’Reilly Factor” less than three weeks after Sept. 11.

O’Reilly, ostensibly not aware the investigation was over, revived the charges about Al-Arian’s connections to terrorism and began berating his guest over them. Other national and local media jumped on the story, generating enough hysteria to get Al-Arian fired, eventually indicted on terrorism charges and jailed for years awaiting trial. As of press time, the trial was underway in Tampa.

Defending the Thesis

Clearly many of the problems that limit speech at universities are systemic. The American Association of University Professors reports that 65 percent of all university faculty are in non-tenure track positions and 46 percent of professors are part-time, leaving this demographic ill-equipped to espouse controversial positions that might drop them out of favor with university brass.

Additionally, each year average college tuition hikes accelerate and schools turn more to corporations and government for subsidies, scholarships and grants. Firmly indebted, those schools put more dollars into departments that are able to secure money from research and innovations that can be sold to corporate America or the government. In fact, politicians and economic development gurus such as Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class, enthusiastically encourage these sorts of partnerships as essential to keeping American cities competitive in the global marketplace.

When asked what might be done to build and maintain spaces for truly radical scholarship, Graeber could only respond, “I’m not really sure. Rather than give you some glib answer I’m going to say I have to think about that one.” He added, “Yale, for example, is a corporation. It’s a business that’s so far about the reproduction of the ruling class. They’re producing people to rule the world. Where does an anarchist fit into that?”

Despite a bleak outlook, the witch-hunting of radical professors need not be taken lying down. Both Graeber and Churchill said that letters from fellow academics to their respective institutions are helpful and there are petitions on the Internet supporting several professors.

Churchill said the support he’s received from everyday people has been immense: “Baggage men, people on the street. They understand the resonance of ‘fuck you.’ They have a sense that I said ‘fuck you’ to these people and that’s alright by them.” But he warned against activists focusing too much on any one professor’s cause saying, “Writing letters for me and such is all good but we got a national problem here. People need to stand on their rights and understand this isn’t just about me.” Indeed, there are probably many less visible professors who are disappearing from campuses with little more than a squeak, for example Churchill’s colleague and environmental activist Adrienne Anderson, let go due to “curriculum changes” only days after Churchill made headlines.

Moreover, focusing activism too much on individual professors and defending their every move could backfire and play into the hands of people like Horowitz, who would rather debate personal minutiae such as Churchill’s footnoting abilities and genetic makeup than the real issues. Activism aiming to counter the 21st Century wave of political and academic repression should expose and fervently oppose the illegitimate processes and weak arguments by which these professors are being challenged in addition to showing solidarity with the victims.

Currently, a number of organizations are working to expose how conservative foundations and think tanks are influencing academia, and several progressive organizations are tracking the attacks on academics (see sidebar). But beyond these necessary but reactive measures, others are proactively working to strengthen the alliances between academics and activism, including the International Organization of Scholars and Activists, profiled by Rebecca Hyman in the Economics Section of this issue.

Graeber agrees that awareness and reasoned opposition is the key to deflecting attempts to squelch radical scholarship. “Sadistic bullies are a small percentage of the population but people often find it inconvenient to fight them. Enough public pressure in the right places can make it inconvenient to not fight them. Exposing them is the most useful thing to do.”

See the print issue of Clamor 34 for profiles on many of the groups mentioned here.

Justin Park is a farmer, vintner, and journalist foraging for the stories hidden in the post-industrial wastelands of Syracuse, NY and abroad.

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