Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A committee on academic freedom at SCSU 

My university's faculty union is forming an Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom. I have sent my name into the union as a candidate for a seat on the committee, on the basis of the old line about keeping your friends close. I am 0-for-1 using this blog for campaigning for academic positions, and I suspect I'll be 0-for-2 after this afternoon's vote, but herewith is a message for the faculty senate.

Dear Colleagues,

This committee's genesis was a motion to discuss Ward Churchill's status at the University of Colorado (vid. the minutes of Senate meeting of 22 February) but which quickly became a concern over Senator Michele Bachmann and Rep. Ray Vandeveer's bill (SF1988 and HR2164) titled "Free Speech for Faculty and Students Bill of Rights." The IFO's lobbyist, Russ Stanton, sent an email forwarded to the faculty here on March 4 titled "Bachmann bill on "Academic Bill of Rights" which urged faculty to
1) wait until they see what legislation is introduced (we don't want to appear like we are going off half-cocked), and 2) speak out against portions of the legislation, if any, that threaten academic freedom, but 3)keep their arguments against the legislation temperate, factual and well reasoned.

I've read the legislation, and I've spoken out against it, but it's not for the reasons that Stanton, or those who've argued against it on our discussion email list -- itself a threatened venue for free speech -- and in faculty senate. There is a problem on this campus as there are in many places in the American university.

Much fulmination from the left on college campuses has focused on David Horowitz, whose work led to the creation of the Students for Academic Freedom, a group that has pushed academic bills of rights around the states. Horowitz is undoubtedly an agitator, and I believe he knows it. Nonetheless he makes a strong case for ABoR yesterday in describing his treatment at the University of Hawaii -- a school at which Ward Churchill received a hero's welcome. Before his public lecture he went to a reception at the political science department.
The first thing I noticed was that the Chairman's office door was adorned with a large Anti-Iraq War poster. I have made a personal campaign against such political statements on professorial offices. Students go to these offices for counseling. Such partisan statements create a wall between the professor and the student who it is his or her professional responsibility to help. They serve no purpose but to vent the spleen of these tenured individuals who are apparently so frustrated as to be unable to maintain minimal self-discipline in the presence of a captive audience students who -- if they disagree with the statements -- have no choice but to suffer them. I asked Jamie, who is a senior and whose father served this country in the military, if
he had ever taken a course with Professor [and Chairman Johnathan] Hiller. When he said no, I asked him why. He pointed at the sign.

... While I was standing in the outer office with Jamie, I noted a man looking nervously at me. His expression was conflicted as though he had an obligation that he absolutely did not want to perform. I knew immediately it was the department chairman, Professor Hiller. I should interject at this point, that though I myself am a partisan figure and not a professor and therefore have no obligations to students in my charge who may disagree with my politics, when I invite liberals or leftists to events that I host I make a special point of welcoming them and protecting them from attack. Sometimes a conservative in my audiences will not be able to contain their distress at the presence of a political opponent and let their hostility be seen. In those cases, I go out of my way to reprimand such individuals and to defend my guests and make them feel comfortable.

I didn't let Professor Hiller suffer in his quandary long but went right up to him, gave him a reasonably warm smile and said "I'm David Horowitz," and was about to put out my hand when he retorted, "I'm one of the liberals on your list." What he meant was my McCarthy list. The left was at first non-plussed with having to oppose a campaign for academic freedom, but has recovered itself to put on its accustomed mantle of victimhood and claim that the attempt to defend students from political harassment is actually a witch-hunt against their political views. Not very clever, but effective nonetheless.

Of course the Academic Bill of Rights begins with a defense of their right to their political views, but facts are no obstacle when you are the educational establishment and media is accustomed to being your echo chamber. The actual blacklist in this university as others is instituted by the faculty. There is only one conservative in Professor Hiller's department, of course, and it was he who was pointing the finger at me. (Not to mention the campus leaflet attacking me as a rightwing demon.)

...But my tone did immediately change in response to the professor's insult and I said, "Well, since you've dropped the hammer, how come you put political propaganda on your office door where students come to you for counsel? What would you think if I were a professor in this department and put up a sign on my office door calling peace protesters traitors?" 'You're not a professor in my department," he said testily. "Of course not," I replied, "and I couldn't be one since liberals like you have instituted a blacklist against conservatives like me." That was the end of our conversation.

Jamie and I left the outer office and walked about twenty feet to where the Political Science Department had reserved the room where the professors were to meet with me. On the wall outside the room and just to the left of the entry door there was a poster, which had a picture of me next to Joseph McCarthy. Very subtle. And very thoughtful of Hiller not to take it down.

Ask yourselves: How many of our doors are walls to discourse with students who hold different views? I've seen one or two. There's nothing illegal or even unethical about these expressions of opinion, but they do not create the kind of campus our students deserve. A bulletin board in my department's hallways became at one time a virtual shouting match between faculty who disagreed ideologically. What kind of message are we sending with this, I thought. I've been impugned by one of them for taking all the materials off that board, as if I was somehow stifling someone's free speech. But it's a public board in an academic department wing, a department for which I'm responsible as a chair. My students deserve professionalism in faculty offices, and I've tried to give it to them.

The Ad Hoc Committee's charge is to develop a working definition of academic freedom. The problem is that we have one -- faculty working with professionalism towards each other and towards students -- that we toss away. We have policies and processes already, there is no need for any more. We have procedures for investigating academic misconduct. Those are working through the Ward Churchill case now in Colorado, and we can have some confidence that they will work towards a conclusion that shows whether or not Prof. Churchill met his professional obligations as a tenured faculty member. If I am elected to this committee, I will work simply to assure that we not only treat all faculty as professionals, but that we also expect no less of each of us.

This requires a massive cultural change, in my view, of the faculty. How many of us stick out a hand in greeting to those with whom we disagree? Many in fact do; I have many friends on this campus who vote differently than I do. I hope they're reading this. I hope they will agree that Professor Hiller's reaction to Horowitz was unprofessional. I hope they'll agree that a diversity of intellectual views on unsettled questions is the sort of thing that should happen on a university campus, and that that is what our profession stands for.

Because that's what this is about. The reason a faculty union should have a committee on academic freedom isn't to protect their own rights to free speech but to build a better university. It is up to us to do so, because the students cannot and the administration will not (and this cantankerous, adversarial union wouldn't let them if they wanted to). I don't like SF1988, and I don't want it to become law. But what I do want is a hearing of stories like Horowitz' and students like Jamie.

Senator Bachmann will have hearings on her bill soon. If you have stories like this and are anywhere in Minnesota, she needs to hear from you. So do we as faculty. We need to know where the walls are constructed between us and students, between us and knowledge, between us and truth. You need to tell your stories. And at the end of the day, we need as faculty to say convincingly to the public that we understand we have sometimes failed to act in a professional manner, and that we will double our resolve to protect the academic freedom of all faculty and all students on our campuses.

Because if we don't, the public will remove the privileged status we hold, and it will be future generations that will reap the whirlwind of lessened intellectual inquiry.

I am resolved to be part of that solution, and for that reason I want to be on this committee.

UPDATE: Shows what I know. I was unopposed for my college's seat.