Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11

Organizations like Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, have embarked on campaigns of intimidation to silence critical voices on U.S. campuses.


The Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology is pleased to announce a practical handbook for those facing politically motivated infringements on their teaching or scholarship.

Attempts to undermine professors’ abilities to teach and do research are increasingly directed at scholars who seek to provide a contextualized and critical view of recent international developments and their interaction with US foreign policies and practices. This handbook provides an overview of the range and nature of recent challenges to academic freedom. It provides concrete suggestions for how to respond to such attacks and to avoid them in the first place. Utilizing research on institutions and interviews with academics, it considers the potentials and limitations of internal university structures, professional organizations, legal recourse, and media outlets. Finally, it contains useful pedagogical tools for dealing with difficulties in the classroom, and an informative bibliography of recent writings on academic freedom.

By virtue of its mission to expand horizons and encourage critical thinking, education is an inherently challenging undertaking. In periods of political tension and conflict, some individuals and organizations may view critical inquiry and freedom of expression in the classroom as a threat to the political status quo and prevailing ideologies.

Academic freedom has developed as a set of values and regulations to protect teachers and knowledge production itself in circumstances like these. Academic freedom can be defined as the right of scholars to have their ideas judged according to how well those ideas stand up to debate, rather than according to the power of the scholar her or himself. As the American Association of University Professors declared in a key 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, 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. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.

Yet there have been many impingements on academic freedom in the United States both before and since this statement was issued. In 1903, a Trinity College (now Duke University) professor almost lost his job because he wrote of improving race relations and praised African-American leaders like Booker T. Washington. His college protected him under the auspices of academic freedom. The beginning of the Cold War half a century ago witnessed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to identify and root out people he deemed anti-American in the realms of entertainment, journalism, academe, publishing, and government. In the 1950s, the feared enemy was the Soviet Union and Communism. Today, academic freedom battles are waged over many issues, including students desire not to have course material not conflict with their moral or religious beliefs, professors support of affirmative action, courses on gender, and the evolution/creationism debates. Sometimes, threats to academic freedom overlap with threats to civil rights, as when a professor’s sexuality was the basis for threats against that professor s ability to teach effectively. 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.

In the post-September 11 context, untrammeled and free public debate about the relationship between the United States and the Middle East should be a key component of a concerted effort to prevent the reoccurrence of horrific tragedies on U.S. soil, and to understand related cultural and political trends in the United States, the Middle East, and around the world. Yet an open atmosphere in which scholars and students can analyze the events and repercussions of 2001 have come into the cross-hairs of ideologues who argue that, everything has changed or ought to change since September 11, including traditional bedrock American values upholding freedom of speech and public debate.

The post-September 11 period has witnessed escalating attempts to silence and marginalize university teachers who resist or challenge narrow black and white thinking. Pressures upon academic freedom are especially pronounced in departments of Middle East and Islamic studies, affecting sociologists, political scientists, historians, religious scholars, and anthropologists who are working to provide a contextualized, critical, and holistic view of recent international developments and their interaction with current US foreign and military policies and practices. Yet the impact of infringements on academic freedom is by no means limited to those who work on the Middle East, Islam, or the US; rather they present a serious challenge to all academics. They serve as a warning about what may lie in our future as teachers and researchers who value free inquiry. Laws, precedents, and procedures that in the past protected academics First Amendment rights to free speech and inquiry have been systematically eroded and called into question by individuals and well-funded organizations seeking to shape the content and aims of university education.

The political and psychological climate prevailing in the United States since the Al-Qa’ida attacks has often placed security concerns over and above commitments to civil rights. Although no legislative bodies, state or federal, have yet succeeded in passing specific laws limiting academic freedom, institutions of higher learning have become ideological battlefields as conservative groups try to set precedents delimiting what can be taught, who can teach, and how subjects should be presented.

You should know how to proceed should you experience these issues directly. As many articles in the educational press have documented (see Appendix), assailments on academics are occurring with great frequency. Research conducted for this handbook reveals a disquieting pattern of interference with faculty members syllabi, teaching methods, work with student organizations, and engagement with the media. This interference, felt most acutely by untenured and adjunct faculty, can come from many sources department colleagues, university administrators, students, trustees, media pundits, organized campaigns by groups unrelated to the university, and local politicians. These infringements cast a pall over all university life, and are doing long-term damage to our tradition of free inquiry.

For university faculty, the current climate poses challenges to two interrelated requirements of their work: academic freedom and professional responsibility. These two pillars of academic vitality go hand in hand because academic freedom is an individual and institutional right that, like professional responsibility, promotes the public good.

The Handbook is the product of research, interviews, and writing by the following anthropologists: Tom Abowd, Fida Adely, Lori Allen, Laura Bier, Amahl Bishara, Christine Cuk, Rochelle Davis, Ilana Feldman, Rhoda Kanaaneh, Laurie King-Irani, Katayoun Sadeghi, and Jessica Winegar

A PDF version of “Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers” is available for downloading.

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