Be careful what you say on campus

The most ominous threat to academic freedom in decades looms in a seemingly innocuous Senate bill expected to come up for vote shortly. A short but critical clause would rob our society of the open exchange of ideas on college campuses that is vital to our democracy.

House Resolution 3077 passed last fall. It included a provision to establish an advisory board to monitor campus international studies centers in order to ensure that they advance the national interest. While the law would apply to all federally funded institutes with an international focus, the target is clearly the nation’s 17 centers for Middle East studies. The driving force behind this provision is the same group of conservative ideologues who have long promoted the war on Iraq and who support the extreme right-wing politics of the Sharon government in Israel. Their aim is to defend the foreign policy of this administration by stifling critical and informed discussion on U.S. campuses.

The Senate vote comes at a time in which conservative activists walk the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. They include Education Secretary Rod Paige, who in a moment of failed but revealing levity, recently described the National Education Association, with 2.7 million member teachers, as a terrorist organization.

For professors like me, entrusted with teaching facts as well as critical thinking and the ability to analyze all sides of an issue, the pending legislation must be viewed against the backdrop of other recent and chilling developments.

Be careful what books you buy or check out from the library. You could be monitored under the terms of the U.S. Patriot Act. A further provision of that law threatens criminal prosecution of anyone alerting you to government inspection of your selections.

Be careful what readings you assign. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was sued by the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy for assigning a book on Islam for incoming freshman students. The university held firm, and, fortunately, the court of appeals dismissed the suit.

Be careful what you say in or out of class. Campus Watch and other hawkish, pro-Israeli right-wing organizations have launched campaigns to pressure and discredit professors judged to be un-American for questioning U.S. policy in the Middle East. Some organizations openly recruit students to inform on their teachers.

Students and faculty connected academically or culturally to Muslim and Middle Eastern countries have been especially targeted. Some have been subjected to hate mail blitzes and their institutions pressured to short-circuit their careers. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., announced his intent last April to introduce legislation cutting federal funding to institutions of higher learning where students or faculty criticize Israel, labeling such criticism — regardless of its content or basis in fact — as anti-Semitic.

All of this will seem like child’s play, though, if the attempt to stifle academic freedom is formalized through Congress.

If the legislation before the Senate passes, an advisory board would monitor area studies programs that receive money from the U.S. government under the Title VI program. The Association of American University Professors, the ACLU and most professional organizations have raised alarms about this unprecedented government invasion of the classroom. Among their concerns are the board’s sweeping investigative powers, lack of accountability and makeup, which would be composed in part from two agencies with national security responsibilities.

Should such a government-appointed board be allowed to police the classroom by deciding what constitutes a diverse or balanced lecture or if a teacher’s research is in the national interest? Yes, if HR 3077 is passed, because it will replace the professional standards of the academy with arbitrary political standards.

These are dangerous times indeed when politicians and private interest groups are willing to sacrifice academic freedom in order to achieve their domestic partisan or foreign policy goals. A key supporter of the current Senate legislation, Campus Watch founder Daniel Pipes, shared his thoughts with In discussing MIT linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky — recipient of numerous honorary degrees and scientific awards — Pipes said, “I want Noam Chomsky to be taught at universities about as much as I want Hitler’s writing or Stalin’s writing. These are wild and extremist ideas that I believe have no place in a university.”

Should academic freedom be effectively shelved in order to pursue a war against terror without end? Are these dark clouds hanging over U.S. campuses a passing storm or the harbinger of fundamental changes in the freedom to teach, learn, question, discuss and debate? How will universities and colleges respond when they are starved for resources and more dependent than ever on the funding that would be withdrawn if a professor were deemed out of line?

At stake is the continuation of the academy as the bastion of informed, independent and alternative perspectives crucial to a better understanding of the world we live in. If teachers and students cannot think and speak freely, who can?

Beshara Doumani is associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He organized a national conference, Academic Freedom After September 11th, which was held at UC Berkeley in February. This article first appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on 2 April 2004.