Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Academic Freedom Fighters, Part II

A few weeks back I called attention to a movement taking place on college campuses nationwide that amounts to a form of neo-McCarthyism against professors and faculty. The movement, spearheaded by conservative pundit and think tank veteran David Horowitz, is based largely on the Orwellian sounding Academic Bill of Rights and Student Bill of Rights. These innocuous sounding manifestos are not just theoretical mandates, they form the backbone of legislation that is being introduced in most state legislatures across the country at this very moment, in addition to the US House of Representatives - and they are anything but harmless.

The main thrust of the legislation is to mandate hiring practices at universities that result in an even split of Democrats and Republicans, as well as some other measures that serve to stifle discussion in the classroom that students could perceive as advocating a certain partisan view. The details of how the legislation operates is much more nefarious - especially when you consider the evidence that Horowitz used/created in order to justify such measures in the first place.

Apart from the legislative efforts, Horowitz has been encouraging students to take matters into their own hands, providing instructions for spotting "liberal" professors and targeting them for elimination.

Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom provides students with a manual that gives an example of a poster asking, "Is Your Professor Using the Classroom as a Political Soapbox?" The manual also provides "advice on how to create Web sites, get publicity, file complaints, and spot abuses of academic freedom, such as using university funds to hold one-sided, partisan conferences, and inviting speakers to campus from one side of the political spectrum."
The long term effects of Horwotiz's campaign will be catastrophic if not curbed. The real danger is that excellence in academic and scholarly pursuits would be subsumed to partisan beliefs. We would sacrifice much in terms of rewarding achievement and individual prowess in order to create this bizarre sense of balance, by obliging this modern day witch hunt. America would soon lose its position of dominance in the realm of higher education because our standards for scholarship will have shifted from a measurement of competence to an assessment of political affiliation. We would no longer attract the best and the brightest from around the world, both among students and teachers, because our system would be so saddled with illogical and backwards permutations.

I will not provide a full accounting of the background of this movement, or the parameters of the problems we face, in this post because I have done so already in
my prior piece. What I do want to do, is call attention to two examples of Horowitz's brainchild in action that have recently come to my attention.

Two of the campaign's first victims are Ball State's Professor Alves and David Gibbs, an Associate professor of History and Sociology at the University of Arizona, who last spring taught a course entitled "What is Politics?"

On the Ball State University campus, posters "announcing that history professor Abel Alves was 'WANTED'" was put up by Amanda Carpenter, a senior, who said she put up the posters in order to attract attention to her website, the Muncie, Indiana Star Press reported. The professor's "alleged offenses include indoctrinating freshmen with liberal books, such as Fast Food Nation, and guest lectures by the Humane Society."
The use of the "wanted" poster connotes some type of criminality on the part of the professor, but in truth, the attention that professors like Abel Alves have received has been criminal in nature. It is not unusual for a professor so targeted to receive death threats and threats of violence, in addition to coordinated campaigns aimed at depriving the professor of his or her livelihood. The next example is of Associate Professor David Gibbs:

On September 27, David Gibbs told Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now! that his largely freshmen class "focuses on propaganda and deception," and he "emphasize[s] incidents of the government lying and things like that." When he taught the class last spring, "the Independent Women's Forum... put into the local student newspaper, an advertisement that basically argued that there's a kind of left wing domination of the universities and students should fight that with the strong implication they should monitor their professors and report them, at least that's how I read it."

When Gibbs received student evaluations, "a student who said I'm anti-American communist who hates America and is trying to brainwash young people into thinking that America sucks," said that "I should be investigated by the FBI, and the FBI has been contacted."

Later on, "another student on a web log during the summer said he took my class and also said that he didn't like my politics and suggests that students shouldn't take my class but should drop by and try to disrupt it. There have been a number of instances like that which I hadn't had before."

Although Gibbs said that he wasn't sure or worried about whether the FBI was contacted, he acknowledged that he thought it was "indicative of a larger national trend, which is conservative activist groups with lots of money and connections to the Republican Party trying to encourage and even to some extent orchestrate students and local conservative groups like those at the University of Arizona to go and basically harass faculty if they don't like their politics."
Other examples abound, and in many instances, the threats and intimidation tactics extend to the professor's spouse and extended family. This represents a pernicious strain of political thought and action that has been slowly gaining momentum on the political right in this country, and it is beyond disturbing. While Horowitz himself has publicly condemned such extreme actions, he notes, "When you deal with students, you're dealing with students." He seems to acknowledge that students are prone take these ideas too far, but that hasn't caused him any pause for concern. He knows what he is doing when he instructs students how to take matters into their own hands, and he is well aware of what his movement is seeking to achieve. Victory at all costs always trumps the means. But victory for Horowitz and his minions means defeat for America's standing in the world, as well as the degradation of our educational backbone that supports so many other aspects of our society.

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