"First They Came for the Academics..."
Stifling Dissent on Campus

by Aleksandra Priestfield

January 14, 2002

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There is a plaque on the wall of the library building at the University of Cape Town, a University known for its liberal views and its sometimes downright belligerent attitude towards the mores and ethics of the day in apartheid-era South Africa. The plaque commemorates a march by the academics of that institution, a quarter of a century ago or more, when the Torch of Academic Freedom was symbolically extinguished as a sign of the times in South Africa.

On the face of it, there is little to connect this incident, in another country, on another continent, in a different era, with circumstances currently prevailing in the United States. America, the land of the free, where freedom (including academic) is venerated deeply enough to be enshrined in amendments to the country's constitution, could not possibly ever find itself in a situation where the torch of academic freedom could be put out... could it?

Could it?

Possibly the most authoritative statement of the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom remains that of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in its publication "1940 Statement of Principles." This document defines three facets of academic freedom — freedom of inquiry, freedom of teaching, and freedom of extramural utterance — and examines each in detail. (1) It is the latter two that have a direct bearing on the American academe today. To wit, from the document in question:
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
But how to define "controversial matter?" How are professors of political science, for example, to teach their discipline without recourse to material which some of the people will inevitably find offensive all of the time, and all of the people will find offensive some of the time? This has become an especially relevant question in the post-9/11 world.

Academic freedom incorporates, indeed depends on, free speech and the right to express opinion — including unpopular opinion. Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for all, else there is freedom of speech for nobody. In a democratic society such freedom of speech defines that society's existence, and in the microcosm of a University or a similar academic community the principle of such freedom of thought and speech is even more than that — it is the foundation on which such institutions rest. It is the only foundation on which such institutions can rest. And the implication of the word freedom in this context can be unpalatable to some — as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes warned in 1928, it means allowing not only "free thought for those who agree with us....but freedom for the thought we hate."

Yes, with the freedom, as always, comes responsibility — the burden of self-restraint, the necessity to allow others the same freedom as ourselves to express their own opinions or thoughts however much we may disagree with or even abhor such views.

But there have been dangerous rumblings in the circles of American academe since the drama of 9/11.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is a well-connected non-profit alumni association founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney, America's current "Second Lady," spouse to Vice President Cheney. (2) The organization believes American students are graduating without "a proper appreciation" for what makes America great. There is an incipient crusade hiding between those innocuous words. ACTA pursues its goals by political lobbying to initiate education reforms in the Universities, encouraging governors and trustees to adopt the "required curriculum" on American history and civics. It describes its overall mission as "promoting academic freedom, excellence and accountability."

Ah, but accountability to whom?

"The most serious problems of freedom of expression in our society today exist on our campuses.... The assumption seems to be that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind." This sentiment was expressed by Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University, in 1991 — more than ten years ago now. He is quoted as saying this on the ACTA website — but his are double-edged words, because it would appear that ACTA has taken it upon itself to enforce that "correct opinion" under the guise of protecting the chimera of "academic freedom."

A national report was released by ACTA in December 2001 detailing more than 100 examples of what its authors interpret as a "Blame America First" sentiment which is, according to them, running rampant in academic circles. The initial edition of the report had names attached to every utterance, producing what was effectively an academic "black-list" of faculty, students, and invited campus speakers which were by implication unpatriotic and anti-American. Later editions of the report had the names removed; the full report — with the names missing — can be found at goacta.org.

ACTA's vice president, Anne Neal, is quoted as saying that the group was "Struck by the moral cleavage that exists between the intellectual elite and mainstream America" when it came to the events of 9/11. She should perhaps have paused to consider that the "intellectual elite" have access to more and better information than the "mainstream America" which relies on whatever the current political line the mainstream media is toeing at the time, and are fed whatever information the politicians wish to insist that they believe.

"We wanted to alert University trustees," Neal continues, "that it is incumbent upon them to make sure that U.S. history and the heritage of Western civilization is fairly transmitted on their campuses."

This, apparently, means not questioning the status quo in any way shape or form. One wonders if students nurtured in this vein will ever know that the numerical system they use was invented by Arabs. After all, admitting such a fact might be construed as a criticism or a denigration of Western "civilization."

Academics have slammed the report as "a thinly veiled witch hunt" aimed at silencing political dissent. A professor named in the report has said that he has taken to re-casting the group's acronym, ACTA, into the 'Arbitrary Committee for the Talibanization of America', because the organization is doing neither more nor less than actively trying to inhibit not only freedom of speech, but freedom of thought. There is a very real concern in academic circles that the report could be used to pressure institutions into adopting a curriculum of history and civics with a strongly nationalistic bent. This is nothing less than hypocrisy, in a country which discourages, sometimes brutally, nationalism in any other nation in the world.

ACTA states its belief that the "biases" against the U.S. Government which it thinks it has documented in its report "taint" lessons, and are "dangerous influences" on students. Professors counter that they are obliged to teach perspective and context, and that the tragedy of 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum.

ACTA's 38-page report starkly contrasts what they call the "support of a vast majority of patriotic Americans" with what is by implication a "minority" opinion held by "non-patriotic" Americans in the academic world.

"Rarely did professors publicly mention heroism, rarely did they discuss the difference between good and evil, the nature of Western political order or the virtue of a free society. Indeed, the message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST," said the report, and then went on to quote more than 100 "examples" to back this statement.

What sort of comments were they referring to? Here is a sampling:

- "Imagine the real suffering and grief of people in other countries. The best way to begin a war on terrorism might be to look in the mirror." Professor of anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

- "There is a terrible and understandable desire to find and punish whoever was responsible for this. But as we think about it, it's very important for Americans to think about our own history, what we did in World War II to Japanese citizens by interning them." Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

- "We offer this teach-in as an alternative to the cries of war and as an end to the cycle of continued global violence." Professor of art at University of North Carolina teach-in.

- "Perhaps our best options now are to search for the origins of this new war, draw strength from understanding our own weaknesses, and make changes within ourselves and within our relationships to others. Many wonder if we are paying an accumulated debt for centuries of dominance and intervention far from home, retribution for our culture of consumption and exploitation. ... We must ... re-examine our place in the world, and begin to imagine a world without superpowers." Professor of anthropology, Brown University School of Medicine.

- "What happened on September 11 was terrorism, but what happened during the Gulf War was also terrorism." Professor of English, Brown University.

- "It disturbs me to see all the flags out supporting the slaughter." Student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee protest.

- "Break the cycle of violence." Pomona College faculty panel discussing U.S. obligations in the Mideast.

- "We have to learn to use courage for peace instead of war." Professor of religious studies, Pomona College.

- "[We should] build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls." Speaker at Harvard Law School.

- "... Disparities and injustices are there, all the more intolerable because they are embedded in some of the most fundamental aspects of our society and the world we live in. Addressing these disparities and injustices will not be possible if the world community continues to block its own progress and destroy its people in conflicts generated by prejudice and hatred. In this time of crisis, we have an unusual opportunity to see past stereotypes, identify and diminish our own prejudices, and experience a complex world through the sensitivities of others..." President, to Students, Alumni, Parents and Friends of Wesleyan .

- "It's good for the government to know that there are people who want peace instead of bloodshed. Not all Americans want revenge." Student, Brown University.

- "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" Chant at Harvard rally, Sept. 20, 2001.

- "[I deplore those] who are deploying rhetoric and deploying troops without thinking before they speak." Harvard lecturer in history and literature.

- "[O]ur security can only come by using our national wealth, not for guns, planes, and bombs, but for the health and welfare of our people, and for people suffering in other countries." Professor Emeritus, Boston University.

- "A despicable act of mayhem such as those committed in New York and Washington is a measure of the revulsion that others feel at our actions that seemingly limit those rights [to self-determination]. If we perpetuate a cycle of hate and revenge, this conflict will escalate into a war that our great-grandchildren will be fighting." Professor of anthropology, Brown University.

- "What you have to look at is the underlying reasons. Poverty breeds resentment and resentment breeds anger." Ivy League student.

- "I consider myself a patriot. I think this country does wonderful things for its citizens, but we must acknowledge the terrible things it often does to the citizens of other countries." Brown University student activist.

- "Some 120 students walked out of class and gathered on the Main Green to protest U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan. At least two professors dismissed class early to allow students to attend." Brown University.

- "To call this a just war is to ignore the mountain of injustice it is based on. People are just drunk on the cheap jingoism of the media and politicians." Student, Brown University.

- "Hate breeds hate." Sign at University of Maryland.

- "[D]emocracies, because they have a sense of self-pride and moral consciousness, can often act without restraint and be destructive of the values they are trying to promote. The thinking is to find the perpetrators and engage in a military response and feel that that solves something. But there needs to be an understanding of why this kind of suicidal violence could be undertaken against our country." Princeton University emeritus professor at town meeting.

- "Our grief is not a cry for war." Poster at New York University.

- "A lot of people are saying we created this monster. What goes around comes around. People are forgetting about the past." Student, Hunter College.

- "[It is] ridiculous for us to go and kill more people because of what Bin Laden did." Student, Columbia University.

- "War Is Also Terrorism." Harvard sign.

- "[T]he United States would have done the right thing [by not going to war]: responding as a responsible member of the international community rather than as a vigilante gunslinger in the old West, riding out to capture the bad guys and bring them back dead or alive." Faculty forum on alternative to war, Washington University of St. Louis.

- "[W]e need to hear more than one perspective on how we can make the world a safer place. We need to understand the reasons behind the terrifying hatred directed against the United States and find ways to act that will not foment more hatred for generations to come." Professor Emerita of women's studies, University of Oregon.

Several disturbing things emerge from browsing this cross-section of the report.

The first is that what has been dubbed the "intellectual elite" as a term of derogatory dismissal by ACTA's Neal is in fact precisely that. The people quoted here are the country's intellectual elite. These are professors of anthropology, sociology, political science — people who, thus, might be expected to show a greater degree of insight into the situation at hand and whose opinions, rather than being dismissed and suspected, should have been taken very seriously.

The second thing is that none of these people said anything remotely "anti-American;" they were merely reminding the nation of its own history. Santayana did the same thing many years earlier and his words echo warningly in the words of contemporary academics: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Putting 9/11 in the context of where America stood in the world prior to those attacks is not dismissing those attacks, or saying that America "deserved" it, or blaming the victim in any way. It's merely a seeking to understand where those attacks came from, as a means of preventing similar attacks in the future. Some truths are uncomfortable, but that does not mean that they should not have been faced.

The third thing is that so many students are quoted in the report. How were all these quotes gathered? Was ACTA out spying — were there "moles" with recorders at protest meetings, making sure that all these student comments were preserved for posterity? Were these students, too, named in the original report — and will their opposition to war go down on their record as a permanent "black mark?" A comment like "It is ridiculous to go and kill more people because of what Bin Laden did" is hardly anti-American. It's no more than a recoil from mindless violence. Are human beings with ethics and a conscience to be vilified before their peers because of those admirable qualities?

The fourth thing is the somewhat frightening snitch-like quality of some of these quoted instances, that goes even beyond mere attendance at "questionable" rallies and taking notes of what individual students said. The reports of cries at anti-war rallies; the reports of words on posters; the report that there was a meeting at a University campus and "two professors" let their students off early to attend it (and had their names immediately taken down as "unpatriotic" for this action, I suppose); all of these are indictments not of individuals but of a campus culture, striking at the roots of the freedoms on which academic institutions depend. At this level, it is no longer necessary to be individually accused of anything at all — it is sufficient to be merely seen in the company of others who are suspected, and one is tainted by association.

It is scary, the sense that there are people out there whose sole purpose in life seems to be to keep an eye out on their neighbor and turn him in as soon as he laughs at the wrong joke. Nazi Germany is not very far from this picture, although ACTA would assuredly recoil in fury at any comparison.

In fact, ACTA is already on the defensive over the report. Spokeswoman Neal said that the report's "revision" (the removing of names) was done because "too many people focused on the names instead of on the message." The report is intended to "broaden the dialogue on campuses, not inhibit it," she states. Just how she thought this report would achieve that high and glorious aim, with its patina of low-level tittle-tattle, is not explained. Neal hurries to point out that ACTA came to the defense of a tenured history professor in New Mexico who was threatened with "discipline" by his administration after an off-color 9/11 remark. "Our support of him should underline that we support academic freedom," Neal said. Uh huh.

In the meantime, repercussions are already beginning. A controversial Arab professor who made an appearance on a nationally televised TV show has been fired by the University of South Florida. (3) The Kuwaiti-born Palestinian Sami Al-Arian had "failed to make it clear that his views were his own and not those of the University," the authorities hastened to say in a statement clarifying his termination. Arian was hired by the University in 1986, and came into nation-wide prominence in 1995 after an Islamic studies think-tank group he founded in 1991 was linked with Islamic activism. Arian himself, however, has never been charge of any crime related to these activities, and the timing of his dismissal, in the wake of the anti-Muslim backlash following 9/11, is a little... convenient

The host of the TV show on which Arian appeared, Bill O'Reilly, has lashed out at the firing and suggested that the University's President should lose her job, not the professor. He himself didn't want the blame for Arian losing his job, he said, and suggested that Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida, look into the matter. The Governor did so, and weighed in on the University's side. But there are plenty who support the fired professor — faculty and students alike. While they don't necessarily agree with O'Reilly that the University of South Florida President should be fired instead of Arian, they point out that it could affect many other academics. "This is the sort of thing that will discredit USF," said International Affairs Professor Harry Vanden. "It abridges the right of all of us who speak out."

Muslim groups in the area with long-standing ties to the embattled Professor have issued a statement of support. But, according to Judy Genshaft, University of South Florida President, Arian had been "warned and warned and warned," and yet he "continues to conduct himself in such a way that it causes tremendous hurt to the University." However, by all accounts, it was O'Reilly who went after Arian on the show, going so far as to imply that the FBI should be keeping an eye on him. Arian's opinions were no secret - he had often spoken out against U.S. foreign policy concerning his homeland, Palestine, and the state of Israel.

Other instances of selective "free speech" are scattered through the media, if one knows were to look. Actor Danny Glover's few ill-chosen words appear to have cost him a speaking engagement at a University on, irony of ironies, Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and Martin Luther King Jr. would have been among the first to have spoken out against war if he was still with us. At another college gathering, during the commencement speech delivered in December in Sacramento at California State University, (4) Janis Besler Heaphy, president and publisher of the Sacramento Bee, urged that citizens safeguard their rights to free speech, against unlawful detainment and for a fair trial. The students booed. When Ms. Heaphy suggested that "the Constitution makes it our right to challenge government policies," chanting and heckling forced her off the stage. One of the students present explained the students' reaction: "People were sickened by this [behavior]. But to be fair, a lot of people are just tired of hearing about 9/11." Another student said, "She started out OK, promising to be brief. But then she goes right into Sept. 11, and she goes on, and on, and on." In other words, Heaphy's sin was not that she was long-winded, but that she was not saying the accepted and acceptable things. And if you are out there saying the wrong thing, you are hereby given warning - you have been talking for too long.

On October 5, 2001, Lynne Cheney said: "At a time of national crisis, I think it is particularly apparent that we need to encourage the study of our past. Our children and grandchildren — indeed, all of us — need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built. We need to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom. We need to understand that living in liberty is such a precious thing that generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for it. We need to know, in a war, exactly what is at stake."

Her message is a mixed one. On the one hand she is appealing to every American ideal and cliché — here comes the Old Glory and the cavalry around the butte. But between the lines there is the other message. Yes, generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for living in liberty, but Lynne Cheney is not advocating a true study of our "past" — just a palimpsest of it, showing how great and wonderful America is, was, and will be. Anyone attempting to study the recent past, trying to set 9/11 in a context of contemporary history, seems to be automatically branded as anti-American by Lynne Cheney's ACTA. One has to wonder if Cheney's study of the past would embrace the early 1950s, the era of anti-communist McCarthyist hysteria which swept the country wrecking careers and lives. Then, as now, there were people standing ready to listen and to talk and provide material for reports such as the one published by ACTA. How far away is the next step, when the people accused of imagined crimes hasten to proffer handfuls of names of their friends and colleagues in order to wash the suspicion off themselves?

And it starts here, at the universities, the bastions of dialogue, debate, and, yes, free speech.

Maybe the University of Cape Town should be thinking about sending a copy of that plaque on their library wall to the United States. There are places of higher learning here which, lost in a maelstrom of fear and doubt, may need a graphic reminder of just what it is that they stand to lose by accepting a code of silence imposed by those with a political agenda.



1.  http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~faccoun/acadfree.htm  (back)
2.  Lynne Cheney is currently the organization's chairwoman emeritus, and she is joined on the governing board of the organization by such luminaries as U.S. Senator and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, former Cabinet Secretary William Bennett and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow.  (back)
3.  http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow.asp?art_ID=584463542, and http://www.heraldtribune.com/2manatee.cfm?ID=58456  (back)
4.  http://www.thedailycamera.com/opinion/columnists/29eoped.html  (back)


[Ed.. Note: On the same issue, "The New Kind of Education," by Jan Baughman.]

Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2002. All rights reserved.

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