Academic Freedom For Some

By on March 4, 2005

When it comes to the basic protections of due process and academic freedom, it often appears that students and professors live in two worlds – one world for those who follow the current academic political orthodoxy and another for those who dissent.  Take for example, two untenured professors at major universities, Joseph Massad of Columbia and Thomas Klocek of Depaul.

Many FrontPage readers are undoubtedly familiar with Professor Massad.  Extensively discussed in the documentary “Columbia Unbecoming” and in national media reports, Professor Massad has been quoted as comparing Israelis to Nazis and Prime Minister Sharon’s cultural views to those of Joseph Goebbels.  He has reportedly refused to allow students to dispute his allegations of Israeli atrocities in class.  At a lecture at Oxford University, Massad once declared: “The Jews are not a nation.  The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have the right to exist.”  Perhaps the most notorious allegation against Massad involves a claim that (at an off-campus event) he refused to answer a question from an Israeli student unless that student told Massad how many Palestinians he had killed.

Let me introduce you to the second professor in this tale, Thomas Klocek.  Professor Klocek’s problems began during a recent Student Activities Fair at Depaul.  He walked by Students for Justice in Palestine’s table and took issue with some of the controversial and provocative statements in their literature.  A heated argument ensued, and there is no question that both sides argued aggressively.  The SJP students compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Hitler’s treatment of Jews, and Professor Klocek, among other things, disputed Palestinian claims to a distinct national identity.  He also referred to an article by Abdel Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of the Al-Aribiya news channel that began: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.” The encounter ended when professor Klocek “thumbed his chin” at the students – a gesture that he believes means “I’m outta here,” and the students interpreted as being obscene.

If you look closely at the two stories, you will note some substantial differences.  One of the professors has been accused of actual unethical conduct in a classroom setting (refusing to permit a student to dissent from his teaching).  This professor has also repeated his “offensive” comments in class, in public lectures, and in writing.  The other professor has never been accused of classroom misconduct, and his “offensive” comments were made in the context of a one-time encounter in a setting where the students involved were inviting discussion by handing out literature.  Yet it is the second professor who has been punished, not the first.

In the immediate aftermath of his encounter with the students, Professor Klocek was publicly accused of racism (by students who claimed they were “hurt” or “crushed” by his comments), ordered not to talk to the DePaul university newspaper (when the accusing students were encouraged to tell their side of the story), and then suspended without a hearing.  And what of Professor Massad?  He is being investigated, certainly, but by a committee that is stacked with friends and colleagues – in closed meetings with no recording of the proceedings.  In other words, not only is Professor Massad receiving due process, his “process” is coming in front of a tribunal that is facially stacked in his favor and insulated from effective public oversight.

It is just this kind of disparate treatment that makes so many people deeply cynical about the culture of modern higher education.  This week, 199 Colorado University professors signed a statement protesting any investigation into Ward Churchill’s work, including investigations into allegations of academic fraud and resume fraud.  Where were those defenders of free speech when the university censored the College Republicans’ “affirmative action bake sale” last year?  Some of them, no doubt, were eager to see the university take action against so-called “hate speech.”  When Hamilton College wrapped itself in the cloak of academic freedom after it hired a convicted terrorist and invited Ward Churchill to address its students, did anyone notice that this liberty-loving institution also had a speech code?

It is time to put a stop to the obsession with victimization and offense.  Speech codes and ideological uniformity lead inevitably to naked abuses of power and double standards.  A campus culture that for twenty-five years (at least) has used its intellectual energy to suppress dissent now finds itself under unprecedented national scrutiny, and the conduct that once spawned chuckles in the faculty lounge now leads to headlines and appearances on Fox News.  Simply put, free speech needs room to breathe.  So free Thomas Klocek from his suspension, and restrict any “investigation” of Massad to only those allegations involving actual violations of student academic freedom.  Let us restore truly free debate to our institutions of higher education – and may the best ideas win.

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Schools: Hamilton College Columbia University DePaul University University of Colorado at Boulder