The Attack on ‘Tenured Radicals’: ‘Fairness,’ ‘Civility,’ and Academic Freedom

By April 26, 2005

Juan Cole, professor of history at University of Michigan, wrote an interesting article, “The new McCarthyism,” posted on Salon last Friday about the controversy over Columbia’s MEALAC department, the Ad Hoc Committee report’s treatment of the allegations against Joseph Massad, and, in particular, The New York Timesresponse to the report. The article parallels the controversy with the McCarthy era by analogizing Sen. Joseph McCarthy with Rep. Anthony Weiner and accusations of being a “communist” with that of being “anti-Israel.” (See my and David‘s previous posts discussing “McCarthyism”
at Columbia, and my post about the professors’ response to the report.) More importantly, however, Cole makes some relevant points about academic freedom in the classroom. Concerning Columbia’s supposed effort to distinguish between “views” and “conduct” and its call for “civility,” he writes:

The line separating “views” and “conduct”
is difficult to demarcate in any objective way, and the place of “civility” in
university teaching is not self-evident. In the film “The Paper Chase,” John
Houseman played the curmudgeonly Professor Kingsfield, who routinely used personal humiliation of first-year law students as a pedagogical tool. Whether one agrees that such a method is useful or valid, it is certainly the case that the Kingsfield character was modeled on real-life professors, some of whom inspired great loyalty in their students, who felt well-served by some sharp words when they were guilty of woolly thinking. The notion of an ad hoc grievance committee investigating John Houseman for suggesting that students’ heads are full of mush is faintly ridiculous, but it is the sort of procedure to which Massad was subjected.

Cole goes on to critique The New York Times’ April 7 editorial response to Columbia’s report, which argued that the committee did not satisfactorily examine “the quality and fairness of teaching” and should make greater efforts to do so in the future. Cole, of course, disagrees. He writes:

The New York Times editorial is among the more dangerous documents threatening higher education in America to have appeared in a major newspaper since the McCarthy period, when professors were fired for their views on economics. (At the University of Michigan in the 1950s, two professors were fired for belonging or having belonged to the Communist Party, and one professor was let go for favoring “Scandinavian economics.”) “Quality of teaching” is one thing—no one defends unqualified teachers or mere propagandists. But no substantive allegations regarding the poor quality of scholarship, or “lack of rigor” in the department, have been made against Columbia’s Middle East department—for the simple reason that such claims have no foundation. The Times’ invocation of “scholarly rigor” is really a thinly veiled demand that professors follow what it defines as an acceptable, “fair” pedagogical line.

But as soon as the “fairness” of views is made the criterion for retaining a teacher, the door is opened to witch hunts and chaos. No two students will agree on what is a “fair” view of a controversial issue. The substantial Arab-American community of Dearborn, Mich., not to mention many liberal American Jews, would probably find almost every course taught in political science departments in the United States
on the Arab-Israeli conflict to be hopelessly biased against the Arabs and Palestinians. Why are they less worthy arbiters than the editorial board of the New York Times?

…The fact is that you will never get agreement on such matters of opinion, and no university teacher I know seeks such agreement. The point of teaching a course is to expose students to ideas and arguments that are new to them and to help them think critically about controversial issues. Nothing pleases teachers more than to see students craft their own, original arguments, based on solid evidence, that dispute the point of view presented in class lectures. That is why the New York Times editorial is so wrong, and so dangerous. University teaching is not about fairness, and there is no body capable of imposing “fair” views on teachers. It is about provoking students to think analytically and synthetically, and to reason on their own. In the assigned texts, in class discussion, and in lectures, the students are exposed to a wide range of views, whether fair or unfair.

Though I am skeptical that the Times editorial is “among the more dangerous documents threatening higher education” (at FIRE we’ve seen far worse threats!), I appreciate Cole’s thoughts. The university (or other third party) cannot impose specific definitions of ideological or pedagogical “fairness” between professors and students; instead, professors and students need to dialogue critically with each other about this issue. While I applaud efforts of professors who do try to teach as fairly as they can, Cole makes a crucial point that such efforts are still a subjective gauge of what constitutes “fairness” in the first place. Some professors make coming to such an understanding an explicit part of the
educational experience. Others don’t. Can one separate a course’s apparent
content from the underlying pedagogical tools utilized by the professor? Can one assume that what professors seem to be teaching is what each student actually learns? Can a professor satisfy every student’s understanding of “fairness”? Educators and policymakers need to be realistic about what can be officially regulated and what has to be left up to the participants of the classroom to work out with each other.

However, while Cole supports academic freedom for teachers who provoke students to “reason on their own,” he seems to assume that all teachers are “pleased” to see students do so and “dispute the point of view presented in class lectures.” Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. We would like to think that all teachers appreciate and encourage classroom dissent, but, in reality, many professors have censored students, penalized them for disagreeing or expressing the “wrong” viewpoint, forced them to engage in expression they disagree with, or reported them to administrators for punishment because of their “controversial” or “offensive” expression (see cases at Le Moyne College, Rhode Island College, Citrus College, and the University of South Carolina, for example).

Indeed, outside groups like The New York Times editorial board, The David Project, NYCLU, FIRE, as well as individuals like Rep. Weiner, can’t and shouldn’t mandate an inherently subjective and specific definition of “fair” representation of ideas in a particular classroom or university—but they can certainly condemn any real censorship, repression, or viewpoint discrimination of students or faculty that might take place on campus. With regard to academic freedom at Columbia and elsewhere, students and faculty need to work together—not against each other—to recognize their mutual rights and responsibilities in shaping a space of learning where all are able to express themselves, to inquire, to challenge and be challenged, and ultimately to share knowledge and learn without any fear of reprisal.

Schools: Columbia University