June 29, 2005
Many thanks for your unsigned letter of June 20, 2005. I’m glad to have this opportunity to discuss with you the matter of academic freedom, since the principle is often touted, but just as often misunderstood; as I believe you have misunderstood it.
Building off the arguments presented in recent documents produced by the campus and university PSC, your letter seems to assume, wrongly, that academic freedom confers upon faculty members a freedom to do or say anything they want, all while remaining shielded from public criticism. Such criticism, you announce, must “stop.” But Brooklyn College is a public institution funded in part by taxpayers’ dollars. While professors should give expression to ideas arising from their research in their areas of expertise, the position that nothing the college’s employees say or do can be publicly questioned is indefensible.
Before discussing specifics, let me correct two factual errors in your letter.
- First, your letter claims that in the New York Sun, I described “social justice” as an “empty vessel,” thereby demonstrating a “woeful ignorance” of higher education’s history. Yet the quote in question contains no mention of social justice. According to the Sun’s May 31, 2005 edition, I stated, “Dispositions (emphasis added) is an empty vessel.”
- Second, your letter cites my “failure to engage” any SOE member “except in an adversarial role.” Yet my involvement in this matter began in a spirit of collegiality, when I responded to a request from a member of the SOE itself, Professor Barbara Winslow. (The Winslow e-mail, which I have retained, stated, “The School of Ed is trying to be more systematic in looking at what educators call ‘dispositions.’”) My comments about the strong performance in my classes of a common student seem to have had no effect on how this issue was handled. Nonetheless, Professor Winslow’s follow-up e-mail to me (“Thank you for the prompt reply”) showed no sign that she viewed my engagement as “adversarial.” After the central allegations shifted from “dispositions” to “academic integrity,” I e-mailed Professor Priya Parmar to express my hope that “this matter can be resolved amicably.” As was her right, Professor Parmar declined, in writing, to meet with me, in an e-mail that I have retained. But I fail to see how a written statement affirming my desire to resolve the issue “amicably” can be interpreted as “adversarial.”
After January 20, 2005, when Dean Ellen Belton convened an “informal” disciplinary meeting for the students, the issue indeed became adversarial—but through no action of mine. As you know, allegations were made against two undergraduates, both of whom I also have taught, one month after they filed detailed complaints about how Professor Parmar was treating students who disagreed with her in-class conception of “social justice.” One student was faulted for not supplying a footnote in an assignment that did not require footnotes; a second was punished for submitting, in a lesson plan, two verbatim definitions (one of “Jim Crow”) from an online encyclopedia, an approach most professors would consider covered under principles of fair use and common knowledge. Procedurally, Dean Belton’s involvement at the dispute’s initial stage departed from the college’s official guidelines on “academic integrity” questions.
I regretted at the time, and continue to regret, the manner in which the SOE handled this case; and I wish, as I stated in January, that the matter had ended “amicably.” Such an outcome would have best served not only the students but also the college. Indeed, the students’ written complaints might have provided an opportunity for the SOE to engage in what its mission statement terms “critical self-reflection” and attempt to rectify an impression that it disrespects the opinions and concerns of our students.
Your letter’s willingness to engage in personal denunciations and speculations is unfortunate. As you know from having read the story, my Inside Higher Ed article utilized not fantasy but research in primary documents and the relevant secondary literature (publications on NCATE accreditation standards and on dispositions theory). All claims were substantiated through footnotes or links, and the article referenced the curricula and mission statements of nearly 40 education programs around the country.
Regarding the particular class in question, an informed critique does not constitute “defaming” a professor. I read several detailed letters submitted by students to the SOE, three letters that other students in the course deposited with me for use in any later legal action, and most of the assigned works for the class. As noted previously, Professor Parmar declined to speak with me, and I never asserted first-hand knowledge of what transpired in the class. I have read all postings on this issue since it went public, including those from students supportive of Professor Parmar. Many of these students, who seem to share their instructor’s beliefs, explicitly praised Professor Parmar for bringing her political views on “social justice” into the classroom—inadvertently confirming one of the concerns raised by her student critics.
Contrary to your letter’s suggestion, I doubt that many people would consider my own agenda “politically extreme”—or particularly political at all. My ideals about education came from my parents, who both spent more than 30 years as public school teachers and activists for a variety of liberal causes in Maine and Massachusetts. They believed that all students deserve a first-class, academically rigorous education, and at the same time they expressed caution about trendy fads that hide poor performance behind high-sounding rhetoric. They would have been ashamed to see educators, even those with whom they agreed ideologically, attempt to use the classroom to impose their political views. Their belief on this point mirrors that of the AAUP, which cautions professors against introducing “into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” Moreover, the Brooklyn College Bulletin explicitly grants to our students the right to “express their views, free from external pressures or interference.”
In contemporary society, partisans on both sides of issues such as abortion, the Middle East, affirmative action, welfare reform, prayer in public schools, and gay marriage maintain that their own position serves the cause of “social justice.” But who decides just what constitutes “social justice?” Since the SOE (quite properly) has not hired its faculty with an eye toward providing ideological balance on these inherently political issues, its message to students is very likely skewed to one pole of the political spectrum. If so, how can the SOE assume that its faculty collectively possesses the wisdom to define “social justice”—and to do so in a manner superior to that of politicians, religious leaders, students, or members of the public? In fact, the SOE can make no such assumption.
I fear that if the college continues to use the sword of academic freedom to thrust our curriculum into fundamentally political areas, the shield of academic freedom will no longer protect us when politicians, religious leaders, or the public decide that they, too, should have the right to impose their political agendas on our students. I suspect that few of us would welcome the New York state legislature requiring prospective public school teachers to demonstrate, say, “a disposition to support free-market capitalism and globalization” alongside a willingness to promote our version of “social justice.”
This danger, perhaps, explains why NCATE president Arthur Wise, in a letter to the Sun, distanced himself from the SOE’s handling of this issue. Declining to comment on the manner in which “social justice” has been taught in SOE classrooms, Wise affirmed that NCATE “does not prescribe specific dispositions that institutions must follow.” Indeed, the SOE’s aggressively individualized implementation of dispositions and seemingly one-sided promotion of “social justice” places our program at one extreme of the dozens of NCATE-accredited institutions that I have examined nationally.
Quite beyond its factual inaccuracies, incendiary personal attacks, and peculiar conception of academic freedom, your letter concludes in a chilling fashion. After admitting that the issues raised by the Sun article and by my opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed addressed both state and federal policies, you “insist” that I “stop” commenting on the matter. Such a directive is antithetical not only to principles of academic freedom but also to the spirit of the First Amendment. Let me respond, then, as plainly as I can: I intend in the future, as I have done in the past, to question the practice of politicizing the curriculum—wherever I encounter evidence that such politicization has occurred.
Rather than attempting to suppress informed criticism, I invite you to take advantage of the privileges conferred by academic freedom and test the SOE’s concepts in the marketplace of ideas. And again, thank you for reading one of my opinion articles and for taking the time to compose a response. Feel free to contact me any time.
Robert David Johnson
cc: Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, et. al.