Academic Freedom After 9/11

By NEVE GORDON  Counterpunch 8/5/06

Immediately after September 11, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded by Lynn Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman, published a report accusing universities of being the weak link in the war against terror and a potential fifth column. As if the general hint at treason was not enough, an appendix to the report listed the names of 117 “un-American” professors, staff members, and students, and the offending statements they had made.

A few months after ACTA’s study was disseminated, Daniel Pipes, the director of a think tank called Middle East Forum, launched a blacklisting internet site called Campus Watch, which publishes dossiers on scholars who criticize US policy in the Middle East or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. On the website one finds a “Keep Us Informed” section, where Pipes encourages students to inform on any professor who deviates from “correct conduct.” Some have obediently complied.

These initiatives marked the beginning of a well-orchestrated attack against academic freedom in the US. In mid-January of this year, the Bruin Alumni association offered students $100 to tape leftwing professors at the University of California Los Angeles. The idea was to expose radical professors who “[proselytize] their extreme views in the classroom.” 24-year-old Andrew Jones did not wait long and created a website featuring a hit list of 30 professors he considers the top extremist, leftwing offenders.

As Beshara Doumani, a history professor at the University of California Berkeley, points out in his compelling introduction to Academic Freedom after September 11, Pipes and friends have cynically appropriated the liberal terminology of the New Deal and civil rights eras, employing code words such as balance, fairness, diversity, accountability, tolerance, and not least, academic freedom in order to justify the enforcement of a political orthodoxy that undermines these very values.

The book describes this new assault on academic freedom in detail, distinguishing the current wave from the one launched by Senator McCarthy. As Stanford University Professor Joel Beinin observes, the geographical and political context has obviously changed, so that if in the 1950s scholars who offered a dissenting analysis of the Soviet Union and Cold War were decried as traitors, today it is Middle East specialists who are being accused of treason.

But the main difference between the two academic witch hunts is that today private interest groups and not the government are running the show. Of course, the major players within these think tanks have unhindered access to the corridors of government and are frequently successful in influencing high-ranking public servants; yet the resources for the campaign to de-legitimize academic dissent and to control the production of knowledge come from opulent think tanks.

In addition, the strategy employed today is different from the one used during the McCarthy era. The future of academic freedom, Kathleen J. Frydl predicts in her chapter, will not be determined in the courts but by budgets, whereby those who challenge the powers that be will be cut off from resources, while knowledge will be privatized and become the property of those who have the assets to produce it. The measure of academic freedom, she continues, will not be calculated according to who is fired by the university, but by who is hired — those who appear to be intellectually recalcitrant will simply not be allowed to enter the academic gates. Finally, tenure will no longer guarantee academic freedom, since job security will be destroyed. Tragically, all of the processes described by Frydl are not part of some distant and theoretical future, but in the past years have infiltrated the higher-education system.

Doumani’s timely volume not only provides the reader with an analysis of the very real assault on academic freedom as well as several important documents that pertain to this assault (in the appendix), but also assembles three chapters by Robert Post, Judith Butler, and Philippa Strum who discuss, respectively, the historical roots of academic freedom in the US, its philosophical underpinnings, and its legal structure.

Post, a law professor at Yale and a former general counsel of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), takes the reader on a fascinating journey, tracing how academic freedom first developed as a result of efforts to institutionalize a set of employer-employee relationships in a university setting. He shows how the principle of academic freedom emerged in the US not as an individual right, but rather as the price the public must pay the academic community in return for the social good of advancing knowledge. Scholars are granted the freedom to conduct research upon the understanding that this is the way universities can provide meaningful contributions to human knowledge and the search for truth.

Post notes that this is precisely the reason why the International Studies in Higher Education Act (HR 3077) that was passed in Congress in October 2003 contradicts the principle of academic freedom. This Act aims to establish a powerful advisory board to oversee International Studies programs which receive federal funding, authorizing the board to review course material, curricula, and faculty hires and make funding recommendations to the Secretary of Education. Two seats on the board are reserved for personnel from national security agencies. Post concludes that this Act could ultimately transform International Studies into programs that merely promote opinions held by the people who provide funding and therefore undermines the social function of the university as a free market of ideas that advances knowledge.

Post adds, though, that academic freedom does have constraints which are determined by professional norms concerning, for instance, the quality and methods of research. This claim triggers Judith Butler, whose profound chapter problematizes Post’s descriptions, demonstrating that he does not fully take into account the historicity of academic norms.

In her brilliant essay, Butler shows that the emergence, transformation and sometimes disappearance of academic norms not only change our conception of what constitutes research and knowledge and how we conceive truth, but also shifts and blurs the boundaries between academic freedom and first amendment rights, between professional and extramural expressions, and between individual rights and institutional prerogatives. She underscores that one of the roles of academic freedom is to allow and even encourage scholars to critically interrogate the legitimacy of academic norms, the very norms which according to Post serve as the boundary of academic freedom. Because the tension between academic norms and academic freedom can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways, it creates a paradox. Butler would probably say this is healthy, since such paradoxes can expand intellectual frontiers and spur the production of challenging new ideas.

All of which brings us back to Doumani’s introduction, where he persuasively argues that the question is not only how to preserve academic freedom but also what to do with it. It is time, he says, “to engage as public intellectuals the domestic and international movements for civil rights, democracy, and justice… Let us speak and act before it is too late.”

Neve Gordon teaches human rights at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights. He Can be reached at