Academic freedom on the rock(s): The failures of faculty in tough times
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · October, 2006
This essay was commissioned by the guest editors of a special issue of the academic journal Social Text but rejected by the journal’s editorial collective on the grounds it was theoretically unsophisticated that included a “cheap shot” at professors.
Threats to academic freedom — direct and indirect, subtle and not so subtle — come from a variety of sources: Politicians, the general public, news media, administrators, corporations, and students. In my academic career, I have been criticized from all of those quarters. Though these attacks have been relatively easy to fend off in my particular case, the threats are real and should trouble us; they require of us sharper analysis and a strategic plan to fend off attempts to constrain inquiry. But, even with that understanding of the seriousness of these external threats, I will argue that the most important aspect of the current controversies is how they mark the complacency and timidity of faculty members themselves.
I will focus on two specific incidents in my career — one involving administrators and the other students — that illustrate these threats. From there, I will examine the responses of faculty members on my campus to the events, and offer suggestions for analysis and action. Throughout I will remain rooted in my own experience at the University of Texas at Austin. While Texas may in some ways be idiosyncratic, I do not believe my experience at that university is radically different from others around the United States.
My concern with this issue is not rooted in optimism for the short term. While I would like to see U.S. academics, as a class, take a leading role in movements to assert radical humanistic values that have the possibility of transforming society, I don’t believe it is likely, or even possible, in the near future. In fact, I assume that in the short term there is very little progressive political change likely in the United States, with or without the assistance of university-based academics. Instead, I will argue we should work to hold onto what protections for academic freedom exist to provide some space for critical thinking in an otherwise paved-over intellectual culture, with an eye on the long term. Toward that goal, I will suggest ways to approach these threats to academic freedom and attempt to assess realistically the conditions under which such defenses go forward.
History and context
Although threats to academic freedom, and freedom of expression more generally, can come rooted in many political projects, it is in times of war and national crisis (real or manufactured) that such threats intensify and have the potential to undermine democracy most severely. Such is the case in the post-9/11 world. In this sense, the “war on terrorism” serves a similar function to the “cold war” as a way both to obscure the fundamental motivations behind U.S. foreign policy (to extend and deepen U.S. domination over the strategically crucial areas of the world through a combination of diplomatic, military, and economic control mechanisms) and focus public attention on threats that, while not completely illusory, are overdramatized. In each case, politicians also hype the threat to make it easier to marginalize any domestic dissent to that project of control and domination. One can see echoes of the late 1940s/1950s in the post-9/11 United States. In such situations, dissident intellectuals and their academic freedom become easy targets.
Despite these similarities, it is crucial to recognize that the repression of the cold war dwarfs anything we’ve seen in recent years. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940. The law made it a crime to discuss the “duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government,” an odd statute in a country created by a revolution against the legal government of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the act. In that repressive social climate, principles of academic freedom and administrative protections around tenure meant little, as universities routinely ignored both principles and rules, with no objection from the courts.
Both the general public and academics live with far more expansive freedoms today, primarily as a result of the popular movements of the 1960s and ’70s, which pressured elites to expand free speech and association rights. We should recognize that since 9/11, for example, many people critical of U.S. foreign and military policy have written and spoken in ways that would have without question landed us in jail in previous eras (and would land us in jail, or worse, in many other nations today). Of course, it is crucial to note that such protection is still incomplete and is most available to those who are from the dominant sectors of society. I am white and American-born, with a “normal” sounding American name (meaning, one that indicates northern European roots), and while I have been the target of much hostility, I have never felt that my safety or job were threatened in any serious way. The hostility toward some faculty members has not stayed within such civil boundaries, most notably toward Sami Al-Arian, the tenured Palestinian computer science professor at the University of South Florida who was vilified in the mass media and fired in December 2001 for his political views, and then subject to federal prosecution. Being a white boy with tenure offers added protection.
So, much of the discussion about academic freedom these days is not about direct attempts to remove or punish faculty members for their ideas (with some notable exceptions, such as the cases of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Joseph Massad at Columbia University). Instead, we are struggling with issues about the climate, on campuses and in society more generally. These questions are no less important, but we should keep in mind the relative level of the threat as we strategize.
From administrators: “An undiluted fountain of foolishness”
About mid-afternoon on September 11, 2001, I began writing an essay that argued the United States should not use the attacks to justify aggressive war, one of several similar pieces that quickly circulated in left/progressive circles. At the end of the evening, I sent it to Common Dreams and other such political websites under the headline “Stop the insanity here.” Just as I was shutting down the computer for the evening, on a whim I decided also to send the piece to several Texas newspapers for which I had occasionally written, though I did not expect that any would publish it given the emotional/political realities right after the attacks. Surprisingly, the Houston Chronicle ran the piece at the end of the week, under the headline, “U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts.” By mid-morning, right-wing talk show hosts in Houston had read the piece on the air and encouraged people to call and write University of Texas officials to demand my firing. The deluge of mail, to me and my various bosses, continued for weeks. On September 18, UT President Larry Faulkner began circulating an official response, which was published the next day in the Chronicle:
In his Sept. 14 Outlook article “U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” ROBERT JENSEN was identified as holding a faculty appointment at the University of Texas at Austin. Jensen made his remarks entirely in his capacity as a free citizen of the United States, writing and speaking under the protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. No aspect of his remarks is supported, condoned or officially recognized by The University of Texas at Austin. He does not speak in the University’s name and may not speak in its name. Using the same liberty, I convey my personal judgment that Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy. Students must learn that there is a good deal of foolish opinion in the popular media and they must become skilled at recognizing and discounting it. I, too, was disgusted by Jensen’s article, but I also must defend his freedom to state his opinion. The First Amendment is the bedrock of American liberty.
This was the first time in anyone’s memory that a high-ranking university official had publicly condemned a faculty member by name for a political or intellectual position. In addition to this public rebuke, some other administrators circulated notes privately with similar views. For example, UT Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson wrote, in a note he copied to me: “What came to my mind when reading his column was a statement, at the moment I do not recall who said it, that the price of freedom of speech and the press is that we must put up with a good deal of offensive rubbish. For me, Professor Jensen’s comments fall deeply into this category.”
I had previously crossed paths with Faulkner and the UT administration during campus organizing efforts around affirmative action and the wages/working conditions for non-teaching staff. I had met Faulkner once during the former campaign, and I was aware that I was not on his list of favorite faculty members. But at the time of this incident I assumed (and nothing since then has changed my assumption) that his letter denouncing me had little or nothing to do with me and was simply a reaction to pressure from various key constituencies: alumni, donors, legislators, and the general public. I didn’t take Faulkner’s rebuke personally, because it clearly wasn’t about me.
For some weeks after that, I was asked how I felt about Faulkner’s statement and what effect it had on my behavior. I stated repeatedly in public that I didn’t feel anything in particular; administrators’ opinions about my writing had never been of great importance to me. Nor was I affected by the denunciation; I continued my political work without interruption and taught my classes as I would have if there had been no controversy. When people asked me if I thought my academic freedom had been compromised, I was tempted to laugh. I am a tenured professor at a moment in history in which tenure is honored in all but a handful of extremely controversial cases. My academic freedom was, at that moment, not in jeopardy. But I did critique Faulkner for his comments, on two points.
First, Faulkner’s statement modeled bad intellectual practice. He engaged in an ad hominem attack, condemning me for my views without attempting to explain what substantive disagreements he had with my position. As far as I know, he has never made such an explanation in a public forum, though I know of one case in which he turned down the chance to engage me directly (on an NPR radio show). While refusing such an engagement was strategically sensible given his objectives, it was intellectually and morally cowardly.
More important, of course, was the possible chilling effect of Faulkner’s broadside on others, especially junior professors and students. Whatever Faulkner’s strategy — whether he was simply trying to placate important constituencies or actually intended to create a climate on campus hostile to dissent — I heard directly from one untenured professor and several graduate students that they had modified or ended political activities when they read the statement. I assume many others made similar choices.
Was any of this an attack on academic freedom? Not in direct fashion; no one’s rights were abridged. But it was not the kind of practice one would hope for from the leader of a major university.
From students: “The guise of teaching potential journalists to ‘think’”
In 2004 a conservative student group at the University of Texas published a “professor watch list” of instructors who “push an ideological viewpoint on their students through oftentimes subtle but sometimes abrasive methods of indoctrination.” After a lifetime of being second-tier, I was finally number one in something, albeit a list of allegedly deficient professors.
I have long held that one of the most serious problems on my campus — which is among the largest in the country, with 50,000 students — has been that the student body is largely depoliticized. Given that lack of political engagement, I was grateful for anything that gets students talking about politics, especially the role of politics in the university. So, when my name ended up on this list of the alleged indoctrinators (with no clear indication whether I am subtle or abrasive), I wasn’t upset, even though the group’s description of my “Critical Issues in Journalism” course didn’t quite square with my experience in the classroom:
In a survey course about Journalism, one might expect to learn about the industry, some basics about reporting and layout, the history of journalism, the values of a free press and what careers make the news machine function. Instead, Jensen introduces the unsuspecting student to a crash course in socialism, white privilege, the “truth” about the Persian Gulf War and the role of America as the world’s prominent sponsor of terrorism. Jensen half-heartedly attempts to tie his rants to “critical issues” in journalism, insisting his lessons are valid under the guise of teaching potential journalists to “think” about the world around them. Jensen is also renowned for using class time when he teaches Media Law and Ethics to “come out” and analogize gay rights with the civil rights movement. Ostensibly, this relates somehow to his course material.
It’s possible that this watch-list strategy sprang fresh from the minds of the Young Conservatives of Texas, but it’s more likely they were influenced by the national group Students for Academic Freedom and leftist-turned-right-wing-activist David Horowitz. The strategy is simple: Rather than attack specific professors for holding views critical of the dominant culture and its institutions, better to claim that the universities are dominated by these critical intellectuals who are crowding out other perspectives. Instead of calling for the firing of lefties, the group calls for promoting greater balance, out of its dedication to “restoring academic freedom and educational values to America’s institutions of higher learning” through pursuit of four key goals:
1. To promote intellectual diversity on campus
2. To defend the right of students to be treated with respect by faculty and administrators, regardless of their political or religious beliefs
3. To promote fairness, civility and inclusion in student affairs
4. To secure the adoption of the “Academic Bill of Rights” as official university policy
Especially brilliant is the cooptation of the concept of diversity to argue that conservative forces (forget, for a moment, that conservatives, and fairly reactionary conservatives at that, just happen to run most of the world these days) are barely surviving under the jackboot of Stalinist intellectuals. The strategy of the right seems fairly clear: To avoid looking fascistic, these groups cloak themselves in an odd combination of core Enlightenment values (the importance of the university as an open intellectual space) and a caricatured postmodern relativism (everybody’s truth is valid, so the goal is simply balance because no definitive judgments are possible).
In such a world, it seems to me that one of the main tasks is to challenge a key assumption of the right-wing project: Professors can, and should, eliminate their own politics from the classroom. For example, the UT professor watch list valorizes one professor who “so well hides his own beliefs from the classroom that one is forced to wonder if he has any political leaning at all.” These illusions of neutrality only confuse students about the nature of inquiry into human society and behavior.
All teaching — especially in the humanities and the social sciences — has a political dimension, and we shouldn’t fear that. The question isn’t whether professors should leave their politics at the door (they can’t) but whether professors are responsible in the way they present their politics and can defend their pedagogical decisions. It’s clear that every decision a professor makes — choice of topics, textbook selection, how material is presented — has an underlying politics. If the professor’s views are safely within the conventional wisdom of the dominant sectors of society, it might appear the class is apolitical. Only when professors challenge that conventional wisdom do we hear talk about “politicized” classrooms.
But just because the classroom always is politicized in courses that deal with how we organize ourselves politically, economically, and socially, we should not suggest that it’s all politics. Because there’s a politics to teaching doesn’t mean teaching is nothing but politics; indeed, professors shouldn’t proselytize for their positions in the classroom. Instead, when it’s appropriate — and in the courses I teach, it often is — professors should highlight the inevitable political judgments that underlie teaching. Students — especially those who disagree with a professor’s views — will come to see that the professor has opinions, which is a good thing. Professors should be modeling how to present and defend an argument with evidence and logic.
For example, in both my introductory and law-and-ethics classes, I offer a critique of corporations in capitalism. For most students, corporations and capitalism have been naturalized, accepted as the only possible way to organize an economy. I suggest to them a fairly obvious point: The modern corporation — a fairly recent invention — should be examined critically, not taken as a naturally occurring object. Given the phenomenal power of corporations, including media corporations, in contemporary America, how could one teach about journalism and law without a critical examination of not only the occasional high-profile corporate scandals but the core nature of the institution?
The conservative group claimed its goal is “a fair and balanced delivery of information” in the classroom. If that really were their concern, of course, the first place they would train their attention is the business school. I’ve heard scandalous reports that some faculty members there teach courses in marketing, management, finance, and accounting that rarely, if ever, raise fundamental questions about capitalism. Highlighting the selective way in which accusations of politicized classrooms are identified and faculty are targeted for sanction is crucial.
Faculty responses to the watch list: Chicken Little
Rather than focus on the threats posed by administrator condemnations or student campaigns aimed at left/liberal biases, I want to focus on the responses I have seen and heard from faculty members on my campus. Again, I don’t pretend that the University of Texas is representative. Rather than claim this is the way most faculty in the United States act, I want to highlight what I consider to be the problems in some faculty members’ reactions where I work. I’ll begin with the watch list.
In informal conversations as these political campaigns have gained prominence, I have heard far too many of what I believed to be overly dramatic responses, including references to these student efforts as McCarthyism or a suppression of academic freedom. Yes, these student initiatives are part of a broader goal of shutting down some of the remaining institutional spaces left for critical, independent inquiry. But it is inaccurate and counterproductive to compare a student-initiated endeavor (even if the inspiration for it comes from right-wing political operatives) to the use of state power to fire professors and destroy people’s lives on a large scale. Could we someday return to the suppression of the two major Red Scares of the 20th century? Of course it’s possible, but it’s not happening now. And to talk in those terms is to invite being labeled by the public as over-reactive, whiny, self-indulgent intellectuals who are cut off from the day-to-day reality of most people’s struggles in the employment world, where job protection on the order of academic tenure is the stuff of dreams. The public is quick to label us that way, in part because it is so often an apt description of so many faculty members. Professorial rhetoric that bolsters the perception is not strategically helpful.
For example, one of my UT colleagues said in a television news story about the watch list: “I feel like they [students observing his class for potential inclusion on the watch list] were put there to watch me. And this watch list or my position on this watch list is a result of that. So, do I feel like I’m under surveillance? I am under surveillance.”
First, is it accurate and/or strategic to describe the presence of a student in your class, even one there to keep tabs on any hint of professional failure, as being under surveillance, given that the term carries a connotation of being shadowed by law enforcement? Second, why is it a bad thing for students to be paying close attention to our teaching? In my large classes, where there is physical space available for visitors and their presence would not disrupt the flow of the class, I invite anyone to sit in. In fact, I would be happy to have a team of right-wing ideologues sit through my classes, for two simple reasons. One is that knowing they were present likely would make me strive to be more precise in my use of language; knowing someone from a dissenting position is in the audience tends to make me more conscious of what I’m saying, which is good. Another is that I am confident that I can defend the content of my course and my teaching methods, and I would invite a debate in which I could defend myself.
In short: The sky is not falling because of a student-generated professor watch list. Yes, we are in a period of backlash and reactionary right-wing domination of all the society’s major institutions. Yes, we struggle to cope with how to handle students in a modern liberal university who are often resistant to considering any critique that goes against their preconceived notions of the political and moral order. There are more than enough serious issues to grapple with, and taken together these concerns suggest this society is on a dangerous course. But we should talk about the danger in that context, not episodically and overly dramatically. The sky is clouding but it is not falling.
Faculty responses to administration condemnations: little chickens
After 15 years in academic life, I have concluded that the vast majority of faculty members are like the vast majority of any comfortable professionals in a corporate capitalist empire: Morally lazy, usually cowardly, and unwilling and/or unable to engage with critics. I say that with no sense of superiority; I can look at my own life and see examples of such laziness and cowardice.
Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate. During fall semester 2005, I was leaving a meeting of the University of Texas’s faculty Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility. By some fluke, I had been elected to this university-wide committee, which is charged by the Faculty Council with the task of monitoring these issues on campus. (All of this is window-dressing; at the University of Texas, there is no faculty governance and all committees are merely consultative. )
As a fellow committee member and I walked back to our offices, he asked what action this committee took in 2001, after Faulkner had condemned me. (That’s an indication of the importance of the committee and its pronouncements; virtually no one remembers what it says, or even that it exists.) I told him that the committee had passed a weak resolution that reasserted the basics of academic freedom and asked people to be nice to each other, but made no reference to the controversy and rendered no judgment about the UT president’s actions:
RESOLUTION FROM THE COMMITTEE OF COUNSEL ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY
Given current national and global events and the importance of members of the University community discussing these matters on campus and extramurally, the Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility submits the following Resolution.
1) That all members of the University community — students, faculty, staff, and administrators — be reminded of the principles involving Academic Freedom and Responsibility as stated by the American Association of University Professors in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, including:
a) “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
b) “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak and 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.”
2) That these principles of Academic Freedom and Responsibility be widely disseminated to the University community via e-mail and in the Daily Texan [campus student newspaper] so that all students, faculty, staff, and administrators have these statements as guiding principles for discourse on campus and extramurally.
3) That the members of the academic community treat one another with dignity in both their words and actions during the days ahead.
Shortly after that resolution was passed, I asked the chair of that committee why something more forceful wasn’t presented to the faculty council — something that at least raised the actual question instead of reproducing boilerplate. The chair explained that any resolution of that kind would not have received support from the committee. The implication was that there was no significant support for me, my political position, or the notion that a faculty member with such positions should be defended on principle.
I reported this to my faculty colleague on the current committee, and he expressed outrage. How could the committee not have taken a more forceful position? Whatever the disagreements with my politics, didn’t they see the issue about creating a supportive climate for free expression and scholarship? he asked.
I offered no judgment of the committee, but instead asked this colleague what action he had taken at the time if he felt so strongly about the principle? He hesitated. I pressed: We are faculty members in the same department. Did anyone in our department circulate a letter of support? Did anyone on the faculty generate a petition critical of the president? He froze and didn’t respond, but the answer is, no. I know of only one UT professor who, in a letter to the campus paper, publicly criticized the president’s actions. On a progressive listserv there was discussion of a petition drive that never materialized. I was busy in those weeks and may have missed it, but to the best of my knowledge there was no public faculty action to rebuke a university president who had singled out a faculty member for ridicule in the largest newspaper in the state. Some professors told me later that they weighed in privately with the president, but such private interventions clearly were not going to result in any change in the president’s public stance and, hence, were politically irrelevant. Beyond that, such private action did nothing to resist the narrowing of discussion in public.
So, on one of the largest university campus in the United States with about 2,500 faculty members, the committee charged with protecting academic freedom was silent on the most prominent attack on a faculty member for political reasons in recent memory. But, more striking, a faculty member who had done nothing to support academic freedom in that crucial moment seemed to have rewritten history in his own mind to forget that he, like virtually all the others, had remained silent in public.
It is one thing for members of a privileged class to decide they will avoid confrontations with power in order to protect there privilege. Depending on the context, we may deem that to be cowardly or expedient. But for such people to then twist reality to allow them to valorize themselves is, in any context, pathetic. It shows, I think, the degree to which some (perhaps a majority) of faculty are ill-equipped to assess threats to academic freedom or present an effective defense.
The corporate challenge to academic freedom
Meanwhile, as direct attacks on faculty members for their intellectual and/or political positions continue to pose a threat to academic freedom, other institutional rules and procedures can also compromise that freedom in ways that are quieter and slower. These concern the rules for tenure and promotion and the distribution of resources, and in my experience the majority of faculty members are timid in confronting these issues as well.
An example: A few years ago the dean of my college informed us during a faculty meeting that from that point forward, a record of securing grant funding would be expected for tenure and promotion cases. The ability to raise money, up to that point, had never been explicitly listed as a requirement, and many of us who had been tenured in past years had not been expected to raise money. But as public universities have been increasingly pushed to find more private funding, the pressure to raise money has filtered down to the faculty level. In some fields, especially the natural sciences, the expectation that faculty members would attract grant funding has long been in place, as have funding agencies for those disciplines, such as the National Science Foundation. And, although there are political forces that shape the funding in the sciences, there is money available for research that is not overtly tied to ideological positions.
In other fields, especially certain disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, funding is harder to come by and more overtly ideological in character. In my field, journalism, the major funders are connected to the industry, either in the form of the media corporations themselves or the non-profit foundations they sometimes establish. These entities have never funded critical research that might lead to conclusions in conflict with their interests. In short, in a field such as journalism, grant funding flows to those researchers who do not challenge the fundamental structure of the commercial media system.
When the dean announced this shift, it was put forth as a neutral rule: Everyone who goes up for tenure or promotion faces the same expectations. One might dispute whether or not the change in policy was wise, but on the surface it appeared to be applied fairly across the board. But such an analysis at the surface is predictably superficial. I raised my hand to offer a different perspective.
Given that the sources of funding for scholars doing critical research are considerably fewer than for those doing research that accepts the existing system, isn’t this demand on faculty, in fact, going to result in less critical research? I asked. I pointed out that I had pursued such critical work during my own tenure period and had never even applied for a grant. Luckily for me, I had been granted tenure based on my scholarly work, not my contribution to the university balance sheet. Did this new rule mean, in essence, that if I were going up for tenure today I would be denied? If that’s the case, it seems likely that faculty members with similar interests can choose to either (1) pursue critical research interests and take the risk of being denied permanent employment, or (2) abandon such work and take up topics that are safely within the parameters acceptable to the industry. No matter what an individual professor chooses, the result is that there will be fewer professors pursuing critical ideas and, therefore, far less critical research. So, in fact, this allegedly neutral rule could have a dramatic effect on the intellectual content of our program, given that curriculum is largely faculty driven.
At that point, the dean gave me a look that seemed to contain about equal amounts of amusement and exasperation, and said, simply, “I’m just telling you about the policy from the Tower (central administration).” So, the lead administrator from the college, who is in charge of the academic programs of five departments, admitted she would not defend the principle of free and open inquiry and would do what she was told. Perhaps that’s not surprising — deans are not known for bucking the system, which tends to slow career advancement. What was more disturbing was the reaction of my faculty colleagues, which was no reaction. Not a single faculty member joined my critique, nor offered any comment. I can certainly understand why the junior faculty, those still not secure in their positions, might have chosen to remain quiet in front of the administrator who would have considerable power in their tenure case. But even senior faculty — full professors, some with endowed chairs and professorships — chose to remain silent.
That’s a well-disciplined intellectual class. The members of it who have risen to administrative positions and are charged with formulating and executing policy know which master they serve. The more secure members keep quiet to make sure their privilege is not disturbed. And the less secure members shut up in the hope that they will be allowed to move up a notch. In such a setting, elites cannot guarantee complete conformity from intellectuals, but the system works well enough to keep things running relatively smoothly these days. It is a system that is increasingly corporate in internal organization and character, and more corporate-friendly in its external relations.
What I am not saying, politely
I am not arguing that all faculty members must commit themselves to my politics or my style of public political engagement.
I am not bitter. Given the contemporary political landscape, I do not expect support from faculty members for my political activities.
I am not disappointed. As a class, faculty members act in ways that one would expect a privileged class to act.
I am not overly optimistic that these conditions — either in the political culture generally or in academia specifically — will change in the short term. The struggle is best understood as a long-term effort on all fronts.
I am not spending a lot of time worrying about this, given the myriad other ways I can spend my time and energy in political engagement in the world. Academic freedom matters, but not to the exclusion of other pressing issues.
And, I am not trying to paint with too broad a brush. I am aware that throughout the United States there are faculty members who take academic freedom seriously and are diligent in attempts to defend it.
What I am saying, bluntly
The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles — freedom of (1) inquiry and research, (2) teaching within the university, and (3) extramural utterance or action — is worth defending, but not because most faculty members can be expected to make serious use of these privileges to challenge power, and not because at this moment in history the university is a space where most faculty members pursue truly critical, independent inquiry. I find much of the university with which I am familiar (the humanities and the social sciences) to be populated with self-important and self-indulgent caricatures. Much of the intellectual work is trivial, irrelevant, and/or flabby. Most components of the contemporary U.S. university have been bought off, and bought off fairly cheaply. As a result it is, in the words of my friend Abe Osheroff, the institution is generally “a fucking dead rock.”
Osheroff is a radical activist who more than anyone I have ever met exemplifies an organic intellectual. In a 2005 interview in which we discussed a wide range of contemporary intellectual and political issues, I asked Osheroff — then 89 years old — about his experience with universities and faculty members:
You can take this as a criticism, an indictment, of your profession, but most academics aren’t worth shit as activists. You’re overpaid, and you still all complain about the workload. I was lucky. I got out of the academic game early. What saved my ass was becoming a carpenter. The fact is that I have contempt for most of academia. Not just criticism, but contempt for it as an institution. I know there are some wonderful teachers here and there, but to me the universities are mostly fucking dead rocks. There are some diamonds and some gold that you can discover, but basically it’s a fucking dead rock. I have a professor friend who tells me about his investment in his career. Yea, well while academics are doing their thing, some guys were down in a hole in the ground digging coal and making concrete and building your houses. Let’s think about those people. Don’t talk to me about your fucking investment. Academia was not too difficult a road. There are things worse than having to sit up at night and read books. Try ’em. Go out and dig a hole in the ground every fucking day, eight hours a day, and then you come back and we’ll talk about it. I’m a little extreme, I must admit, but just the word academia makes me growl.
Those of us who have the privilege of making a living as academics would do well to take Osheroff’s words to heart. Osheroff is not anti-intellectual. He has taught in a university as an adjunct and is a serious student of history, recognizing the relevance of history and theory to political activism. Osheroff is not simplistically glorifying manual labor but instead suggesting that an extremely privileged group of people should reflect on that privilege toward the goal of avoiding self-indulgence. His target is not the increasingly large number of low-paid apprentice and itinerant academics (graduate teaching assistants and permanent adjuncts, routinely exploited by universities to lower labor costs) but the tenured and tenure-track faculty members who make a comfortable living doing generally enjoyable work with more autonomy than most workers.
While Osheroff may be a bit harsh in his condemnation of professional academics, the spirit of his remarks seem fair to me. It is a reminder that we all — even those of us who try to commit significant amounts of our time and energy to our obligations as citizens and human beings, and who attempt to leverage some of our institutional resources for progressive public activity — should always be asking a simple question: Are we doing enough? I know no one, including myself, for whom the answer is a definitive yes.
The impetus to protect academic freedom should be seen in this context, as part of a long-term strategy of protecting a saving remnant of intellectual integrity that at some point in the future may provide the core of a politically activated group that can be part of a meaningful shift in values in this society. There are no guarantees. But we can be reasonably sure that the common faculty reactions today — (1) duck-and-cover when things get edgy, or (2) whine when there really is little at stake — guarantee failure.