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Ron Radosh

On the Nature of Academic Freedom and Bob Cohen on Pete Seeger

April 30th, 2009 - 1:24 pm

On The New Republic website today, the distinguished sociologist Alan Wolfe pens a defense of a left-wing academic, William I. Robinson.The Anti-Defamation League and others are attacking Robinson for recent actions he took in conjunction with a course he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the “Sociology of Globalization.”

Robinson did the following. Last January, he sent an  e-mail to  students in his course accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza, said that the occupation of Gaza by Israel was the equivalent of the Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent photographs which he argued showed that what Israel was doing to the Palestinians was the same as what the Nazis had done to the Jews.  In protest, the Anti-Defamation League has called for an investigation of  Professor Robinson.

Wolfe comes to Robinson’s defense by making the following argument. He does not agree with his beliefs as expressed in the e-mail. Indeed, Wolfe acknowledges that “neither Robinson’s leftist kind of sociology nor his activist kind of politics are mine.” Yet he finds the idea of investigating Robinson “appalling” and writes that “the ADL should be ashamed of itself.” As Wolfe sees it, censoring Robinson would set harmful precedents that could have ramifications for anyone teaching at public universities.

Robinson’s defenders say his academic freedom is in danger of being abridged, especially since the University has said it will investigate his actions. Wolfe does not buy Robinson’s critics contention that propagandistic e-mails have nothing to do with the subject he is teaching. Wolfe maintains that professors at our universities who teach controversial subjects should “provoke, and even outrage, their students.” This certainly is what Robinson has done, especially to the school’s Jewish students. Wolfe worries about “academic apathy;’ he thinks it is a good thing when a professor cares so much about issues of the day that he e-mails students about them.  Even if his actions caused damage or hurt to some, Wolfe says, the “arguments and discussion” they provoke outweigh the damage he might have done.

Moreover, those opposing Robinson, like the ADL, are condemned by Wolfe as “thought police,” who are “monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it.” So Wolfe has joined a new committee “to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB,” which includes Noam Chomsky, a man who has never found an extremist critic of Israel he has not rushed to defend. Noting that his own college cancelled a speech by Bill Ayers and that Clark University considered cancelling a speech by the self-hating Jew Norman Finkelstein, Wolfe  is concerned that “this whole business is threatening to spin out of control.”

So Wolfe, who claims he opposes the “smug political correctness of the academic left,” says it is imperative that he also oppose “the new version of political correctness” of those who want to censor ideas they oppose.

Is Alan Wolfe correct? I think not. First, he confuses the concept of free speech- guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution, with the concept of academic freedom. As a political philosopher and sociologist, Wolfe should know this.  A David Duke may have ideas we despise and detest; that does not give Duke to teach a course, let us say, on English literature, and send out his anti-Semitic hate material to students by e-mail.  It does guarantee Duke the right to spout his bile in public, and for us to denounce him in return.

No one has made the distinction better than Stanley Fish, writing in The New York Times on July 23, 2006. Fish wrote: “Academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it may seem, to academic interrogation and analysis…Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.”

I do not think Professor Robinson and his supporters could provide evidence that these anti-Israel e-mails meet that criterion, or Wolfe’s criterion that they provoke thought. Robinson did not e-mail counter arguments with his e-mail. He sought instead to indoctrinate students with his own political agenda, using his power over them via the course he is teaching to make them pay attention to his own political views.

The second document I cite is the famous “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” passed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) when the group had clout and influence in the academy. Written at a moment when our country was at war, the AAUP statement says: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,  but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject….When they speak or 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…and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

In 1970, the AAUP printed an addendum, in which they said the intent was not to discourage what is controversial, since controversy is “at the heart of the free academic inquiry.” It was only meant to “underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to the subject.”

To sum up: Alan Wolfe should look closely at Stanley Fish’s argument, as well as the AAUP statement. Freedom of speech is not the same thing as academic freedom. Too many left-wing academics, like Ward Churchill, have hidden under the rubric of the latter to assert a false case that their free speech is being challenged. It is not. They have a perfect right  to make idiots of themselves as citizens; students have the  right to let an administration know that as captives in the classroom, they do not have to listen to a professor’s political agenda and to be subject to indoctrination.

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