(March 24, 2021 / JNS) There is a new organization being heralded as a champion of free speech that instead is a potentially dangerous group that may help further entrench and defend academic negligence.
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is “dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment … to design courses and conduct classes using reasonable pedagogical judgment; and their right to be unburdened by ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths.”
Put another way, the goal is to ensure faculty are unaccountable.
Professors have arrogated for themselves a unique right that others do not have. “Academic freedom” was not ordained by god or enshrined in the Constitution (though the Supreme Court has said it is a “special concern of the First Amendment). The professorate invented it to pursue knowledge without interference from their government, colleagues, bosses, taxpayers or students.
While it once may have been a reasonable way to insulate scholars from interference in the free inquiry of ideas, it has been perverted and turned into a shield to defend academic malpractice. Practically, it has become a license to preach personal views, advance arguments unsupported by evidence and to use institutional prestige to gain credibility for ideas that may have no merit.
The AFA website says, “what we defend is our members’ right to state what they believe to be true.”
What they “believe,” not what they can demonstrate through research?
Since when do personal beliefs qualify as scholarship?
What is supposed to distinguish universities is documented research—not baseless claims, personal agendas or one-sided courses. The main deficiency is that advocates typically ignore the “academic” component of academic freedom and, hypocritically, apply it based on their own political views.
Is this group, for example, really prepared to defend whatever any professor believes to be true? How about that blacks are inferior to whites, that the earth is flat, that homosexuality is a choice, that the 2020 election was rigged?
We know from experience that the politically incorrect is not protected. There are lots of examples, but one that comes to mind is when Harvard University president Larry Summers was pilloried by faculty for discussing theories that underplayed discrimination against women and suggesting that few women were in the higher echelon of science because of “issues of intrinsic aptitude.”
When faculty members object to the views of a professor, they have no problem arguing against the university giving them a hechsher. Take the case of controversial professor Charles Murray. His views on the relationship between race and IQ and opposition to government intervention to correct social problems are anathema to many. Before he spoke at Middlebury College, faculty objected to the president introducing him:
Rather than lend legitimacy to this event, we respectfully request you stand up for a campus that is intellectually open and culturally diverse, but one that does not fall prey to the designs of external organizations who peddle partisan propaganda in the guise of “public scholarship.”
Put simply, the campus must be open to everyone except those with whom they disagree. If peddling partisan propaganda is the litmus test, then much of the Middle East Studies field teaching about the non-existent country of “Palestine” should be disqualified from the classroom.
Many of these free-speech advocates are quick to scream McCarthyism when their views are attacked but happy to engage in their own McCarthyism when addressing their critics. Many liberals, especially, believe in freedom of speech for me but not for thee.
Look at the thousands of faculty BDS supporters who demand freedom to promote this ant-Semitic campaign that calls for Israel’s destruction. They see no contradiction in denying academic freedom to Israelis and Americans who wish to engage in scholarly activities with Israel. More than 1,000 academics signed a petition in support of the University of Michigan professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel.
Will AFA condemn BDS and its supporters?
Consider what happened at New York University after the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis voted to boycott NYU’s own satellite campus in Tel Aviv. University president Andrew Hamilton responded, “NYU rejects academic boycotts of Israel, rejects calls to close its Tel Aviv campus, and denounces efforts to ostracize or exclude those in the university community based on their location in Israel, their Israeli origin, or their political feelings for Israel.” NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) condemned the administration and said it “strongly support the right of individual departments and schools to determine their own affairs.”
When Steven Thrasher gave a commencement speech at NYU saying he was “so proud” of the organizations that support BDS “against the apartheid state government in Israel,” Hamilton apologized “that the audience had to experience these inappropriate remarks.”
The AAUP said the criticism was “a grave threat to fundamental tents of academic freedom” and demanded Hamilton apologize. What really bothered the faculty, however, was the “punitive tone” towards supporters of Palestinian rights. Freedom of speech does not apply to anyone who has the temerity to criticize the Palestinians or their advocates.
For Jews, the misuse of academic freedom has led to the normalization of anti-Semitism on campus as that is one of the few “isms” that is considered acceptable. When it comes to Israel and Jews, professors have lots of beliefs which are often misleading, inaccurate, or anti-Semitic. If a professor uses “Israel” or “Zionist” as a euphemism for “Jews,” their anti-Semitic views become kosher.
Can you imagine a professor who said Hispanics are rapists and murders being defended? Yet, a professor who speciously claimed that Israelis intentionally maim Palestinians was given an award.
Perhaps all you need to know about the new organization is that one of its founding members is Cornell West, who was recently denied tenure at Harvard.
What was his reaction?
To blame the Jews.
West told Haaretz that he remembered other outspoken professors who were denied tenure and saw a pattern “of folks being weary of any critique of Israeli occupation.” Though he acknowledged that there might be other reasons he was denied tenure (he doesn’t mention he was offered a 10-year contract with a pay raise), he said, “the neoliberal hegemony in the universities is still very reluctant to have a robust, respectful, free dialogue on what’s going on, past and present, when it comes to Israeli and Palestinian issues.”
He claimed he was denied tenure by “powers that be at Harvard” for political reasons and complained to Chronicle of Higher Education that “any serious engagement around the issues of the Israeli occupation are rendered highly suspect and reduced to anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice.” Since he didn’t think his support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders explained the decision, the only political reason must be “my deep Christian witness based on the idea that an ugly Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians is as wrong as any ugly Palestinian occupation of precious Jews.”
West suggested that “Jewish elites” and “Jewish donors” were responsible, but, apparently realizing the implication, backtracked and said, essentially, “some of my best friends are Jews” who also are critical of the “occupation,” and that when he talked about the money elite he meant those “who are Jewish, non-Jewish, black, white, red, whatever, who do have a certain kind of tilt on that issue.”
It is clear, however, who West believes has a “tilt” regarding Israel, and it wasn’t red people.
Is defending people like West, who tries to scapegoat Jews for not getting tenure, what this organization stands for?
What right does the AFA have to tell non-faculty what their rights are? I have just as many Ph.D.s as most professors, so why should I be disqualified from judging the work of someone in my field? Even those without doctorates have their own free-speech rights and should not be prevented from challenging faculty engaged in malpractice.
Academic freedom is meritorious so long as the word “academic” is not forgotten, and it is applied equitably. Professors who want to express what they believe to be true have the First Amendment right to speak on the street corner but should not be allowed to pontificate in the classroom.
Faculty may object to outside pressure but, as in the case of police departments, it has become necessitated by an unwillingness to discipline themselves. The last thing we need is an organization of faculty foxes guarding the university henhouse.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”
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