Academic Freedom on the Rock(s): The Failures of Faculty in Tough Times

[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.[1]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.[2]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.[3]


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.[4]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.”[5]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.”[6]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:[7]


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.


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