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Academic Unfreedom, Forced and Voluntary


Violations of free speech rights in U.S. “higher education” are a bit like police violence against minorities in at least one key way. There are many relatively unknown cases of the problem beyond the few that have gained notoriety.

Chances are you’ve heard of the prolific left authors, scholars, and speakers Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein. They are like the Rodney King and Trayvon Martin of 21st century academic repression in the United States.

In 2007, both Churchill and Finkelstein were removed from academic positions and booted out of “higher education” because of their expressed political beliefs. Both were academically and occupationally lynched – Churchill (fired with tenure) by the University of Colorado’s president at the behest of Colorado’s Republican governor and FOX News henchman Bill O’Reilly, and Finkelstein (denied tenure voted for him by his department and backed by a college-wide faculty committee) by Chicago’s DePaul University at the behest of the Israel Lobby and Alan Dershowitz, a leading Zionist attack dog who Finkelstein had exposed as an abject plagiarist.

 

Lesser Known Firings

University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Barbara Mandeloni

It’s much less likely that you’ve heard of Barbara Mandeloni. She was for many years the highly respected and positively evaluated director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s secondary teacher certification program. In early May of 2012, professor Mandeloni, then 55, spoke to New York Times reporter Michael Winerip about her opposition to the university’s requirement that student teachers participate in a new teacher evaluation program designed by the educational testing corporation Pearson, Inc. Whereas previously beginning teachers were assessed on the basis of six months of real-school class observation, the Pearson system evaluated those teachers by having them submit two 10-minute videos and take a 40-page standardized test. Three weeks after Winerip reported Mandeloni’s criticism and her successful efforts encouraging her students not to participate in the Pearson program, the university sent her a letter saying that her contract would not be renewed in August of 2013.

 

Bard College and Joel Kovel

You probably also don’t know the case of the noted eco-socialist Joel Kovel, an author of seven highly respected books who taught history at Bard College in upstate New York for two decades. After years of harassment by top Bard College administrators upset over his public criticism of Zionism and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, Kovel was informed in February of 2009 that his contract would not be renewed the following July.

The political nature of Kovel’s discharge was transparent in the composition of an “evaluation committee” Bard created to judge Kovel’s work prior to removing him. The committee prominently included Bard professor Bruce Chilton, a prominent Protestant theologian who was highly active in Zionist circles. As Kovel noted after his discharge, “Chilton campaigns vigorously against Protestant efforts to promote divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel…He may be heard on a national radio program …arguing from the Doctrine of Just War and claiming that it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel for human rights violations.”

“The presence of such a voice on the committee whose conclusion was instrumental in the decision to remove me from the Bard faculty is highly dubious,” Kovel reasonably observed. “Most definitely…Chilton should have recused himself…His failure to do so, combined with the fact that the decision as a whole was made in context of adversity between myself and the Bard administration, renders the process of my termination invalid as an instance of what the college’s Faculty Handbook calls a procedure ‘designed to evaluate each faculty member fairly and in good faith.’”

Bard is very proud of its identity as a progressive, open-minded college.

Temple University and Tony Monteiro

More recently, there is the remarkable case of Dr. Anthony Monteiro, professor of African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia from 2004 through January of 2014. Besides being highly accomplished as a teacher and a scholar, Monteiro has long been a popular social justice leader within and beyond the university. He has achieved a strong favorable reputation in black Philadelphia and progressive circles by writing, speaking, and organizing against imperial war, mass incarceration, urban gentrification (behind which Temple is a leading force), and police corruption. Along the way, he has ably upheld the Black Marxist intellectual and activist tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James (and others) within and beyond academy.

All this and more made Monteiro a target for harassment and surveillance by Temple administrators, including Dr. Teresa Soufas, the school’s notoriously authoritarian and not-so subtly racist Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. In the summer of 2012, Soufa placed Temple’s African American Studies department in receivership, putting it under the supervision of a white former literature professor who possessed no background in black studies. Over the next year, Monteiro earned Soufas’s special ire by helping lead a protest movement that forced Temple to replace that white chairperson with the black “Afrocentric” Temple professor Dr. Malefi Kete Asante.

Last January, Soufas paid Monteiro back by informing him that his annual contract would not be picked up for 2014. This clearly retaliatory firing occurred with the collaboration of Asante, who rejects the socialist tradition Monteiro champions. A protest movement calling for Monteiro’s reinstatement with tenure (and calling out Asante for his betrayal of Monteiro) has arisen in the last two months. Beyond Monteiro, it is concerned with the question of whose interests “higher education” should serve: the corporate establishment or the broader community.

 

Brooklyn College, Joseph Wilson and the GCWE

You probably also haven’t heard of professor Joseph Wilson and the shutting down of the 30-year left-leaning Graduate Center for Worker Education (GCWE) at the City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Brooklyn College. In the fall of 2012, the GCWE was quietly closed, its adjunct faculty summarily dismissed and its recruitment of students stopped – this despite its long successful record of providing quality graduate education to working students with working class and union backgrounds. No official explanation was offered though an academic hit man activated to oversee the closure – a Dr. Corey Robin – responded to a petition to re-open the Center by charging its former director Joseph Wilson with “mismanagement” and claiming that the GWCE wasn’t really a worker education program because it didn’t focus on traditional “labor issues” (union organizing, collective bargaining and the like). Since the charges against Wilson are vigorously contested by his union (the Professional Staff Congress [PSC], American Federation of Teachers [AFT] Local 2334, representing 25,000 professors, adjuncts, lecturers, counselors and others at CUNY) and there is no reason that a worker education program must be a union and collective bargaining program, many in and around the closed Center reasonably suspect that it has been assaulted in retaliation for its political orientation. Curiously enough given Dr. Robin’s claim to acting in the name of the labor movement, the relevant union in this case (the PSC-AFT) is on the side of Wilson and the fired adjuncts.

 

Harassment and Rebuke

Northeastern Illinois University and Loretta Capeheart

More common than discriminatory and retaliatory firings no doubt are cases where tenured academics are subjected to harassment and rebuke for asserting their free speech rights – repression that sends a chilling message to the large number of academicians who lack tenure. One graphic example is Loretta Capheart, a tenured professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) on Chicago’s North Side. “She is also,” left journalist Dave Zirin noted two years ago, “a vocal union and anti-war activist of many years standing. Understandably, anti-war students sought her out as a group-adviser during President Bush’s war on Iraq.”

In 2007, Capeheart was elected by her colleagues to be chair of NEIU’s Department of Justice Studies The position was denied her by NEIU President Sharon Hahs as punishment for her activism and above all for defending members of a student Socialist club after they were arrested for monitoring CIA recruiters on campus. Hahs even “threatened students and other faculty, saying that everyone better be ready to ‘accept the consequences’ for their actions.” NEIU also denied Capeheart an award for faculty excellence and concocted a fantastic charge of “stalking” against her.

Capeheart went into debt to sue NEIU for violation of her free speech rights and retaliation. Defeated in its first federal hearing, her suit has recently been upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Seventh Circuit.

 

Moldavian College and Gary Olson

There’s also the recent case of Gary Olson, a popular and tenured professor of political science at Moravian College, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Last February 10th, Olson published an Opinion-Editorial reflecting in the local newspaper The Morning Call on his recent visit on Martin Luther King Day to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. He discussed the memorial and Noel John Foster, a former student of his who was killed in the jetliner attacks on the World Trade Center. Olson wrote about the commitment to peace and opposition to U.S. imperial foreign policy that Olson and Foster shared with Dr. King. Olson noted that his visit “prompted [him] to wonder whether it’s now possible for Americans to simultaneously grapple with two basic truths. The first, of course, is that the 9/11 attack was an unconscionable crime against humanity. The second, and more difficult, requires responding to the question posed by the legendary late historian Howard Zinn: ‘in what ways has American foreign policy inflamed and antagonized people all over the world to the point of creating terrorists?’…I suspect,” Olson wrote, “that King would not have been surprised by what occurred on Sept. 11. In his speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967…King lamented that his own government was the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world,’ adding that the ongoing Vietnam War was only part of a U.S. ‘pattern of suppression’ around the globe…King also solemnly and presciently warned of the virtually certain consequences, what’s now termed ‘blowback,’ including the physical and mental toll on U.S. troops tasked with brutally maintaining an American empire.”

Those were tough but highly supportable words – words that called for deep and careful reflection. One week later, Moravian College President wrote a letter to the Morning Call’s editor attacking Dr. Olson for “us[ing] the tragic death of a Moravian almumnus…to promote his own political platform.” He added that “Gary Olson…does not speak on behalf of Moravian College or the alumni, students, faculty or staff.”

Grigsby failed to engage any of Olson’s ideas, making his letter a transparent attempt to silence dissent by squelching discussion altogether.

As Olson’s supporters noted in an online petition protesting Grigsby’s letter, “Given Noel Foster’s own activist politics (Noel himself was an anti-apartheid activist as a student), it’s especially galling to insist that Olson keep a ‘political platform’ out of any discussion about his former student. No one has the right to police how people choose to remember their loved ones….Writing that Olson ‘does not speak on behalf of Moravian College’ is unnecessary, because that fact was never in question, so it simply serves to try and isolate Olson from the college and community he has called home for decades.

There was no disrespect for Noel John Foster in Dr. Olson’s commentary.

Those who value intellectual freedom should be chilled by the spectacle of a college president publicly rebuking a veteran professor for expressing his opinion on the interrelated crimes of 9/11/2001 and an imperial U.S. foreign policy that deeply concerned no less a moral leader than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The proper role of a top academic administrator should be to encourage free and open debate, not to stifle and police it.

Moravian is another college that takes pride in its liberal and open-minded identity.

 

Columbia College and Iymen Chehade

The harassment and rebuke of tenured academicians sends a chilling message to those who lack tenure. If a Capeheart or an Olson can be rebuked and harassed by administrators for their political opinions, instructors without tenure certainly know that they can easily be fired – technically “not renewed” – for the same reason.

Of course, you don’t have to be tenured to be directly harassed by academic administrators in the corporate university. Last fall, for example, Columbia College instructor Iymen Chehade was called into the office of Steve Corey, chairman of of the college’s Department of Humanities, History and Social Science. Corey told Chehade to teach his popular course on the Israel-Palestine conflict in a “more balanced” fashion. After this warning, one section of Chehade’s course was withdrawn from Columbia’s catalogue for the following semester just hours after it had been made available to registering students.

What had Chehade done to warrant this admonition and punishment? He showed the Oscar-nominated film Five Broken Cameras, a hard-hitting documentary about Palestinian struggle and Israeli repression, leading a student to complain of “bias.”

I was once called in by a department chair in response to a student complaint. In the spring of 2006, while teaching a course on the History of Chicago at Northern Illinois University, I had dared to briefly make an analogy between the repression of American labor and leftists in the late 1880s (specifically after the famous Haymarket bomb incident of May 4, 1886) and the squelching of critical and independent thought in the U.S. after 9/11/2001. After an older student told the chairman she found this connection offensive. I was instructed to restrict my classroom focus to the distant past, the only legitimate focus of historians’ concern. I ignored the instruction, knowing I was at the end of a strictly one-year appointment with no chance of renewal and that “higher education” held little future for me in its current state.

 

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Palermo’s Pizza, and Four Students

And of course, you don’t have to be a professor to be subjected to academic harassment in the corporate university. In early May of 2013, student protestors occupied, surrounded, and shut down a Palermo’s Pizza stand operating in the Student Union building at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (UWM). They did so in solidarity with Palermo’s workers, 90 of whom had been illegally fired after three-fourths of the company’s wage-earners had expressed their desire for union recognition in May of the previous year. Known to subject its employees to miserable and unsafe working conditions, Palermo’s continued operating with replacement workers while its criminally discharged former employees kept up a strike for union recognition started in June of 2012.

During the 2012-13 academic year, UWM students affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association (MGAA, the union of graduate teaching and project assistants at UWM) did their best to work through official channels to get university administrators to break all ties with the Palermo’s corporation. They succeeded in persuading both the UWM Student Association and the UWM Faculty Senate to pass resolutions calling for precisely that.

It was all to no avail, leading the students to undertake direct action. UWM responded by having the leading activists arrested.

The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee claims to embrace worker rights, “shared governance,” and peaceful dissent. Nonetheless, while it briefly closed Palermo’s UWM pizza stand in order to defuse protests over the summer of 2013, the university has continued to let the company sell pizza at the Student Union since the fall of that year. And one month ago, UWM administrators put four student activists involved in the May 2013 action – graduate student Jacob Glicklich, a UWM History Instructor and MGAA leader, and three undergraduate members of SDS (Lorelei Flores, Corey Massimo, and Tiffany Strong) – on “disciplinary probation.” As Glicklich, Flores, Massimo, and Strong noted in a collective statement of self-defense last February 14th:

 

“The charges brought against us…show the political nature of this probation, and also how destructive the administration’s current priorities are. Rather than engage in negotiation with the campus boycott, they sought to deflect it. Rather than respecting shared governance, they blatantly ignored, and continue to ignore, the resolutions of the student association and faculty senate. Rather than being concerned with the sweatshop conditions that produce Palermo’s pizza, they condemn the fictitious disruption and loss of sales from six pizzas.”

 

“The administrators have no care for the workers, who work ten hours a day, seven days a week, for an employer that called the police rather than negotiate with their union. They show no concern for the conditions imposed by the company, which have been condemned by the Workers Rights Consortium. They have no concern for the fact that since last May additional workers have lost fingers working at Palermo’s.”

 

It is relevant that Palermo’s CEO Giacomo Falluca, is a graduate of UWM’s Lubar School of Business. His voice has clearly been heard above those of students and faculty at UWM.

 

Self-Censorship

In his chilling 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin (who it must be said did not exactly distinguish himself in defense of his former student Norman Finkelstein) worried about “the effective integration of universities into the corporate state.” A poignant example of that integration, Wolin thought, was the absence of significant campus protest of George W. Bush’s occupation of Mesopotamia. “During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq,” Wolin wrote, “university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke seriously of the need to ‘pacify the campuses,’ hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying.”

One could give many other examples of academic self-pacification. Where is supposedly “leftist academia’s” faculty protest movement against the racist mass imprisonment state? Against catastrophic climate change and other dimensions of the ever-escalating capital-imposed environmental crisis? Against Obama’s expanded drone wars, Orwellian surveillance policies, and Special Forces occupation of the planet? Against the ever-expanding upward concentration of wealth and power in an openly plutocratic nation that has entered a New Gilded Age of astonishing socioeconomic disparity? Against the pricing-out of working class youth from higher education? Against the neo-McCarthyite discharges of Churchill, Finkelstein, Monteiro, Mandeloni, and Kovel?

Sadly, it seems unlikely that repression is the main factor behind the pronounced political timidity of most faculty in America’s ever-more corporatized universities. After I recently posted a link to the Brooklyn College incident, a young left political scientist wrote me with the following observation: “The suppression cases are bad. Much worse is the self-censorship, and the voluntary neutering that happens via socialization in graduate school. People learn to do irrelevant research because advocacy is frowned upon. The system ‘works’ because people get indoctrinated to take themselves out of the fight before the whistle even blows.”

Reflecting on this comment, I turned back to Wolin. Writing about universities, he argued in Democracy Incorporated that “although” what he called “inverted totalitarianism” (American post-democratic corporatism and imperialism/nationalism) is “at times capable of harassing and discrediting critics,” it “has instead cultivated a loyal intelligentsia” that doesn’t really need to be harassed all that much in the first place.

Wolin’s reflection resonates with my experience over many years in and around U.S. “higher education” in the neoliberal era. I have not run into very many professors willing to advocate meaningfully in their research, teaching, or public lives beyond the academy. Such professors exist but they are rare. They face no small measure of disdain from the significantly larger number of self-censoring academicians, who often develop a deep and abiding hatred for the minority who reject “voluntary neutering.”

 

The Academic Precariat

Of course it’s hard to know how bold U.S. academics might be – how willing professors might be to profess against concentrated wealth and power – if so many of them were not working without tenure. What does academic freedom really mean to “assistant” and “associate” professors toiling away on one-year contracts or hired by individual courses? As Noam Chomsky recently noted in an interview on academic labor, U.S. “higher education” has been assaulting tenure and faculty autonomy for decades. It has done so in the interest of creating a supine professorial proletariat or “precariat” on the model of subordinated workforces in more explicitly capitalist industry. Asked to comment on the hiring of the common practice of hiring faculty off the tenure track, Chomsky observed:

“That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call ‘associates’ at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities. The idea is to divide society into two groups. One group is sometimes called the ‘plutonomy’ (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a ‘precariat,’ living a precarious existence….Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure ‘greater worker insecurity’? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more….And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed..using cheap labor—and vulnerable labor… In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education. The costs, of course, are borne by the students and by the people who are being drawn into these vulnerable occupations” (emphasis added).

Meanwhile, American colleges and universities are devoting vast chunks of inflated, ever-escalating tuition payments to the creation of expanding layers of bureaucracy and supervision, increasingly staffed by highly paid administrators with no background in teaching or research. Those sorts of academic coordinators can be expected to advance “the effective integration of universities into the corporate state” in ways that do not bode well for the future of academic freedom.

Still, the examples of professors Mandeloni, Kovel, Monteiro, and Chehade, along with students like Glicklich, Flores, Massimo, and Strong (and many other academics and students who deserve mention) show that some intellectual workers and students in the academic-industrial complex are willing to act courageously in accord with their ideals even without tenure protection. There are bigger things to lose than an academic career, of course, including one’s self-respect and one’s ability to honor what Chomsky once usefully described as the moral responsibility of intellectuals: to tell the truth about things that matter to people who care and can do something about it.

Millions upon millions have lost their lives to the corporate and imperial power structures and policies that too few tenured academicians show the intelligence and conviction to forthrightly oppose within and beyond the withering walls around the ivory tower.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v, Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Paul Street March 18, 2014 1:41 am 

    There’s an error on Kovel: his degree was in psychology, not history. A month ago or so could have corrected in text but that function is gone as far as I can tell.

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