Truth to Power
David Horowitz vs. the professoriat.
Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By PETER WOOD
That incident stands out because all the people involved were publicly identified. But in other cases, students spoke only on condition that their names and identifying circumstances be kept confidential. A student at the University of Northern Colorado came forward with an account of a criminology professor who gave her a failing grade on a final exam (in 2003) because she refused to answer a question that demanded that she “Explain why President Bush is a war criminal.” (She explained, instead, why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal.) As it happens, the name of the professor, Robert Dunkley, eventually came out, and though he had destroyed the exams in question, he recalled that he did ask a question along the lines of: “Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal.” The details are worth repeating because the incident became the opening wedge in the AAUP’s effort to discredit Horowitz. An AAUP member wrote a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer asserting that neither the student nor the professor existed. He characterized the student as “the poster child” for Horowitz’s movement, and the claim was quickly echoed by Media Matters for America and Inside Higher Ed, where editor Scott Jaschik opined on “The Poster Child Who Can’t Be Found.” Jaschik’s commentary was particularly galling to Horowitz, who reports that the editor “had already investigated the story and knew very well that the student and the professor existed, and that I was the target of a campaign whose sole purpose was to discredit our efforts.”
Reforming Our Universities is filled with this kind of detail, and Horowitz has the wisdom to report it without much in the way of expostulation. This is a story about the petty lies and misrepresentations on the part of partisans of the academic left. Eventually the attack on the Academic Bill of Rights was probably better known to most academics than the bill itself, and it got the rap of being some kind of trick whereby state legislatures would muscle aside faculties to impose “affirmative action for conservative Republicans.” If this were, indeed, Horowitz’s intended trick, he ought to have changed his name to Houdini: There really is no plausible reading of the bill that bears this interpretation.
A document that begins by declaring that no faculty member should be hired, fired, promoted, or granted tenure on the basis of “his or her political or religious beliefs” is simply not a mandate for hiring conservatives or displacing liberals. This does, however, leave a residue of questions. What is so threatening about the bill to left-leaning academics that they would pursue such bitter opposition to a document that mostly recapitulates the abiding principles of the secular research university? Even if they were disposed to attack it out of spite towards its author, why the exceptional vehemence of this campaign? Horowitz ventures his own answer:
In other words, bad faith. Horowitz’s opponents never defend those practices openly. Rather, they deny such practices exist and characterize the bill as “a solution in search of a problem.” The AAUP under its current president, Cary Nelson, has been exceptionally duplicitous in this fashion. Nelson is candid about his Marxist orthodoxy, including his belief that everything is fundamentally political and that there is no reason why the classroom shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of being a stage for progressive activists attempting to win converts to their cause. But this isn’t the AAUP’s argument when it puts on its Sunday clothes and goes over to the statehouse to lobby. In that setting, it is a pious upholder of the divine law of academic freedom.
“Academic freedom,” of course, can mean many things, and the AAUP has been busy in the last few years turning it into a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” doctrine. Heads, it is my intellectual freedom to bring politics into the classroom; tails, don’t you dare try to bring your politics into my classroom. Horowitz surely has the right answer here—or, at least, a large part of the right answer. Academic freedom is about searching for the truth, and requires disciplined even-handedness when dealing with matters that “reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge” in the humanities and social sciences. We achieve that by “providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.” That’s an eloquent summary of the disinterestedness required of fair-minded teachers, and it is from article four of the Academic Bill of Rights.