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Saving Academic Freedom From Its Supporters

Scholars have for centuries sought to define and promote the concept of academic freedom, and, while the exact definitions they’ve arrived at have varied, the underlying rationale has always been the same: to shield academics from political and religious pressure. For this reason, I’m a bit puzzled by the fact that many of the modern-day groups that describe themselves as defenders of academic freedom are also clearly political in nature and often seem to be promoting a political agenda rather than neutral principles of liberty.

The most recent academic freedom movement within the academy, which calls itself “The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University,” seems to fit this mold. It eloquently extols the virtues of academic freedom, particularly in debates over the Middle East, but upon closer inspection, seems concerned only with the rights of scholars from one side – theirs, of course – of  the political spectrum.

The Committee, led Joan Wallach Scott, a history professor at Princeton, has already voiced its opinion on quite a few academic freedom controversies, and, so far, they’ve always come out pretty much on the right side, in my view. When St. Thomas University cancelled a speech by critic of Israel and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, members of the Committee rallied behind the censored clergyman. And when the pro-Israel group StandWithUs convinced the University of Michigan press to stop publishing a book called Overcoming Zionism, the Committee helped convince Michigan to change its mind, arguing persuasively against these “efforts to broaden definitions of anti-Semitism to include scholarship and teaching that is critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and of Israel.”

So what’s the problem, then? As you can see, all of these controversies involve censorship of anti-Israel speakers. In order for me to take this group seriously, it first needs to defend the academic freedom of someone whose speech doesn’t fit neatly into the limited range of politically acceptable (or, as some prefer to say, politically correct) viewpoints prevalent on most campuses. The Committee stood behind Tutu, a liberal darling, but where was it when the Regents of the University of California nixed a speaking invitation to former Harvard University president and Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers because of complaints from a handful of leftist postmodernist professors? Similarly, the Committee criticized Israel supporters Alan Dershowitz and David Horowitz for involving themselves in DePaul University’s tenure dispute with Jewish-born Israel-basher Norman Finkelstein, but why hasn’t it also criticized the leftist academics who aggressively sought to bar Arab-born Israel-supporter Nonie Darwish from speaking at Brown last year? (Disclosure: I’m a long-time personal friend of Dershowitz. This said, however, I’ve been publicly critical of a number of his positions.)

As I’ve said many times, and will say again, once we cease looking at free speech and academic freedom as modal liberties – that is, as primary values in and of themselves – and begin to treat them as a means to a politicized or ideological end, we irreparably weaken thm in the long run. Either free speech and academic freedom are seamless and equally applied across the ideological spectrum, or they might as well be abandoned entirely. The founders of these important doctrines understood this. It’s a shame that their modern-day counterparts need so often to be reminded of it.

(My thanks go to my research assistant, the very talented Jan Wolfe, for assisting me with this blog entry.)

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