Building the fight for academic freedom

April 26, 2011

COLLEGE CAMPUSES have a reputation for being "liberal" and a "hotbed for radical leftism." We need only look to David Horowitz's 2006 book, The 100 Most Dangerous Academics in America, to see the sort of propaganda I'm talking about.

Horowitz wages personal attacks against some of the most respected academics in the country--including Eric Foner (former president of the American Historical Association), Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Priya Parmar and the late Manning Marable. Horowitz claims that "Columbia [University] is a national scandal," and helped write an "Academic Bill of Rights" that asserts that students have the right to receive an education free of "political, ideological or religious orthodoxy."

A 2006 Boston Globe article explained, "Horowitz insists that the professors profiled in the book are ''representative" of the American university as a whole, that liberal bias is ''increasingly widespread throughout the academic profession."

It would be wrong to think this was just a single attack, or that attacks like this have no real impact and are the crazed ramblings of a person who has lost his senses (and particularly his ability to interpret statistical data).

Without concerning ourselves with the politics of a particular college, college campuses are far from being the open, free institutions they are portrayed to be. In practice, students and faculty with leftist politics--especially when they demand democracy, equality and freedom on their campuses--become targets disproportionately.

Reactionary, bigoted groups, students and professors rarely become targets of administrative discipline unless an outcry from students and the community forces it to occur, as was the case at the University of California-San Diego in 2009, when the hanging of a noose in the library and the placement of a Klan hood over a campus statue prompted massive student protests. Not only were the students who committed the hate acts punished, but protesting students were able to win increased funding for ethnic studies departments and the formation of a diversity initiative on campus.

But much of the disparity is not that obvious. At one women's college, for example, an incredibly sexist professor holds a tenured position and student complaints go ignored at the same time that a loved and respected professor of communications and rhetoric (who was a woman of color and regularly confronted racism, sexism and homophobia in her classroom) failed to receive a contract renewal, even after weeks of petitioning and protest by students.

She was replaced by a white professor who, students report, does not present the same challenges to her students. This professor got automatic tenure.

In the Political Science department at the same college, one professor didn't challenge a student when she equated people of African descent with children. Instead, the racist comment was glossed over and ignored--just like the professor's response--despite student complaints.

THESE INCIDENTS--and others like them--combine to create a culture where refusing to tolerate bigotry is not a regular part of a person's education, but instead becomes an act that might end up being career suicide.

Academics are denied tenure in spite of outstanding student and faculty reviews, publishing records and professional experience--such as The College of New Jersey Professor Nagesh Rao was in 2009. Rao was ultimately awarded tenure after a long campaign waged by students, academics and activists, both in New Jersey and around the country.

Think, for example, of Dr. Norman Finkelstein, who has been ostracized by much of the academic community for his unwavering opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the slaughter of the Palestinian people, Israeli settlements and the blockade of Gaza.

Students, as well, come under attack. There are two dominant portrayals of American university students. The first is that of the leftist student, the radical, the organizer. The second is of the student who is just rolling through college, not bothering anyone, but who is also apathetic and therefore does not need campus democracy.

The latter group is alienated. It has no power over the direction of their university. Educational access is being cut, students are in debt. Combined with academic stresses, many students feel they must unplug from political life.

Of course, radicals exist everywhere in society (and radical students are certainly not the sole product of exposure to "dangerous" leftist academics). Moreover, students who participate in organizing other students for the purposes of activism are not participating in any sort of "dangerous" activity--unless democracy (i.e., having actual power in campus decision making) and freedom from bigotry in every form are dangerous.

Under capitalism, they are. But not to students, to administrators and to the system they represent. They're dangerous to those who buy into the system, who are content with a life in the ivory tower, or who directly benefit from capitalism's perpetuation.

Because of this, universities go to incredible lengths to discourage campus organizing--from making it difficult to become recognized as a "legitimate" group on campus to harassing students with bogus laws and rules, to cracking down on demonstrations and actively undermining student efforts to organize.

Students are supposed to work through the "channels" of previously established and university-sponsored groups--especially Student Government Associations (SGAs), which have no real power over the campus despite the fact that students are the overwhelming majority on any campus.

Students who are old enough to carry an M1 and die in an imperialist war can certainly play a central role in running their own campus. As appealing as it is to think of massive universities under the control of Marxist student organization, students and faculty who challenge the capitalist system and paradigms of racism, sexism, and homophobia in a direct way are constantly under attack, and these attacks are being escalated.

RECENTLY, THE attacks against Loretta Capeheart, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), have come to the forefront again.

As Dana Cloud wrote in a letter to Capeheart's supporters:

On March 2, 2009, Judge Blanche Manning, U.S. District Court Judge, Northern Illinois District, agreed to hear Loretta's case despite the university's arguments that it was "futile" for her to claim any right to free speech.

As Judge Manning wrote, "The defendants oppose the amendment on the basis that it would be futile. Specifically, they contend that the First Amendment protects only speech by public employees that addresses matters of public concern as opposed to matters involving their official duties. See Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006) ('when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.')

"The defendants contend that the speech at issue was not protected by the First Amendment because (i) it addressed university policy, (ii) occurred at university-sponsored events which Capeheart attended as a university employee, and (iii) concerned her official duties. However, as Capeheart argues, the speech also addressed matters of public concern such as discrimination and the ability of students to express antiwar views.

At this juncture, without the benefit of a full record including details of Capeheart's speech and the nature of the events she attended, it would be premature to determine whether her speech was protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, futility is not a basis for denying Capeheart's motion for leave to amend."

The idea that a university administration has the right to determine the application of the right to free speech on its campus is a dangerous one. Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) set a dangerous precedent because of the ambiguous nature of exactly what an action/statement "pursuant to [sic] official duties" is.

Once again, the courts demonstrated their willingness to violate what most people consider to be the most basic and necessary of our civil rights.

In addition, while this case may seem to be directed against faculty, it is also a backdoor way to increase control over student speech. Many students are employed by the universities they attend as a means of receiving much-needed financial aid. What is to say that that the university will not attempt to regulate their speech, claiming that the students represent the university?

While Manning should be praised for her ruling, we must also realize that Garcetti needs to be challenged. Manning did not challenge the 2006 ruling, but instead, stated that Capeheart's case was not applicable to Garcetti. However, to ensure that other institutions don't attempt to make the same case against outspoken employees or faculty, Garcetti must be overturned.

What is the legal recourse for that action? Not much. Courts have overwhelmingly ruled in favor of corporations and institutions, even at times when the makeup of the court leans in a liberal direction. Progressive court decisions have always been made at the behest of a movement--the labor strikes of the 1930s, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the LGBT movement. It's important that we recall that history now.

We need a movement for academic freedom and campus democracy in this country--one that is built from the bottom up. That's the way to overturn Garcetti. It's the way to make sure that the political speech and actions of professors are protected. It's the way to encourage student organization and democracy on campus. It's the road to ending the alienation of students.

It will educate an entirely new generation in struggle, right at the very moment when people across the country are looking to become involved in movements, in building a new and better world.
Trish Kahle, Winston-Salem, N.C.

First published at I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest this Shit.

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