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What's at Stake in Academia

Alan Jones, Dean of Faculty, Pitzer College

This summer, a colleague of mine, a president at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country announced to a national conference of her colleagues that we, as a body need to recognize that "we are at war". She was responding to a call from some quarters at the meeting for more civil discourse and compromise on campus. What drove her to take such a radical stand in a body not known for taking radical stands ? She had come to realize that there was no choice, that people of conscience in the Academy are under attack and there is no more room for compromise.

When someone is threatening to burn down your house, you can't politely suggest to them that a workable compromise might be for them to burn down only the left side of your house. You have to fight, and there is no bargaining.

What is at stake is at the very heart of what we do in the Academy--reasoned thought and critical, independent thinking. Our process is not driven by loyalty to any individual or tied to a particular religious or ideological agenda. This commitment is to truth, and to the application of reason and empirical methodologies to determine what is true, is unacceptable to the Bush administration. In the words of a senior Bush advisor to New York Times reporter, Ron Suskind, guys like you [Suskind] exist in "what we call the reality based community", which he went on to define as "people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality". When Suskind started to agree, the aide cut him off and said, "that's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now. When we act, we create our own reality, and while you're studying the reality, we'll act again, creating new realities." The empire that George W. Bush inhabits is becoming, in some ways, like that of the Imperial Pharaohs and Caesars, a dangerous brew of narrow egocentrism and messianic delusion.

In the same article, Suskind informs readers that Bush, in speaking to Amish farmers in Lancaster County, PA, said "I trust that God speaks through me." In the fragile world constructed out of such absolutes, individuals or institutions that question the President's fundamental(ist) vision or the facts that support it, cannot be tolerated. As the bumper sticker says: "God said it, I believe it, that's that". Truth is, after all, directly imparted and the task of the true believer is not to question or refine that truth but to maintain and assert it in spite of the overwhelming evidence that contradicts it.

The contradiction between faith based and inquiry based epistemologies is fundamental. Questions of justice and truth emerging from within the Academy through a thoughtful process of empirical investigation and reasoned analysis are at best, irrelevant to the President's reality and, at worst, hostile to his vision for carrying out god's work. The objective fact that there never were weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam never did pose a threat to the American people is irrelevant. Their existence became a part of the reality that allowed him to act on his vision of invading Iraq.

For followers of the President, the task is not to weigh the merits of his decisions or to evaluate the facts that support his position. The task is to have faith in him, despite the facts. So where does that leave the academic community, firmly committed to the pursuit of truth through the mechanisms of critical thinking, empirical research and the formal application of reason? Inevitably, it plants us squarely in the camp of what his aide referred to as the reality based community. Since members of the academic community have not infrequently questioned the merits and rationality of his "received wisdom" , our community has increasingly been viewed as disloyal to the president's vision directly, and to god's plan, indirectly.

So, what does the administration do? With enormous financial support from the Olin Foundation, The Scaife Foundation, and the Bradley Fund, and with the political backing from Carl Rove and Tom Delay, David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of popular culture have unleashed a vicious attack on higher education in this country. Graham Larkin of the California AAUP and Stanford University, describes Horowitz's techniques as "ranging from cooked statistics, race baiting and guilt by association to editorial foul play". (Inside Higher Education "Horowitz's War on Rational Discourse")

Evidence for this latter charge is reinforced by Michael Berube of Penn State University. Berube describes an on-line debate that he had with Horowitz on Horowitz's FrontPage Blog site. In transcribing the debate, Horowitz excised large portions of Berube's comments (without informing him) in a manner that rendered Berube's arguments incoherent. In a debate with Larkin, Horowitz asserted that his ABOR bill had the backing of progressives like Stanley Fish, Todd Gitlin and Berube. When Larkin contacted these individuals to confirm this, they were incredulous. Horowitz had simply lied. The facts apparently did not did not fit with Horowitz's rapidly developing reality. Even when Larkin confronted Horowitz with the lie and cited their numerous objections to the ABOR, Horowitz, more vehemently continued to assert the "fact" of their support.

Although Horowitz carefully couches the language of his bill in the rhetoric of free speech and academic freedom, principals no self-respecting academic could resist, imbedded within this unctuous language however, is a Horowitzian statement of "truth" that the academy is an unrepentant repository of leftist bias, and that conservative students are the objects of unrelenting politically inspired indoctrination - An accusation for which he can muster only the most shameful form of anecdotal support. Horowitz goes on to assert a second truth. Since Colleges and Universities are incapable of addressing this issue themselves, legislative intervention is necessary - hence the Acaadeamic Bill of Rights (ABOR)

These bills, although their form varies from state to state, guarantee that whatever belief (truth) a student asserts (particularly if they are conservative beliefs), they have a right to assert it. The unexamined truth thereby becomes protected speech. Something is true simply because the student believes that it is true. In this version of reality all such assertions of truth have equal merit and are deserving of a faculty member's respect. A faculty member, who challenges such a statement on the basis of failures in its logical underpinnings, now runs the risk of having the student file a charge of bias. This pernicious bill then, guts the ability of a faculty member to engage and challenge students in the kind of rigorous logical debate that has characterized the Academy for 400 years. It undermines the ability of faculty to nurture and develop in students precisely the kind of critical thinking skills that will be necessary to challenge the "received wisdom" orthodoxy of the Bush administration.

Although Horowitz has continuously assured faculty in various venues that he has no desire to impose outside oversight to what goes on in their classrooms, bills have been introduced into legislatures in 18 states, and Horowitz nearly did back-flips when HR177 (an ABOR-like resolution) passed the Pennsylvania House in July. One passage in this bill is particularly noteworthy:

"Resolved that if an individual makes an allegation against a faculty member claiming bias, the faculty member must be given at least 48 hours notices of the specifics of the allegation prior to the testimony being given and be given an opportunity to testify at the same hearing as the individual making the allegation."

So, a select committee appointed by the Pennsylvania State Legislature will now investigate all charges of political bias in the classroom - a select subcommittee of the state legislature, a partisan appointed committee, will be charged with insuring against political bias in the classroom. The ABOR has nothing to do with insuring an open atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas and the promotion of critical thinking and thereby enriching the Academy. It is designed, in fact, to do exactly the opposite. It is designed as Horowitz says "not to refute your opponent's arguments but to wipe him from the face of the earth" (in The Art of Political War)

The Academy has been slow to recognize and to respond to the Bush Administration's attack on rational discourse and critical thinking, but it is coming around. The highly publicized and vicious attacks on University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, for his political views, were a wake-up call. I and hundreds of my colleagues have been organizing to resist the attacks on him and on the Academy in general. We have generated a petition of support for Churchill that has thus far gathered over 600 faculty signatures. We have a website and list serve to communicate with one another. We have formed discussion groups to educate ourselves about the apparent war that is being waged against us, and we are beginning to write about the fraudulent nature of this attack. We are encouraged that, given the level of outraged vitriol in the attacks on Churchill and calls for his dismissal, initially on charges of sedition, by the Governors of two states and by David Horowitz, his students, in the midst of this, voted him a distinguished teaching award. Perhaps they have developed critical thinking skills after all.

Alan Jones
Dean of Faculty
Pitzer College