Freedom or Fealty?

On Nov. 12, 70 members of faculty signed a “Statement of Concern” alleging that “President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the university is founded, especially academic freedom.” I wonder how many considered the ironic and, at times, unbelievable fact that the same University President Lee Bollinger helps pay Hamid Dabashi’s salary.

It’s no quirk of American higher education that Dabashi can issue petulant accusations of racism (in an Oct. 11 essay in the Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram) at the expense of President and trustee Bollinger, who has continued remunerating Dabashi in the way that he would any tenured professor. That’s a Columbia thing, the result of a unique institutional culture where a professor is allowed to accuse his president of “mind-numbing racism” and suggest that he had been co-opted by “New York Zionist diehards”—the phrase “New York Zionist” is a euphemism suggestive of the moneyed New York Jews who allegedly exert such financial and, by extension, ideological pull on Columbia.

It’s a tribute to our University’s unlimitedly permissive intellectual atmosphere that Dabashi’s coded prejudice—published in a periodical whose content is controlled by the government of the illiberal Egyptian state—hasn’t the slightest bearing on his or anybody else’s job security. This atmosphere does not exist by right: according to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, professors “should at all times be accurate,” “should exercise appropriate restraint,” “ show respect for the opinions of others,” and “remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.” At least implicitly, professors realize that, with academic freedom, “academic” serves as an all-important qualifier. An academic isn’t divested of his or her moral and social responsibilities once in the academy—it’s at the academy where these responsibilities begin.

In that sense, the Columbia faculty’s misguided acceptance of oppositional, institutional power politics represents a distressing step back.

In the “Statement of Concern,” faculty write: “In the face of considerable efforts by outside groups over the past few years to vilify members of the faculty and determine how controversial issues are taught on campus, the administration has failed to make unequivocally clear that such interventions will not be tolerated.” Nadia Abu El-Haj’s tenure decision seems to confirm Columbia’s resistance to outside opinion; meanwhile, professors are empowered to invite controversial speakers to campus and publicly call the University President a racist.

Attacking Bollinger for refusing to condemn outside influences on the tenure process is itself disingenuous. Tenure is so secretive and insulated a process that a faculty decision can be countermanded only by an administrative order to “fire” a junior faculty member by way of a rigged ad hoc committee—something which is rare at Columbia and incredibly difficult to do anywhere. Faculty familiar with the inner workings of the tenure process know that the “outside influence” question is a red herring. And although groups like Campus Watch attempt to turn public opinion against the academy, the tenure process is designed in order to keep the public out.

Predictably, much of the recent agitation over “academic freedom” centers around a desire to continue to keep the public out. Two weeks ago, anthropology professor Rosalind Morris chided Spectator for being “an instrument of external interests opposed to academic freedom,” a statement that came in an article attacking not an anti-El-Haj editorial, but the paper’s right to publish it in the first place.
The charge that people have no right to mobilize against their ideological opponents simply because they don’t hold a Ph.D. is an accusation that any other group of progressives would rightly view as fraught with classism and general prejudice. “Don’t criticize me,” they seem to say. “I’m the one with the Ph.D. here.” This sudden embrace of elitism tinged with intellectual chauvinism again raises the question: what is this really about?

It could have something to do with the Joseph Massad tenure battle. The specific (and as of yet, completely unconfirmed) fear is that Provost Alan Brinkley caved to the Board of Trustees in convening an ad-hoc committee with the specific intent of rejecting Massad’s tenure bid. If I were a professor, I too would want to banish all reminders of the University’s arcane, financially-driven power structure, and of that power structure’s impact on the University’s intellectual life—of Dabashi’s imagined “New York Zionists” and the effect that their deep pockets might have on the “academic freedom” of professors.

But this is nonsense. According to the Columbia Web site, the Columbia Campaign was “$726 million ahead of schedule” by Oct. 4, 2007, only two years after David Horowitz—himself one of the alleged causes of the “Statement of Concern”—listed nine Columbia professors among his “101 most dangerous academics.” Columbia can flirt with danger, satisfy its bottom line, and bring in a historic number of applications: proof that professors have little to worry about from the administration, and that the administration has even less to worry about from them.

It’s nonsense, but useful nonsense nonetheless. If taken in the most irrationally alarmist terms, the rows over Massad, Horowitz, and El-Haj could mean that the University is on the verge of abandoning its uniquely laissez-faire intellectual atmosphere, or that, in more cynical terms, the balance of power might shift from an ideologically homogenous faculty to profit-driven administrators and trustees. Again, there’s no proof that this is actually in the process of happening.

There’s more proof that this is a manufactured controversy, and that faculty has appropriated the “academic freedom” debate both to preempt a possible showdown over more substantive issues and to prove to the administration that academics are prepared to stand up for their own.

But in agitating for a brand of “academic freedom” that shirks the kind of objective standards articulated in the Statement of Principles, faculty are buying into a divisive, compartmentalizing logic by which “freedom” operates as little more than self-insulating professional tribalism. And the more this continues, the more our present crop of progressive and often visionary thinkers will retreat into that age-old symbol of classism and disconnection: the proverbial “ivory tower.”

The author is a List College sophomore and a Spectator associate editorial page editor.

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