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Dark Ages

The renewed threat to academic freedom

By Tony White

Two years ago, when I returned from an educational trip to Cuba, someone gouged "communist bastard" into my office door at Sonoma State University. When I read about students accusing Santa Rosa Junior College instructors of advocating the overthrow of the government in favor of communism, it was a chilling reminder of that dark moment in recent American history: McCarthyism.

While my door could be replaced, the smear tactics employed by the SRJC students were more menacing, and violated the trust, civility and open discourse which should govern the conduct of students and faculty alike. By not publicly admonishing these students that their "dirty tricks" were unacceptable in an academic institution, the SRJC administration has failed to defend the faculty and academic freedom.

This was not an isolated event, but part of a national campaign by conservatives to smear liberal professors and stifle criticism of government policies in the name of academic freedom. Instead of engaging in a public debate on national issues or government policies, these conservatives use labels to characterize opponents as un-American, communists or supporters of terrorism.

They are also mean-spirited, making anonymous and unsubstantiated charges that threaten their targets' financial security, not to mention their academic freedom. The latter tactic is spreading. In California, a legislator has introduced Senate Bill 5, labeled the "Student Bill of Rights," which would seriously inhibit the free expression of ideas in the University of California and the California State University.

In a recent opinion piece in the Press Democrat, a former school superintendent not only praised the students for their courage, but repeated their charges of communist indoctrination. But neither he nor any of the students have cited a single example by any of the targeted instructors and none of the accusers had attended their classes.

Like other critics of academia, he concluded that since the majority of professors are registered Democrats, they are liberals who "reflect the far left." Even if the majority of college and university faculty are registered Democrats, does that tell us anything about how they teach math, geology, physics, accounting or history? And how does voter registration in a centrist party lead to implied charges of communism and treason?

These same critics also claim that liberals have a litmus test for hiring and promoting faculty, but they offer no evidence to prove this claim. During years of service on numerous hiring and promotion committees, I can testify that a candidate's political ideology never once entered the discussion. To even inquire about a candidate's political views would violate their rights and provide grounds for a lawsuit.

In a recent syndicated column, Cal Thomas cited studies which show that the majority of college professors are liberals who support abortion rights and gay marriage and do not regularly attend religious services. While not surprising, these views or behavior do not differ significantly from mainstream America, especially among professionals.

Although I agree that university faculty tend to be liberal, this is not the result of any conspiracy or bias in the hiring and promotion process. It is because of the unique nature of academia and the attraction which college teaching has for someone who is intellectually curious, thinks critically and wants to make a difference through teaching young minds.

Unlike the corporate world, the military or government service, academics are encouraged to question authority, conduct independent research, discover new information or ideas and challenge the canon. Ideally, the goal is an ongoing search for the truth through objective research and the open discussion of opposing views. Without academic freedom and the protection of tenure, this would not be possible.

College should be viewed as an opportunity for students to grow intellectually and be challenged by new information and ideas. If this clashes with their pre-college views, the perception may be that the instructor is not only liberal, but also anti-American, when, in fact, the objective is to present a more comprehensive view of history.

My own liberalism stems from one of the greatest of American traditions: sympathy for the underdog and protection of the weak. That includes public support for education and access to higher education, without disruption from ideologues with a political agenda.


Tony White is a professor of history and global studies at Sonoma State University.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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