The abuse of academic freedom

Hundreds of professors signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions under the guise of exercising their academic freedom, but when the names of these paragons of the First Amendment were publicized, the boycotters had the temerity to accuse their critics of McCarthyism. In today’s Alice-in-Campusland academic world, professors demand freedom to say whatever they want – regardless of whether it has any academic basis or relevance -- but deny others the right to call them to account, criticize their views or suggest that their biases might affect their classroom teaching. Shouting McCarthyism has become the all-purpose slur to discredit anyone who challenges the hypocritical, misleading or inaccurate content of professors’ opinions.

It would be easy, but incorrect, to attribute the emasculation of the term “academic freedom” to political correctness. Today, academic freedom is applied in a politically correct way, but only selectively. The PC crowd has no compunction about joining the anti-Semitic BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, singling out Israel for condemnation and demonization, and denying Jews the right to self-determination in their homeland, but will not countenance so much as a whisper of criticism of women or other minorities. Universities have a zero tolerance policy for disparaging any non-Jewish minority. The failure of most faculty, administrators and trustees to stand up to bullies inside and outside the classroom has allowed attacks on Israel (often used as a synonym for Jews) to become accepted discourse in the academic world.

The latest manifestation of the PC movement is the invention of “Islamophobia” to silence criticism of radical Islam. A phobia is an irrational fear, but is it irrational to fear that radical Muslims want to replicate 9/11, or that they are beheading our citizens, or joining jihadis fighting in Syria and returning home radicalized? Are the various terrorist plots by radical Muslims uncovered by American law enforcement a product of profiling or just good police work?

The promoters of “Islamophobia” ignore the data that shows Muslims are far less likely than Jews to be victims of hate crimes. And if you look at the 2007 Pew survey of Muslim Americans you will find very high levels of satisfaction and very low levels of experience with anti-Muslim behavior. Nevertheless, Berkeley created the “Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project,” which publishes an Islamophobia Studies Journal in an effort to create a purely ideological field of “Islamophobia Studies” and give it a veneer of academic credibility. This project is run by one of the most virulently anti-Israel professors in the country. In this chapter of Alice-in-Campusland, a professor who smears the Jewish people and their homeland is put in charge of a program to document slurs against Muslims.

The hypocrisy of faculty Israel deniers does not stop with their exclusive claim to free speech; the content of their speech is even more dishonest, singling out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring the world’s most serious human rights abusers. Worse, many of these exemplars of academic virtue take money from those same malefactors, such as Saudi Arabia and are now apologists for radical Islam. Some universities have gone so far as to sell out their ideals to set up campuses in Gulf States where freedom of any kind is virtually nonexistent.

Universities should check the U.S. Constitution and they will find that there is no guarantee of “academic freedom”; faculty have arrogated this right for themselves and created their own ground rules. In the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) teachers are told they have freedom in the classroom, but “they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject (emphasis added).” Thus, professors in subjects unrelated to the Middle East have no business bringing their political views on regional issues into the classroom.

Another principle is that when professors “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution (emphasis added).”

Today, many faculty ignore the emphasized admonitions because there are no consequences for propagandizing or other forms of academic malpractice. Universities assert the right to police themselves and object to outside interference; however, public institutions are supported by taxpayers, tuition and private donations and all of those stakeholders have the obligation to demand that the university uphold its principles and academic standards. Private institutions may not have to answer to taxpayers, but they should be no less accountable to their donors and the students and parents who pay tuition.

Academic freedom is indeed an important tradition that deserves protection. With great power, however, comes great responsibility. The biggest threat to this freedom is coming from inside the university where ideological faculty have stripped the scholarly component from the term and claimed freedom of speech only for themselves. This trend has gone unchecked for years and if universities expect to retain academic freedom – and integrity -- they will have to distinguish between faculty committing academic malpractice by abusing their positions to promote political agendas and scholars seeking and disseminating knowledge supported by facts and evidence.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.