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Think you enjoy academic freedom? Think again. In July 2007, the American Sociological Association reported that 1/3 of its members felt that their academic freedoms were threatened, a significantly higher figure than the 1/5 recorded during the McCarthy years.  What this suggests is that witch-hunts haven’t gone away; they just don’t attract as many headlines. (Just last month, Bill Ayers was disinvited from another lecture: ho-hum.) Today, even tenured faculty at top research schools can legally be disciplined and harassed for questioning the administration in a department meeting.

How are we to understand this moment? How did we get here? Academic Repression,a blistering volume by Nocella, Best, and McLaren, offers some desperately needed history and analysis.

The history alone is worth the price of admission. If you’ve let your AAUP membership lapse–and have been getting your ideas about the state of the academy from cable news or the business and lifestyle reporters at the New York Times–you might still retain fantasies about the unassailable security of tenure.

This book will change that, with a series of eye-opening stories showcasing the extreme vulnerability of individuals with unpopular views.

As Michael Parenti makes clear in the excerpt that follows, the current wave of repression conceals its agenda behind a mask of proceduralism, backed by a tightening net of repressive law.

As in the case of Ward Churchill, the McCarthyism of today bends over backward to pretend that politics isn’t the reason for the attack on the individual–it is generally some other, often pretended offense that provides the pretext. Ironically, the contemporary war on academic freedom usually employs the very procedures and norms that are supposed to protect it:

EXCERPT

On some campuses, administrative officials have monitored classes, questioned the political content of books and films, and screened the lists of guest speakers—all in the name of scholarly objectivity and balance.

In some places, however, trustees and administrators readily pay out huge sums for guest lectures by committed, highly partisan, rightwing ideologues.

The guardians of academic orthodoxy never admit that some of their decisions about hiring and firing faculty might be politically motivated. Instead they will say the candidate has not published enough articles. Or if enough, the articles are not in conventionally acceptable academic journals. Or if in acceptable journals, they are still wanting in quality and originality, or show too narrow or too diffuse a development. Seemingly objective criteria can be applied in endlessly elastic ways….

Mainstream academics treat their politically safe brands of teaching and research as the only ones that qualify as genuine scholarship. Such was the notion used to deny Samuel Bowles tenure at Harvard. Since Marxist economics is not really scholarly, it was argued, Bowles was neither a real scholar nor an authentic economist. Thus centrists ideologues have purged scholarly dissidents under the guise of protecting rather than violating academic standards. The decision seriously split the economics department and caused Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontif to quit Harvard in disgust.

Radical academics have been rejected because their political commitments supposedly disallow them from objective scholarship. In fact much of the best scholarship comes from politically committed scholars.

One goal of any teacher should be to introduce students to bodies of information and analysis that have been systematically ignored or suppressed–a task that usually is better performed by iconoclasts than by those who accept existing institutional and class arrangements as the finished order of things. So it has been feminists and African-American researchers who, in their partisan urgency, have revealed the previously unexamined sexist and racist presumptions and gaps of conventional scholarship.

Likewise, it is leftist intellectuals (including some who are female or nonwhite) who have produced the challenging scholarship about popular struggle, political economy, and class power, subjects remaining largely untouched by centrists and conservatives.16 In sum, a dissenting ideology can awaken us to things regularly overlooked by conventional scholarship.

Orthodox ideological strictures are applied also to a teacher’s outside political activity. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, an instructor of political science, Ted Hayes, an anti-capitalist, was denied a contract renewal because he was judged to have “outside political commitments” that made it impossible for him to be objective. Two of the senior faculty who voted against him were state committee members of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.17 There was no question as to whether their outside political commitments interfered with their objectivity as teachers or with the judgments they made about colleagues.

–Michael Parenti, “Academic Repression, Past and Present”



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