[NetBehaviour] Worse than McCarthy

Ryan Griffis ryan.griffis at gmail.com
Fri Feb 10 20:13:15 CET 2006

Worse Than McCarthy


Chronicle of Higher Education

February 10, 2006

When Barrows Dunham, chairman of Temple University's
philosophy department, faced the House Un-American
Activities Committee in 1953, he knew that his job was
on the line. He was determined not to cooperate with
the committee or name names; so, after giving his
address, and -- reluctantly -- his date and place of
birth, he invoked the Fifth Amendment's privilege
against self-incrimination. He was more forthcoming
with Temple's investigation, explaining to a special
faculty-administration committee why he had joined the
Communist Party and why he left it. Even so, the
university dismissed him on the grounds that he had
abused the Fifth Amendment and so was unfit to teach.

Unlike Dunham, the Temple professors who appeared in
January before the Select Committee of the
House of Representatives were not risking their jobs.
The panel's inquiry, the fruit of David Horowitz's
current campaign to enact an "academic bill of
sought to find out whether students were facing
political and religious discrimination within the
commonwealth's classrooms. Though the testimony the
committee received was decidedly mixed, at no point
were any professors quizzed, as Dunham was, about

Whatever threat investigations like Pennsylvania's
continuing hearings pose, it will not be a replay of
the McCarthy era. At that time, at least 100 academics
lost their jobs, and thousands more took loyalty oaths
or faced other political tests. With one exception,
every junior faculty member who tangled with the
anticommunist furor lost his or her job. Tenure was no
protection. Nor were private institutions immune. The
pressure on the nation's colleges was so intense that
even as progressive an institution as Reed College
fired a senior professor. Moreover, because an
unofficial blacklist existed and many academics kept
their troubles to themselves, we will never have an
exact accounting of the toll. Nor can we fully assess
the intellectual fallout: books that were not written,
research projects not initiated, and courses not

The situation is different today. Despite the post-
September 11 patriotic furor that discourages dissent,
few faculty heads have rolled. The academy, it seems,
has learned its lesson from the McCarthy era. Or has

During the late 1940s and 1950s, anticommunism focused
on the off-campus political activities of individual
professors. Like Dunham, most of the victims of the
era's purges were Communists or former Communists who
did not want to name names. Their extracurricular
affiliations and behavior -- in particular, their
refusal to cooperate with investigating committees --
caused their dismissals, not their teaching or
scholarship. Surprisingly, despite the insistence that
Communists were unqualified to teach, no evidence was
ever produced to show that those people had skewed
their research or indoctrinated their students. The
notoriety of harboring a Fifth Amendment witness was
enough to make colleges shed politically embarrassing

Today's assault on the academy is more serious. Unlike
that of the McCarthy era, it reaches directly into the
classroom. In the name of establishing intellectual
diversity, Horowitz and his allies want to impose
outside political controls over core educational
functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and
teaching methods. Such an intrusion not only endangers
the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects
academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity
of American higher education.

Some fields are more vulnerable than others. Just as
charges of communist sympathies in the 1950s destroyed
the careers of people who studied China, so today the
Arab-Israeli conflict plagues scholars who come from
study the Middle East. Predictably, the first major
academic-freedom case to arise after September 11
involved a Palestinian nationalist, the already-
controversial University of South Florida professor of
computer engineering Sami Al-Arian, suspended and then
fired after the federal government charged him with
supporting terrorism. His summary dismissal, even if
the university were to revisit it in light of his
recent acquittal, is a classic violation of academic
freedom: It involved his off-campus political

More troubling than the Al-Arian case, however, has
been the campaign to depict the entire field of Middle
Eastern studies as radical, one-sided, and hostile to
Israel and the United States. Through Web sites,
publications, speeches, and such efforts as the
based David Project's attack on Middle East studies at
Columbia University, polemicists have disseminated the
notion that most professors in the field are seriously
biased. Those charges have become so widely accepted
that Congress has considered imposing constraints on
federally financed area-studies centers.

The main scenario involved the late Palestinian
literary critic Edward Said, whose work, it is
so dominates the field that its practitioners not only
promote an anti-American worldview but also subscribe
to the trendy postmodern discourse on race, class, and
gender that makes contemporary scholarship so
to ordinary Americans. That scenario delegitimizes
Middle Eastern scholars -- and provides ammunition for
a broader assault on the academy like Horowitz's.

Invoking what he calls "intellectual diversity,"
Horowitz insists that universities must redress the
preponderance of liberals on college faculties. He and
his allies support their argument by citing a recent
study showing that most professors in the humanities
and social sciences tend to vote Democratic. Such may
well be the case, but what difference does an
academic's party affiliation make?

For Horowitz et al., it makes a lot. At the heart of
their campaign is the assumption that liberal
professors bring their politics into the classroom and
discriminate against their conservative and Christian
students. There is, however, little concrete evidence
to support that assumption. The grievances that grace
the Web sites of Students for Academic Freedom and
similar groups reveal more about their authors' senses
of entitlement than they do about the misbehavior of
the supposed tenured radicals who teach them.

When pressed during the Pennsylvania hearings, neither
Horowitz nor his allies could back up two of the
examples he has used of serious classroom abuses.
Furthermore, several college administrators testified
that they had received no official complaints about
professorial discrimination.

Despite its heavy reliance on the traditional rhetoric
of academic freedom, the "academic bill of rights"
seriously undermines that freedom. By injecting
extraneous political considerations into personnel and
curricular decisions, the measure not only interferes
with those areas of educational policy that are the
traditional responsibility of the faculty, it also
disregards the professional standards that guarantee
the quality of American higher education.

Academe maintains those standards by policing itself
through peer review. Operating through a dense web of
institutions -- departmental committees, faculty
senates, disciplinary associations, scholarly
and so on -- that process ensures that the nation's
college professors do not abuse their students' rights
and that their work meets commonly accepted
disciplinary standards of evidence and accountability.
While not entirely infallible, the system has worked
well enough to produce an educational establishment
that is, at least at the moment, the best in the

For that system to function properly, however, it must
be controlled by its own members. Outsiders may have
opinions about a particular field, but they do not
the training or expertise to assess the work of an
evolutionary biologist, say, or a specialist in
medieval Islam. Professors must make the main
about hiring, tenure, promotion, and curriculum:
Otherwise, we cannot maintain the quality of higher

Unfortunately, the academy may have more trouble
fending off the current assault on its autonomy than
did in the 1950s, when its members still got respect,
and the system of higher education was on the verge of
expansion. Now colleges must cope with the public-
relations fallout of decades of conservative attacks
their supposed political correctness and quest for
diversity. At the same time, they must deal with the
fiscal cutbacks that have forced them to raise
and substitute part-time for full-time teachers,
stratagems that only further undermine already
dwindling public support for higher education.

According to The Chronicle's most-recent figures, 17
state legislatures have considered some version of the
"academic bill of rights," while Congress may
incorporate it into the Higher Education
Reauthorization Act. At their recent annual meetings,
both the American Historical Association and the
Language Association condemned such measures; the
American Association of University Professors, the
American Federation of Teachers, and other faculty
groups have mobilized against them with some success,
turning back initiatives in California, Ohio, and

Still -- with Web sites asking students to report on
their professors (and even an abortive offer to pay
students to do so at the University of California at
Los Angeles), and statewide hearings like those in
Pennsylvania -- it is hard to imagine that
encroachments on academic freedom will not encourage
self-censorship. That's especially a concern for
untenured and part-time teachers. Perhaps allegations
of the Bush administration's violations of individual
rights will provoke enough of a national backlash for
academe to deflect the growing assault on its
If not, the political chill that characterized the
McCarthy era may well return to our campuses.

Ellen Schrecker is a professor of history at Yeshiva
University, former editor of Academe, and the author
several books on the McCarthy era and its aftermath,
including Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America
(Little, Brown, 1998). 

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