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That incident stands out because all the people involved were publicly identified; but in other cases, students spoke only on condition that their names and identifying circumstances be kept confidential. A student at the University of Northern Colorado came forward with an account of a criminology professor who gave her a failing grade in 2003 on a final exam because she refused to answer a question that demanded that she “Explain why George Bush is a war criminal.” She explained instead why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal. As it happens, the name of the professor, Robert Dunkley, eventually came out and, though had destroyed the exams in question, he recalled that he did ask a question along the lines of, “Make the argument that the military action of the US attacking Iraq was criminal.”
The details are worth repeating because the incident became the opening wedge in the AAUP’s effort to discredit Horowitz. An AAUP professor wrote a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer asserting that neither the student nor the professor existed. He characterized the student as “the poster child” for Horowitz’s movement, and the claim was quickly echoed by Media Matters and Inside Higher Ed where the editor Scott Jaschik opined on “The Poster Child Who Can’t Be Found.” Jaschik’s commentary was particularly galling to Horowitz, who reports that the editor “had already investigated the story and knew very well that the student and the professor existed, and that I was the target of a campaign whose sole purpose was to discredit our efforts.”
Reforming Our Universities is chock-a-block with this kind of detail and Horowitz has the wisdom to report it without much in the way of expostulation. This is a story about the petty lies and misrepresentations on the part of partisans of the academic left adding up to an Appalachian Trail of Deception. Eventually the attack on the Academic Bill of Rights was probably better known to most academics than the bill itself. It got the rap of being some kind of trick whereby state legislatures would muscle aside faculties to impose “affirmative action for conservatives.” If this were indeed Horowitz’s intended trick, he ought to have changed his name to Houdini. There really is no plausible reading of the Academic Bill of Rights that bears this interpretation. A document that begins by declaring that no faculty member should be hired, fired, promoted, or granted tenure on the basis of “his or her political or religious beliefs” is simply not a mandate for hiring conservatives to the faculty or displacing liberals.
This does, however, leave a residue of questions. What is so threatening about the Academic Bill of Rights to left-leaning American academics that they would pursue such bitter opposition to a document that mostly just recapitulates the abiding principles of the secular research university? Even if they were disposed to attack it out of spite towards its author, why the exceptional vehemence of this campaign? Horowitz ventures his own answers in a concluding chapter: “The scorched earth campaign against us would be understood only if our opponents felt it necessary to defend the practices—indoctrination and political proselytizing in the classroom—that the Academic Bill of Rights and our campaign were designed to prevent.”
In other words, bad faith. Horowitz’s opponents never defend those practices openly. Rather, they deny such practices exist and characterize the Academic Bill of Rights as “a solution in search of a problem.” The AAUP under its current president Cary Nelson has been exceptionally duplicitous in this fashion. Nelson is candid about his Marxist orthodoxy, including his belief that everything is fundamentally political and that there is no reason why the classroom shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of being a stage for progressive activists attempting to win converts to their cause. But this isn’t the AAUP’s argument when it puts on its Sunday clothes and goes over to the state house to lobby. In that setting, it is a Puritanical upholder of the divine law of academic freedom. “Academic freedom,” of course, can mean many things, and the AAUP has been busy in the last few years turning it into a “head-I-win-tails-you-lose” doctrine. Heads, it is my intellectual freedom to bring politics into the classroom; tails, don’t you dare try to bring your politics into my classroom.
Horowitz surely has the right answer here, or at least a large part of the right answer. Academic freedom is about searching for the truth and requires disciplined even-handedness when dealing with matters that “reflect the uncertainty and the unsettledness of all human knowledge” in the humanities and social sciences. We achieve that by “providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.” That’s an eloquent summary of the disinterestedness required of fair-minded teachers—and it is from article four of the Academic Bill of Rights.
Horowitz did, of course, find friends and allies along the way. Legislators in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia took an interest. Some introduced bills that encouraged colleges and universities to adopt Horowitz’s proposal. He also got support from a handful of university officials and trustees around the country, and some support from the leadership of organizations that promote reform in higher education, including the National Association of Scholars. Steve Balch, the chairman of NAS testified to the Pennsylvania legislature in favor of The Academic Bill of Rights. But Horowitz understandably registers disappointment with conservatives, libertarians, Republicans, and higher ed reformers of all stripes. In his view they have made the case many times over that American higher education is sunk in a mire of political correctness. But the reformers seem to do little beyond complain and try to fix things at the margins. Why did they make themselves so scarce when a forthright and powerful instrument of reform was put on the table? And for the few who came forward, why were their efforts so faint?
The indictment of the mainstream conservative movement and the Republicans is clear-cut. They both essentially ceded higher education to the political left and the teachers unions a generation ago and rarely can work up interest on anything other than the cost of tuition and the mismatch between college credentials and the needs of industry. To be sure, those are important matters in their own right, but by focusing exclusively on them, the Right has given enormous power to the Left to shape the worldview, the attitudes, the dispositions, and even the ignorance of generations of Americans. Horowitz is an alarm clock trying to rouse the Right from its cultural torpor.
He is an alarm clock that will not be heard by some, however, simply because he is so alarming. Horowitz talents for sharp-eyed observation, pithy pronouncement, and provocative framing make him awkward company. Even people who agree with his ideas shy from being his battle companion, partly for fear of errant missiles but also out of need to draw their own distinctions and plan their own moves. Horowitz more or less understands this and there are some rather sad moments in the book when he acknowledges that he is most successful when he can erase himself from his own projects.
On reading Reforming Our Universities, I am persuaded that The Academic Bill of Rights didn’t get a fair hearing, but I am less certain about what comes next. I know a good many members of the National Association of Scholars were queasy about it, probably on the mistaken grounds, promoted by the incessant AAUP propaganda, that it was a call for government control and a demand for politically-motivated hiring of conservative scholars. Even if those misimpressions were cleared away, however, Horowitz and other proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights would have to find a new point of departure. I don’t doubt that he has one in mind.
Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.
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