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June 17, 2003 [feather]
Ideology or academic freedom?

Two interesting developments:

Congress has decided to hold hearings to assess the claim made by Stanley Kurtz, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, and others that Title VI funded academic programs in Middle Eastern studies are hotbeds of anti-American propagandizing. The hearing, which will be called "International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias," will commence this Thursday. Kurtz, who will be testifying, has the details. In short, his argument is that thesis-driven post-colonial theory (think Edward Said's Orientalism) has effectively derailed genuine inquiry in academic Middle Eastern Studies, so much so that many prominent programs actively work against the government that funds them.

To be clear: Kurtz and others are not arguing that Middle Eastern Studies should be parrots for American foreign policy, but rather that the government should think twice about allocating special funds to departments so politically driven that they boycott the National Security Education Program, a scholarship program that "supports foreign-language study for students who agree to work for national-security-related agencies after graduation." For the last decade, the African-, Latin American-, and Middle East Studies Associations have all boycotted NSEP.

Kurtz's killer point:

academic freedom and free speech must be protected. Free speech, however, is not an entitlement to a government subsidy. And unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated. The vigorous and open debate that's supposed to flourish at our colleges and universities cannot exist without faculty members who can speak for divergent points of view. Yet, by rewarding politically one-sided programs with gigantic funding increases, Congress is actually removing any incentive for deans and provosts to bring in faculty members with diverse perspectives. At this point, Title VI funding increases are only stifling free debate.

Read the whole thing, as they say. And then check out this piece from yesterday's Contra Costa Times detailing how the University of California is proposing to change the wording of its statement on academic freedom by excising the passages that exhort professors to avoid trying to convert their students to their point of view.

Critics of the current UC statement say that it is archaic, and that it needs to be revised to acknowledge that it is impossible for professors not to bring their politics into the classroom. They want to cut the section that reads, "To convert, or to make converts is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty" as well as the section stating that the University "assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by unqualified persons or by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda" because, a spokeswoman said, "If we accepted that as our standard, we would not be able to offer a whole lot of courses we do offer. ... Some of the most interesting work in academia is political and passionate." The new statement would explicitly give students academic freedom, but it would also strike existing language that forbids professors from proselytizing. If the proposed revisions are accepted, the University of California would no longer promise to provide "facilities for investigation and teaching free from domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests."

Luann Wright, founder and president of NoIndoctrination.org, has been fighting the proposed changes for some time. Her take on them is simple and to the point: "It's almost condoning using the classroom as a platform for indoctrination." Supporters of a revised policy say the changes are long overdue, and that they would bring the UC statement in line with those at peer institutions. But one has to wonder about the timing and the motivation. After the flap the UC Berkeley English department endured last year when graduate student Snehal Shingavi wrote a course description warning conservative students not to take his class on "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," one would think that the last thing the University of California would want to do is revise its statement on academic freedom so as to seem to accommodate, if not actively encourage, such outrageously partisan behavior. But there it is.

So: Stanley Kurtz and others have convinced Congress to consider the possibility that Title VI funding is actually working against its own stated aims, and that the government should consider whether it wants to continue to spend dollars on programs that are not using those funds conscientiously and impartially. Meanwhile, the University of California is considering altering the language of its academic freedom statement in such a way that it turns every classroom in the system into a de facto political forum. Taxpayers may have something to say about that, as may the government that supplies the University of California with the bulk of its funds.

Thanks to readers Jeff P. and Fred R. for links to the NRO and Contra Costa Times pieces.

UPDATE 6/20/03: Stanley Kurtz reports on his day on the Hill.

posted on June 17, 2003 6:15 PM