About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
« previous entry | return home | next entry »

October 14, 2008 [feather]
Ayers and academic freedom

Academic freedom does not mean "freedom from criticism." But there are a lot of academics who would like it to mean that--and who respond to public criticism with cries that the criticism threatens academic freedom. The cries have grown especially loud since 9/11. Remember, for example, Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch? This was an effort to publish the names and dossiers of academics whose public statements suggested that they were apologists for terror. It drew loud, angry protests from within academe, the word "McCarthyism" was much in the air, and the episode was defined by many as a threat to academic freedom. Of course, it was nothing of the kind. It was unwise and ill-advised--you don't create meaningful reform of academia by targeting individuals, and you do encourage a mob mentality that serves no one well. But it was not a threat to academic freedom.

Public criticism of academics cannot, by definition, threaten academic freedom. The only people who can threaten academic freedom are those with the power to curtail professors' ability to do their job: academic freedom, is after all, a word that describes the professional habitus of academics, and refers to the reciprocal duties and obligations (here I paraphrase the AAUP) of professors to teach and research in a manner that is utterly responsible to the pursuit of truth and the ideal of free inquiry. Administrators and, in rare cases, legislators, can threaten or violate academic freedom. But journalists, pundits, talking heads, radio personalities, and the like cannot.

The nonsensical character of yelling "academic freedom" in the face of public scrutiny of academics' public statements, published research, and public deeds seems lost on many, however. And so it is that the electoral and media frenzy currently surrounding Bill Ayers has prompted more than 3,200 academics across the country to sign a statement of support posted at www.supportbillayers.org. The statement soft-pedals Ayers' past, glorifies his academic work, and holds him up as a martyr to academic freedom: "the attacks on and the character assassination of Ayers threaten the university as a space of open inquiry and debate, and threaten schools as places of compassion, imagination, curiosity, and free thought. They serve as warnings that anyone who voices perspectives and advances questions that challenge orthodoxy and political power may become a target, and this, then, casts a chill over free speech and inquiry and the spirit of democracy." An aura of Puritanical self-righteousness hangs over it all--witch hunts are invoked, Ayers' is portrayed as the victim of "demonization," and academia emerges as the City on a Hill that is being corrupted by the false accusations of lesser, fallen mortals from beyond the ivory tower.

Inside Higher Ed has the details--but not a properly critical perspective. Ward Churchill gets three paragraphs to express his support for Ayers; much space is devoted to students and colleagues who really like Ayers. KC Johnson gets a token quote late in the piece; he touches on the problem of groupthink in academe. But no space is given to anyone who might suggest that criticism of a public figure is part of public discourse within a democracy, and hardly constitutes a threat to academic freedom.

Luckily, comments are doing what comments do. Here's DePaul math professor Jonathan Cohen:

This is a strange article because it frames criticism of Bill Ayers as an attack on academic freedom. Ayers is a very public intellectual and the public has a right to criticize him. The characterization of Bill Ayers as an unrepentant domestic terrorist is criticism of Ayers. It is protected speech. It is also undoubtedly true.

This article gives the impression that the Weathermen were simply overzealous critics of the war who were only hurting property and were careful to avoid hurting people. That is nonsense.

The details of their activities are difficult to pin down because setting off bombs is illegal and though they sent out communiques claiming credit for at least a dozen bombings, the details naming names were never included.

Before they went underground, they organized the "Days of Rage" in which about three hundred people gathered in Chicago and went running through the streets smashing windows and attacking police. When states attorney Richard Elrod was hurt by one of the demonstrators it was described in the newsletter sent out to people on the sds mailing list as "Pig Elrod was paralyzed, hopefully for life".

The group went underground two months later and two violent incidents occurred in which the Weather underground was strongly suspected. One was the bombing of a San Francisco police station in which one policeman was killed. The second was the firebombing of the house of the judge in the Panther 21 trial, an action that seemed aimed at killing not only the judge but his entire family.

In March of 1970, three months after going underground, three members of the weathermen blew themselves up in a townhouse explosion caused by the premature explosion of anti-personnel bombss that were being prepared for a dance for soldiers at Fort Dix.

After the townhouse explosion, they did move away from actions aimed at killing and injuring people. But in reality there is no way that setting off explosions in public buildings does not run a high risk of causing injury and death. Furthermore, it is clearly aimed at causing fear and intimidating the general population, something that is one of the major goal of all political terrorists. And it must be remembered, it was not until their own members had gotten killed that they developed a conscience about taking the life of innocents.

The Weathermen viewed America as hopelessly flawed by white racism and believed that a war was going on against America and the only way to help was to join that fight to help destroy it. They viewed those who didn’t join them as wedded to their "white skin privilege" and not sufficiently committed to the revolutionary struggle. Because monogamous relationships such as marriage were seen as barriers to total commitment, couples were pressured into having sex with other partners as part of the process of preparing for war.

The Weathermen saw themselves as following in the footsteps of John Brown's anti-slavery crusade. One of their chants was "John Brown live like him, dare to struggle, dare to win". While they were smashing store windows and "fighting the pigs" in downtown Chicago, they saw themselves as attacking Harper's Ferry and freeing the slaves.

It was madness and it only hindered the efforts of others to end the Vietnam War. They didn’t want to end the war, they wanted to bring the war home.

Bill Ayers has never been held accountable for his actions. By his own words he was "guilty as hell, free as a bird". Though the Weathermen acknowledged some of their excesses, there is no evidence that they have changed their fundamental view of American society.

There is no reason for a petition defending Bill Ayers' academic freedom. Nobody is trying to take his job away. Nobody is denying him the right to express his views. The only explanation for this petition is that it is a defense of Ayers' views and an attempt to demonize his critics.


You can say that again. What's happening to Ayers is intense and certainly unpleasant. But public figures--and Ayers most certainly is that--invite scrutiny, challenge, and criticism. The marketplace of ideas can be a rough place. And we should remember that Ayers does have legal recourse if he is libeled. We should also remember that none of this has anything to do with academic freedom.

As long as Ayers' employer leaves him alone--as long as there is no attempt to investigate or discipline him for his speech, as long as he is left alone to teach and research as he sees fit--his academic freedom is fine.

The state of debate in this country--and academics' duty to function as fiduciaries of free and unfettered exchange--well, that's another issue entirely.

posted on October 14, 2008 8:09 AM

Trackback Pings:

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Where is the line drawn for "academic freedom?"
Does "academic freedom" include the right to incite violence? To overthrow the government?

What, exactly, defines "academic freedom"?


Posted by: Sgt. York at October 14, 2008 9:20 PM

I am amazed at how the language of terror and violence has become so entrenchend in discussions of academic freedom. Academic freedom is "under attack." Professors are "dangerous." Certain well-known professors (ironically) teach "dangeral" studies. It borders on the ridiculous to describe whatever the current state of academic freedom is in such overblown terms. But then again, we have Ayers, which might actually reveal something about the relevance of the terror terminology.

The bottom line is--and I think I can speak for many on this--that to professors like me--adjucnts who desperately want full time work--it is painful to see tenured colleagues so explicitly defend someone like Ayers. Watching all of this from the outside, it feels a bit like: "Hmmmm . . . what other profession on earth so outwardly defends the rights of someone who might have been a terrorist at one point or another when there are perfectly non-threatening, non-violent, non-terrifying people out there who would jump at the chance--any chance--to do a job like the one Ayers has?" Reading that, I know the knee-jerk reactions of many will be: "But Ayers isn't a terrorist! That's the whole point!! He's a humane person with an interest in social justice and should have the right to be protected under the banner of academic freedom!!!" Fine, I get it. But might I respond with this: "Who is protecting my academic freedom when, as an adjunct, I haven't even been told if I have any classes to teach next semester?" Perhaps if (many of) those our profession sincerely and genuinely invested themselves in the cause of changing the systemic employment problems in higher education, as opposed to jumping at every chance to weigh in on national politics, we all might have a leg to stand on when academics are attacked for being overly politicized, disnigenuous, and blindly self-righteous.


Posted by: Murray Jay Siskind at October 15, 2008 9:30 AM

In the final sentence of my prior comment, please substitute "Forging a Communist America" for "Forging a Stalinist America".

Posted by: AMac at October 25, 2008 2:28 PM