A generation ago, activists and progressive academics fought for the right of professors to express unpopular views without fear of losing their jobs. Today, under the borrowed banner of academic freedom, conservatives are lobbying state governments on behalf of the ostensible right of students not to be exposed to professors whose views they don’t like. Twelve states have taken up legislation to restrict what kinds of professors can touch on political issues in class and what kind of politics professors can share. Each, as David Horowitz wrote yesterday, is “a direct outgrowth of the campaign” he launched through the questionably titled organization Students for Academic Freedom. Horowitz’s time would be better spent persuading young conservatives to pursue careers in academia than trying to force liberals out of them. But without a steady supply of scapegoats, how could a movement that controls every branch of government maintain a healthy sense of victimization?
Yale has its own chapter of Students for Academic Freedom. Their sole public activity was a survey, printed in the Yale Free Press in Nov. 2004, soliciting students’ experiences with crimes against academic freedom. There were a few allegations of unfair grading which, if true, are problematic, though certainly not the province of any one part of the political spectrum. (I got a problem set in October 2004 whose correct answer was apparently that Kerry’s economic policies would cause unemployment.) The most common complaint? Students who support President Bush feeling uncomfortable when professors criticized him in ways that the students thought were unfair. Sometimes, those criticisms were made in classes that weren’t focused on President Bush; sometimes, they took the form of jokes. This is the academic freedom being touted by the right: The right of the supporters of the most powerful man in the world not to hear him criticized too harshly, or too irreverently, or outside of the appropriate context. Here conservatives themselves are demanding what they once claimed the hated political-correctness legions were calling for: the right not to be made uncomfortable. The term “politically correct” itself was popularized by Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote a book arguing that racism is merely “rational discrimination” by whites with a justified fear of “black cultural defects.” D’Souza is now a political analyst for that supposed bastion of political correctness, CNN. Working the referee has its advantages.
The greater irony, perhaps, is that while Horowitz’s campaign has been grabbing headlines, the real academic freedom — which depends on professors’ ability to speak out without fearing for their jobs — has been steadily eroded by academic casualization. As teachers with job security have been replaced by cheaper temporary workers — adjuncts, post-docs and graduate teaching assistants — increasing amounts of teaching have fallen to people with decreasing levels of security in their jobs. As GESO reported in 2004, the percentage of Yale teaching done by ladder faculty has fallen to approximately 30 percent; TAs and other transient teachers do the rest.
Graduate student unions have taken a lead in confronting the impact of casualization on education because their members recognize that their teaching conditions are our learning conditions. They’ve offered recommendations that would strengthen undergraduate education and academic freedom by ensuring that schools like Yale retain sufficient faculty with a long-term relationship to the University and that short-term faculty have both the support to teach well and the security to speak freely.
As graduate student unions have pushed for reform, they’ve provoked a backlash from University administrators which itself has shown the real limits of academic freedom for transient teachers. The most dangerous issue for transient teachers to discuss isn’t the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians; it’s the economic relationships defining the universities that employ them. On a panel two years ago, Professor Matthew Jacobson acknowledged this in describing why he had spoken publicly about Yale’s 2003 strike after having been silent about the 1996 strike, which took place before he was tenured.
Such fears are not idle, as we have been reminded this year with the announced departure of professor David Graeber, whose first lecture of the semester overflowed Dunham Lab’s lecture hall. While most press coverage of Graeber’s so-called “sabbatical” next year has focused on his anarchist politics, the confrontation he described to the News was closer to home: a meeting at which faculty were advocating kicking an active GESO member out of the department and Graeber “was the only person who dared to stand up for her” (“Graeber appeals decision,” 9/8/05). The lack of job security for transient teachers who call for change in Yale policy weakens the conversation in Yale’s classrooms and outside of them. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and other labor experts have concluded, “serious issues are percolating at Yale’s graduate faculties that implicate not only labor relations but the University’s overall mission to foster a center of reasoned dialogue and inquiry.”
That mission of light and truth is eroded when graduate teaching assistants curtail political activity for fear of losing the support of their departments or being forced out of them. It is eroded when adjunct professors stay quiet for fear of sacrificing their careers. It’s endangered at every university where coercive anti-union campaigns and aggressive casualization pit intellectual responsibilities against economic necessity. That includes NYU, where teaching assistants remain on strike despite President John Sexton’s threat to lock them out of teaching work. It’s threats like these, not tenured radicals, that endanger academic freedom, and these are the struggles that should concern those seeking to protect it.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.