Ph.D. Octopus

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The Kushner Affair and Academic Freedom

with 4 comments

by Nemo

Most observers seem to agree that the CUNY Board of Trustees made a boneheaded move by vetoing an honorary degree that the faculty and administration of John Jay College had planned to award to the playwright Tony Kushner. When you have people like Jeffrey Goldberg and Ed Koch attacking you for going too far with your “pro-Israel” activism, you know you probably went overboard. In fact, the trustees themselves seem to have realized the error in their ways, since they have now decided to overturn their previous decision.

Tony Kushner

Now, there were many reasons to criticize the board’s initial move to deny Kushner the degree. These include its unprecedented heavy-handedness (this was the first time that the board had overruled a motion for an honorary degree), its gross mischaracterization of Kushner’s views on Israel, and the obvious attempt it represented to narrow the range of acceptable debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even some of Kushner’s harshest critics believed that the vote to deny the honorary degree was patently unfair and gave Zionism a bad name. This is to their credit.

Allowing for the point that the trustees acted reprehensibly, did their initial decision to torpedo Kushner’s award represent an attack on academic freedom? Ellen Schrecker, a historian who has written the most deeply researched account of the faculty purges of the McCarthy Era, believes that it did. In an open letter in which she returned her own honorary degree from John Jay College in protest, she writes that academic freedom,

is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university teachers. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.

This assertion prompted an annoyed rebuttal by literary critic Stanley Fish, who has also written extensively on the subject. “Kushner is not an academic and so he has no academic freedom that can be demeaned, ” Fish wrote. He observed that,

Stanley Fish

The scholarly literature on academic freedom identifies four locations or arenas where it can properly be invoked: the classroom, the research library or laboratory, off-campus pronouncements on matters of public concern (extramural expression), and on-campus criticism of the university’s policies (intramural expression).

Granting honorary degrees falls nowhere within this category, he noted. Using the term “academic freedom” so expansively, Fish added, risks diluting its actual significance for faculty:

No longer tied to the performance of specific tasks it isn’t clear what this freedom protects unless we are to understand (and this seems to be Schrecker’s understanding) that it protects everything that goes on. A concept of freedom so diffuse loses its usefulness because it becomes hard to say with any precision where and when it has been abridged.

The trustees might have been wrong-headed, but he argued that they were well within their rights to deny the degree.

On the technical question, Fish makes a strong case. There is a compelling argument that academic freedom needs to be understood as a professional prerogative strictly designated for professors. Unlike other employees who may be fired from their jobs for expressing their personal opinions, academic freedom has traditionally ensured that professors receive special protections from such dismissals in order to protect the conditions necessary for the advancement of knowledge.

Under this line of reasoning only professional misconduct as judged by ones colleagues can justify dismissal. While academic freedom’s legal status is murky at best and its privileges have too often been honored in the breech (never more so than today with the ongoing decline of tenure and the corporatization of higher education), for over five decades this basic understanding of the concept has been codified into the mission statements of most American colleges and universities.

While Fish might be correct about his formal understanding of academic freedom, however, he also misses the bigger picture that Schrecker uses her letter to highlight. The CUNY-Kushner dustup isn’t “much ado about nothing,” as Fish titles his post. The context for the board’s decision to deny Kushner’s degree was important. It came after what many see as an ongoing effort to silence viewpoints critical of Israel on the nation’s campuses. Indeed, as reported in these pages, a graduate instructor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College was almost fired a few months ago because of external accusations of anti-Israel bias. His job was only protected after a massive outcry, which stressed the violation to academic freedom that such a dismissal would represent.

Many also recall DePaul University’s 2007 decision to veto the political science department ruling in favor of granting tenure to fierce Israel critic Norman Finkelstein after a similar external campaign was launched to squash the appointment. While one might disagree with much of Finkelstein’s writing (and the university denied that external pressure impacted the ultimate decision of its tenure review board), the Illinois branch of the American Association of University Professors rightly criticized the decision as a violation of professional norms. Although the Kushner decision was not a violation of academic freedom, it resonates with these other recent episodes.

Ellen Schrecker

Schrecker’s expansive view of academic freedom, while debatable, also has important historical precedents. During the McCarthy Era, for example, faculty dismissals for refusing to “name names” were the most obvious forms of political censorship, but they were also accompanied by widespread bans on radical speakers.

Those policies fell under the “extra-curricular” aspects of higher education that Fish dismisses as irrelevant to academic freedom, but many contemporaries saw them as connected.

In my own research on the 1950s, I’ve come across student groups from across the country that protested the academic blacklist, attacked the period’s loyalty oaths, and demanded the right to bring controversial speakers to campus. A decade before the Free Speech Movement, these students organized events such as “academic freedom days” where they demanded (often successfully) the right to invite political radicals to campus. The students often justified their request by noting that they wanted the opportunity to hear perspectives they felt they were denied in the classroom. They invited speakers such as muckracking journalist I.F. Stone, but also blacklisted Communists such as historian Herbert Aptheker and novelist Howard Fast.

While these student activists might not have technically been using the term “academic freedom” correctly, they probably did more to uphold its spirit than most of the period’s faculty members who, with few notable exceptions, did little to defend their endangered colleagues.

So while Fish might be right on the narrow point, Schrecker’s argument about the need to confront the manifold threats to open discussion on today’s campuses, which she elaborates on in her recent book on the topic, seems much more relevant. They also bring to mind a similar incident from 2002 when the Harvard University English Department re-invited vehemently anti-Israeli poet Tom Paulin after at first canceling his scheduled lecture due to public outrage. While in that case–unlike Kushner’s–Paulin’s language could legitimately be construed as hateful (he called for Brooklyn-born Israeli settlers to be shot), the department, along with pro-Israel stalwarts such as Alan Dershowitz, correctly argued that rescinding the invitation due to the controversy it generated would set a “dangerous precedent” for free speech on campus.

Had the Kushner decision been allowed to stand, it would have also set a terrible precedent. Even though this whole debacle wasn’t an example of academic freedom being abridged, any time a trustee succeeds in overruling traditional faculty prerogatives and launches scurrilous attacks to advance a political agenda, it helps set the kind of precedent for the type of university that would. It’s a positive sign that that the uproar over the decision to deny the degree—including Schrecker’s notable open letter—has helped force the CUNY trustees to change course.


Written by Julian Nemeth

May 10, 2011 at 15:31

4 Responses

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  1. great post, great position. thanks for laying it out so well.


    May 11, 2011 at 13:31

  2. definitely- great post and nice response to Fish’s delineation


    May 11, 2011 at 14:28

  3. Thanks for the props. Very much appreciated.


    May 12, 2011 at 10:13

  4. I’m glad to hear about the Kushner reversal, but I don’t think this bodes well for the future of academic freedom:


    May 12, 2011 at 10:16

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