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A Crisis of Censorship: A Response to the National Association of Scholars

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued a new report about California universities based upon false evidence, distorted anecdotes, random online postings, and a series of terrible arguments that are fundamentally contrary to academic freedom and the idea of the university as a place for the free debate of ideas.

What the NAS calls for is a kind of a new McCarthyism, where Regents and administrators ban the use of funds for events deemed “political,” force the hiring of unqualified conservative professors, and silence professors as “political” if they criticize the government in class or stray from the preferred conservative ideology of the NAS.

“A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California” is a new report issued from the California Association of Scholars and the National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum apparently read the report, too, and embraced its loony vision of a vast left-wing conspiracy on campus to destroy education:

I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And at the California universities, they’re – I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it’s gotten in this country, where we’re trying to disconnect American people from the roots of who we are, so they have an understanding of what America should be.

Obviously, Santorum is an idiot. The notion that the University of California campuses don’t teach courses on American history is so bizarre that it reveals just how far from the roots of reality the conservative movement has strayed.

Of course, the NAS bears no responsibility for Rick Santorum’s inability to read, or think. But a careful examination of the NAS report reveals numerous errors and an explicit hatred of academic freedom and academic standards.

Many of the facts cited in the NAS report appear to be completely wrong, such as this one: “At UC Berkeley, the mission statement of the Social Work department includes a statement that students must be committed to ‘advancing social justice.’” There is no Social Work department at UC Berkeley, and the mission statement of its School of Social Welfare says nothing like this. There is one course at UC-Berkeley that mentions “advancing social justice,” in its description, but absolutely nothing about requiring students to be committed to it.

Yet according to NAS, this nonexistent department with its nonexistent mission statement is “in contravention of state law and university regulations” for using the phrase “social justice,” even though it doesn’t. Adopting yet another conspiracy theory, NAS claims about “social justice” that “this phrase embodies more than a vague admonition to do good: it has a specific place in left politics.” No, it doesn’t. It’s a vague admonition to do good, and no amount of ideological dictionary revision should make the words “social justice” illegal on college campuses.

NAS also complains that the UCSC Sociology department “’considers how society is organized in relationship to a vision of a just, free, and equal society – a vision that may require fundamental social change.’ Only a certain kind of political thinker will say that we need ‘fundamental social change’…” Actually, plenty of conservatives want fundamental social change, going backwards. But the NAS misses that key word: “may.” Nothing in this mission statement compels anything. But to the NAS, it’s also an illegal political statement.

No one bats an eye when far more powerful business schools routinely promote their service to corporate America as a fundamental goal of their programs, often without any serious critique of the business world from the viewpoints of workers or consumers. As much as I wish there was more intellectual debate and internal dissent in business schools, I would never support having administrators forcing my preferred ideology upon them.

NAS is also guilty of invoking false statistics. According to its report, “Nationally, a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in 2004 found in a survey of 50 selective colleges that 49 percent of students complain of professors frequently injecting political comments into their courses even if they have nothing to do with the subject, while 46 percent say that professors use their classrooms to promote their own political views.” But students were never asked about their own experiences; instead, students were asked, “On my campus, some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views”–effectively asking students to speculate on whether they imagine there are any professors somewhere on their campus who make political comments in class. So it’s simply not true that nearly half of all students complain that their own professors make political comments in class.

According to the NAS, “Further, 48 percent report that campus presentations on political issues ‘seem totally one-sided.’” Once again, this is a fake statistic. ACTA asked students to respond to the statement, “some panel discussions and presentations on political issues seem totally one-sided,” which I would agree with. Anyone with a strong point of view who gives a speech on campus is going to be one-sided. By omitting the crucial word “some,” the NAS is guilty of distorting reality, turning a worthless statistic into a fabricated one designed to convince readers that students think pretty much all campus presentations are one-sided.

But as disturbing as the factual mistakes in the NAS report are, what’s even more alarming is the repressive ideology they espouse. It’s simply hypocritical to declare that “the university must never be used for political purposes” and then demand that administrators must step to impose a right-wing political agenda.

The NAS report claims, “when state funds are used either by or in universities to pursue political aims, those funds are used for a purpose for which they were not appropriated, and could never have been appropriated.” In the eyes of the NAS, academic freedom is an illegal allocation of funds for political purposes, because individuals are given the freedom to express their individual political views. It’s hard to think of a more dangerous or repressive idea than this, the belief that individuals must be prohibited from discussing politics on campus.

According to the NAS, “An individual’s political beliefs, on the other hand, are a private matter, and his or her wish to promote them is a private, not a public concern. When even five minutes of class time is used to promote an instructor’s political beliefs, public property has essentially been converted to a private use.” The NAS compares this to when “a piece of university equipment is stolen” and calls it “the definition of theft.” It’s not clear if the NAS wants professors to actually be arrested for the thoughtcrime of expressing political beliefs for a few minutes in class. But it is clear that they want professors who talk about politics to be silenced and punished.

The NAS declares, “when we compare these two cases, it is hard to distinguish them from a moral standpoint. In both, something that belongs to the public is taken by an individual for his or her own use.” It is antithetical to the entire American tradition of individual rights to contend that a teacher’s classroom speech is the property of the public and must conform to the demands of politicians. If talking about politics in class makes you a criminal guilty of stealing from the public, then I hope all professors and students will be thought criminals in the brave new world imagined by the NAS.

The NAS report claims, “a college education influenced to any significant degree by political activism will inevitably be a greatly inferior education.” This is utterly absurd. There is not the slightest degree of any evidence showing that faculty involved in political activism provide an inferior education to students. Not surprisingly, the NAS offers not one piece of actual evidence to prove what it claims “inevitably” will occur. There is a great deal of inevitability throughout this report, and a startling lack of evidence.

The NAS asserts that allowing free discussion of politics causes repression in the classroom: “the fixed quality of a political belief system will stifle intellectual curiosity and freedom of thought when it dominates a classroom….Students will never learn to think for themselves if their thought processes must always conclude by fitting into a particular set of beliefs.” If a professor mentions politics in the classroom, it does not follow in any way that all students are forced to think in a way that fits into those political beliefs. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be true: students will have more freedom to think if they do not have a professor who forbids the discussion of politics in the classroom.

The NAS never mentions how their proposals would destroy student freedom in the classroom as well as the academic freedom of faculty. Is a professor allowed to permit students to bring up political ideas in class? After all, if politics is destroying the “quality” of higher education, then the NAS must want to ban it in the classroom, whether students or faculty are the ones speaking.

The NAS claims, “A genuinely academic thinker must be able to believe for a moment that his own preferred explanation is wrong, so that he can look very hard at the NASe for other explanations, but that is almost a psychological impossibility for the political or social activist.” The idea that it’s a “psychological impossibility” for political activists to consider they might be wrong is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe anyone could seriously write such a thing. There are plenty of narrow-minded academics and political activists who are convinced everything they think is correct. The idea that all political activists think exactly the same way harkens back to the McCarthy Era, when the firing of past and present communists was justified by the fallacy that all communists had sacrificed their ability to be genuine academic thinkers due to their political activism.

According to the NAS, “Academics live by competing ideas and explanations. When activists try to suppress all views but their own, their intolerance is certainly on display, but that is not the point. What really matters is that they are showing us that they are unable to function as academic thinkers, and that they are un-academic in the most fundamental way.” This shows precisely why the NAS is wrong. The rare academic who is a political activists isn’t trying to suppress all views but their own. But when the NAS wants to suppress political views in the classroom, it shows that they are un-academic in the most fundamental way, by their own definition. Everything the NAS says about their mythical “political activist” is actually true of the anti-political activist such as the NAS: intolerant of freedom and willing to suppress views that don’t match their ideology,

According to the NAS, those who have “a profound respect for the legacy of our past” are the real “academics” while those “denigrate the past” are “political radicals.” Here, the NAS is simply picking sides in an ideological dispute and declaring that one side, the leftists, are “political” and therefore anti-academic. In truth, it is the act of disparaging one’s ideological opponents are non-academic and therefore unworthy of freedom that is truly anti-academic.

I strongly believe that conservative academics such as those who wrote the NAS report are real academics deserving of respect and academic freedom. Unfortunately, they do not believe in the same respect and rights for their political enemies. This is what makes them political activists rather than true academics. (But I strongly believe that political activists such as the NAS deserve academic freedom, too, precisely because it is so dangerous to allow academic authorities to pick and choose who is the real academic from the activist.)

The NAS even imagines that the Regents are required by law to dictate to professors the preferred approach of the NAS to teaching literature: “In studying literature, academic scholars are interested in the great writers who exemplify the imagination and understanding of previous generations at their most powerful, but radical activists ignore these and instead gravitate to those who illustrate the failures of the past.”

In what might be the most depressing part of this essay, the NAS actually invokes a conspiracy theory that leftist history professors are all plotting to keep college students ignorant of history: “When studies show that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of the history and institutions of this country and of the civilization that produced it, we must understand why this has happened. One very important reason is that from the standpoint of political radicals, that knowledge would keep old ideas alive, ideas that they wish to replace, but not by competition in which the stronger ideas prevail. Instead, to force the outcome that they want, they ignore or systematically slight those older ideas by removing material that embodies them from the curriculum.” We can see the leftist radicals now, secretly plotting to keep their students stupid in order to control their minds. The NAS report even blames too much “negativity” for the alleged (but never proven) failure of history majors to learn history.

This conspiracy theory is repeated in the NAS claim that there were “two prongs to the strategy to conceal anything that might be encouraging” in American history, by abolishing survey classes and focusing optional courses on bad things in history. Of course, survey classes haven’t been abolished, and there was no “strategy” to make students hate America by getting rid of survey classes (especially since there’s no logical link between the two). But like Rick Santorum, the NAS imagines a fantastic plot to destroy America in the advances of the history profession in recent decades.

This kind of crazy conspiracy theory is an insult to every teacher. It is perfectly valid to criticize the theories of left-wing historians, and to critique the teaching techniques of activists. But to assume that all of them don’t want students to learn just because they have differing views from the NAS about what historical events are most important, to imagine some vast conspiracy to promote student ignorance, is just bizarre. It is dishonest, stupid, and just plain wrong to do so. And it exposes NAS for what they really are: a bunch of right-wing political hacks who have the gall to declare their political opponents are too “political” to deserve academic freedom.

For a report that praises history so much, it’s odd that some of the history mentioned in it is factually wrong. According to the NAS report, “When Jesse Jackson led his infamous march at Stanford University chanting ‘Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Culture’s got to go’ he was in effect destroying a precious chance for the groups that he ostensibly championed to reach full equality.” As I note in my 1995 book, The Myth of Political Correctness, Jesse Jackson never chanted that, and the students who were doing the chanting wanted to replace the course named “Western Culture” with one that studied various cultures; they were not calling for the abolition of Western culture. As Jackson said at the march, “the issue is not that we don’t want Western culture. We’re from the West.” The Black Student Union declared, “we, too, are a part of Western culture.”

The bad history is repeated by the NAS in its coverage of the AAUP’s century of evolution in improving its defense of academic freedom. The report blames the current AAUP leadership as the cause of its defense of political freedom: “It is no longer the AAUP of 1915, 1940 or 1970. Instead, it now reflects the power of radical politics within the profession.” According to the NAS, the 1970 Interpretative Comments merely reinforced the earlier statements. But historically speaking, that’s simply not true. What happened in 1970 was an effort to fix the flaws in the 1940 Statement with a dramatic change to the AAUP’s fundamental principles. The earlier prejudice against “controversy” was rescinded, and a new standard—the AAUP standard today—was created that only rejects “the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.” The “persistently intruding” standard is a far cry from the NAS demand to punish professors who speak about politics for a few moments, and the “no relation” standard is further still from the NAS call to prohibit one-sided statements even if they are directly related to a course.

The idea of academic freedom, and its importance to the university, is simply dismissed by the NAS. According to the NAS, “It has long been understood that politics in the classroom is a hazard to the quality of a college education.” No, actually, it has long been understood that the attempt to ban politics from the classroom is a hazard to the quality of a college education. An effort to prohibit professors from criticizing the government is a universal sign of a repressive regime, and it violates the spirit of free exchange of ideas that is enhances the quality of an education.

The NAS simply assumes that conservative approaches to education are academic, and left-wing approaches are political. One reason why it is so essential to allow politics in the classroom is because, in the minds of certain conservatives like the NAS, any left-wing academic approach is evil and “political” and therefore should be prohibited. In order to prevent political discrimination in academia, we must allow so-called “political” viewpoints to be expressed in the classroom. Everyone is free to criticize professors who engage in politics, but we must not allow repression of “political” speech in order to ban certain approaches to subject matter from being taught.

NAS tells us that we should not worry about giving administrators vast new powers to silence controversial faculty because “A dean will always want to give any instructor the benefit of the doubt when the case is not clear-cut.” This kind of blind trust in authority is startling in its naivete.

The corporatized language of the NAS is a scary vision of the university that suppresses freedom in the name of “quality.” According to the NAS, “Administrators are essentially the quality control mechanism of the university, yet they have stood by and done nothing while incompetent one-party departments of Politics or Sociology were created; they have done nothing while blatantly politicized departmental mission statements and course descriptions were being printed in campus catalogs;…they have done nothing while teachers were abusing their classrooms by using class time to promote their own political views; they have done nothing while university funds were being used to support campus events that were uneducational political rallies.”

Nothing is more frightening than the idea of universities as assembly line factories where administrators are the “quality control” officers tossing out any professor widgets who show the defect of expressing liberal views. This is a call for political repression under the guise of “quality control.” By re-defining all left-wing ideas as “political” and therefore “un-academic” and “uneducational,” the NAS is demanding massive repression of liberal views on college campuses.

When a department funds an event disliked by conservatives, the NAS report not only argues that such events should be deemed illegal and banned, but that the department that dared to propose them should be punished: “it also confronts the administration with the possibility that one of its academic units has been corrupted and may need to be taken in hand.” This odd phrase “taken in hand” is never explained, but it seems to mean that administrators should take over a department and suppress academic freedom, imposing a new regime of conservative ideological control.

According to the NAS, “State law is explicit about one of the most important duties of UC’s administration: ‘The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom.’” This is the essence of the NAS’ Orwellian call for repression on campuses: because some faculty express leftist political views, the administration must impose conservative politics in order to liberate the institution from politics. In doing so, the NAS fundamentally misunderstands the difference between the individual and the institution. The institution remains free from politics by allowing all individuals the liberty to express political opinions. The fact that some faculty mention politics in the classroom is not a violation of the institutional requirement to be free from politics; in fact, when an institution seeks to ban leftist politics in the classroom, it is imposing its own political ideology on the campus and violating this prohibition on political influence.

The NAS is often guilty of projecting its own faults on to others: “The nation is best served when left and right both recognize that the other represents one of the two great historic approaches to government, and a principled position that deserves to be taken seriously. The radicalized campus promotes something that is very different: it demonizes its opposition as an evil and unprincipled group, and a detested enemy.” This Manichean approach is precisely what the NAS does in this report. It accuses all leftists on college campuses uniformly as a evil and unprincipled enemy.

If you look at the other side as the enemy, it is very tempting to seek any means to get rid of them, and the NAS report wonders, “why have we been so foolish as to allow college teaching about our nation’s history, culture, and political institutions to be mainly in the hands of people who are alienated from it?” Yes, why haven’t we banned college teachers who dare to criticize our nation’s history? Why haven’t we forced all historians to sign an oath of obedience to conservative ideas? Why have been so foolish as to allow academic freedom where political extremists don’t have the centralized power to decide if they will “allow” those they disagree with to teach.

But the NAS wants that power of repression. In its conclusion, the NAS recommends that the Regents “instruct campus administrations to ensure that those departments are restored to competence through appointments that abolish the damaging intellectual monopoly of ideas that has been allowed to develop.” This is very easy to understand: it’s a demand for ideological hiring preferences. The flip side of this is equally simple: it’s a call for a ban on hiring left-leaning scholars even if they are the most qualified applicants for a position.

It’s no small irony that the NAS report goes on to denounce “faculty hiring procedures that, consciously and unconsciously, have subordinated scholarly criteria to political ones.” The NAS wants to explicitly subordinate scholarly criteria to political criteria in faculty hiring, and uses as its justification that completely unproven claim that leftists are guilty of doing this. A report titled “A Crisis of Competence” demands that an explicit university policy for politically-based hiring should replace academic competence as the basis for faculty appointments.

The lack of conservative faculty is a problem that needs to be addressed by encouraging more conservative voices to join academia, but forcing ideological affirmative action for the right and having administrators imposing the appointment of right-wingers to the faculty would be a fundamental betrayal of any devotion to “quality” that the NAS pretends to embrace.

The NAS report readily admits that it is demanding the hiring of unqualified conservatives for purely ideological reasons: “It may be true that political science departments would now find it hard to find recently graduated Ph.D.s who could remedy their present lack of ideological diversity, but that too is symptom, not cause.” No matter what the excuse, hiring unqualified professors solely because they are conservative is a violation of any principle of academic competence.

For administrators who have the integrity to defend academic freedom and reject this loathsome betrayal of academic ideals, the NAS recommends that the Regents fire them: “Consider whether each of the existing campus administrations has the understanding, the will, and the ability to lead the campus back to health. If not, changes may be needed.”

It’s no surprise that the NAS concludes by denouncing the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley as a “sinister turning point” and a moment when “Berkeley led the nation in a downhill path.” Freedom of political speech is precisely what the NAS demands to have suppressed on college campuses, and the movement for campus free speech at Berkeley, celebrated by all advocates of intellectual liberty, is for the NAS the “sinister” cause of all of today’s evil on campuses.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said about the report: “In the past, the Regents took seriously their responsibility to keep the university free from politics. We call on the Regents today to take up that responsibility again.” That past, when Regents intervened to “keep the university free from politics,” represents the dark days of censorship, when the university was most subordinate to politics and the least free. FBI records show that in 1965, top officials from the CIA and FBI met to discuss the University of California and “planned to leak FBI reports to conservative regent Edwin Pauley, who could then ‘use his influence to curtail, harass and at times eliminate’ liberal faculty members.” The NAS dreams of returning to the days when Regents arranged to “eliminate” liberal faculty for political reasons.

Factually defective, intellectually embarrassing, and ideologically frightening in its call for a new wave of campus repression based on political ideology, this report marks a disturbing low point for the National Association of Scholars and its embrace of right-wing politics rather than any principles of intellectual freedom or academic integrity.

About John K. Wilson

Author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies."

3 comments on “A Crisis of Censorship: A Response to the National Association of Scholars

  1. Pingback: When “important research” is really neither « jefferly.com

  2. Pingback: “How California’s Colleges Indoctrinate Students” by Peter Berkowitz « Literate Comments

  3. Kando
    April 12, 2012

    Wow, I gotta say that I was more than mildily impressed at finding such an in depth retort to the article in question by CAS/NAS. If only this sort of well written response got nearly as much airplay as the report it was written about. On a side note, it always cracks me up when my right leaning friends complain how news organizations like MSNBC, etc. are so obviously left wing leaning, and yet they constantly print articles such as the one under discussion, without the slightlest apparent concern for it factuality. As usual these days, noteriety is far more important to profits than factuality is.

    Very nice job. Wish there was a national news organization that was remotely as thorough in its research.

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