The National Review Defends Academic Freedom

BY HANK REICHMAN

I have occasionally on this blog posted items about the conflicted views of American conservatives about academic freedom, at times calling attention to the ideas of principled academic conservatives whose approach and arguments often run counter to the unfortunate hostility to higher education now rapidly gaining credibility on the right, and with whom I hope we in the AAUP might find common ground.  This is why I praised Ursinus College professor Jonathan Marks for his forthright and admirable “Conservative Defense of Free Speech for a Black Activist.”  It is also why in March 2016 I called attention to the work of conservative scholars Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, whose study of 153 conservative academics concluded that “right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown” and “that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”  Or why in 2015, I praised two conservative faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one a former Republican legislator, who spoke out against Republican governor Scott Walker’s assault on tenure.  This summer I highlighted a special symposium, “The Assault on Higher Education: Reports from the Front,” published in Modern Age, a conservative review founded by Russell Kirk in 1957.  I have also, however, recently bemoaned a foul piece on Confederate monuments published by the conservative National Review, founded by William F. Buckley.  And I have sharply criticized those on the Right who decry illiberal efforts by a minority of leftists to silence conservative speakers as the “main threat” to freedom today, while keeping silent on the harassment of leftist and minority faculty members by online terrorists from the Right.

Now, however, the National Review has come to the defense of the academic freedom of Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, recently suspended by Drexel University, allegedly for his own safety, in response to tweets about gun control.  (For a powerful critique of the university’s actions see Chris Newfield’s excellent piece on Inside Higher Ed.)  To be sure, the National Review article, by Theodore Kupfer, is a defense of Ciccariello-Maher’s academic freedom, not of his Marxist ideas or of him personally.  Indeed, the article rakes his ideas over the coals, characterizing (or, some of the professor’s defenders might say, caricaturing) them as a “faith-based creed” that advocates violence.  Ciccariello-Maher’s own defense of his academic freedom, published in the Washington Post, rings hollow to Kupfer.  In his eyes the Drexel professor is nothing more than “a privileged white man working in one of the most exclusive sectors of the nation’s economy, a devotee of dialectical materialism who ignores material conditions when they are at odds with his ideology.  He is, put simply, a hypocrite.”

But that’s not the point.  Ciccariello-Maher may be a hypocrite, Kupfer writes, but “he is not a criminal.  And the Drexel administrators have made a mistake.

Ciccariello-Maher’s words are obnoxious, easily refuted and deserving of mockery.  Academe is full of easily refutable, unintentionally comic figures: Should they be placed on leave, too?  Administrative mandarins on campus are motivated by a desire to avoid public-relations problems and keep their fund-raising bureaucracies alive.  They care little for free expression.  Their justification for placing him on leave (an indefinite suspension that is generally paid) is to protect his own safety.  Administrators, however, shouldn’t enjoy the benefit of the doubt, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real culprit is bad PR.  Though Ciccariello-Maher’s tenure does not appear to be vulnerable, a tenured professor has still been barred from the classroom — and tenure exists to protect the expression of controversial positions.

There are no charges that Ciccariello-Maher has done anything to justify punishment.  His words are his own, not plagiarized; Drexel does not claim he mistreated students or absconded with school property.  By the lessons of experience, and the lights of reason, his ideas are wrong.  Yet tenure protects the right to be wrong, and Drexel awarded him tenure knowing the nature of his convictions.  No matter the discomfort of its administration, the school ought not to reverse that decision.. . .

Conservatives would be ill-advised to celebrate his suspension today.  Tomorrow, the condemned might be someone they admire.  After all, on campus, conservatism is iconoclasm, and when administrators scour the campus for inconvenient ideas, it is the iconoclasts — and Ciccariello-Maher is hardly an independent thinker! — they tend to suppress. . . .   No, George Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t believe in academic freedom.  But he still deserves it.

The National Review’s treatment of Cccariello-Maher’s “hypocrisy” may be contrasted usefully with the approach taken by Zaid Jilani, about which I posted recently.  Jilani’s piece can be summarized fairly as an example of schadenfreude, of the “taste of your own medicine” sort.  In some respects Kupfer’s treatment is much harsher, at least in tone.  But unlike Kupfer the allegedly liberal Jilani failed to defend Ciccariello-Maher’s rights, including his right to be, well, a hypocrite. In short, Kupfer loathes the ideas of the man he defends.  Jilani has little respect for them either, but he just piles on, offering no real defense of academic freedom.

Now, I endorse neither Ciccariello-Maher’s opinions nor Kupfer’s scathing critique of him.  As I wrote in Academe last year, “the AAUP frequently investigates cases in which the actions or words of faculty members may well be worthy of rebuke or punishment. In those cases our role . . . is not to approve or support what the faculty members did or said but to defend their rights to academic freedom and due process, both under the law and under long-standing and widely accepted AAUP principles.”  But even those who may be critical of the ideas or actions of faculty members under attack — from the right, the left, or the bureaucratic/corporate “center” — should, as the National Review has done here, recognize that the defense of academic freedom is a defense of the rights of those colleagues with whom we may disagree, even those who we may disdain.

 


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