In 2002, incoming students at the University of North Carolina were required to read Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, a translation into English of 35 of the early suras with a commentary and explication. Three students – one Jewish, two Christian – and a UNC alumna argued, with the support of a number of fundamentalist Christian organisations, that this constituted discrimination against them. They sued UNC through the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organisation, and received further support from a committee of the North Carolina state legislature. UNC won the case, but made reading the book optional all the same. There is growing concern that students throughout the US are trying to control what they are taught, immunising themselves against ideas that might challenge or offend them.
An organisation called Students for Academic Freedom, which has branches on 135 campuses (including Brown, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford and Yale), monitors lecturers for ‘bias’. Its website features an ‘Academic Freedom Abuse Center’. ‘Rights abused in a college course (e.g. unfair grading, one-sided lectures, stacked reading lists)’? ‘Please report this abuse.’ ‘Is your professor using the classroom as a platform for political agendas?’ If the answer is yes, students are encouraged to place an announcement in their college newspaper.
David Horowitz, a progressive activist turned conservative pundit, and an ally of SAF, runs an online journal, FrontPage Magazine, which claims 1.7 million hits a month. He has devoted considerable attention to the peace studies programme at Ball State University in Indiana. ‘There are 250 peace studies programmes in America like the one at Ball State,’ Horowitz says. ‘They teach students to identify with America’s terrorist enemies and to identify America as a Great Satan oppressing the world’s poor and causing them to go hungry … The question is: how long can a nation at war with ruthless enemies like bin Laden and Zarqawi survive if its educational institutions continue to be suborned in this way?’
Horowitz has written an academic bill of rights, which is informed by the belief that ‘the rights of students to not be indoctrinated or otherwise assaulted by political propagandists in the classroom or any educational setting’ are insufficiently protected by universities. ‘Especially recently,’ Horowitz argues, ‘with the growing partisan activities of some faculty members and the consequent politicisation of some aspects of the curriculum, that lack of support has become one of the most pressing issues in the academy.’
Echoing, in objective and content, the House of Representatives legislation (HR 3077) calling for the establishment of an advisory board to ‘oversee’ area studies,the academic bill of rights lists eight guiding principles. Some of them are perfectly unexceptionable; others allow for significant intrusion into the educational process by those outside the academy. The purpose of the bill appears to be the same as that of HR 3077: to authorise official interference with the content and conduct of university classes.
The provost of Ball State University defended the peace studies programme, but Horowitz has taken his case to the Indiana state legislature, where he hopes to get his bill of rights legally adopted. In a letter to the Indiana state legislature, SAF’s national director said that the bill has become ‘the education policy of the state of Colorado’ and ‘has been adopted as model legislation by the Association of Legislative Exchange Commissions, a bipartisan organisation of 2400 state legislators’. It ‘also passed the Georgia Senate by a vote of 41 to five and is being introduced in 19 state legislatures’. On 30 October 2003, the House of Representatives introduced a federal version – House Concurrent Resolution 318. It didn’t reach the Senate, but is likely to be reintroduced in the current session.
Meanwhile, Columbia University is embroiled in a controversy involving its Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department. The David Project, a pro-Israel group based in Boston, made a documentary called Columbia Unbecoming which presented a series of interviews with student supporters of Israel who said they had been intimidated and harassed by members of the department who are allegedly hostile to the Jewish state. After hearing about the film, Anthony Weiner, a Democratic New York congressman, called on Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, to dismiss Joseph Massad, an assistant professor who is accused in the documentary of anti-semitism, and of verbally abusing Israeli and Jewish students. Massad has long been the target of a campaign of intimidation against academics – Jewish and non-Jewish – who criticise Israel. Deluged by hate mail calling him a ‘camel jockey’ and ‘pathetic typical Arab liar’, he has decided not to teach his course on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies this semester.
Columbia Unbecoming is intended to silence critics of Israel. Campaigns such as the one directed at Massad are interested not so much in individual academics as in university administrations, which may as a result feel pressured to respond in a conciliatory way, as the University of North Carolina did. At Columbia, the response has been dramatic. According to the minutes of a faculty meeting last October, Bollinger – who has been criticised by some faculty members for keeping silent on the matter – asked the provost to ‘look into the implications of these charges and into charges that there is a climate of intimidation on campus … We will not allow our faculty to be tried and convicted in the press,’ he said. ‘We will not launch a witch-hunt, but we will deal responsibly with accusations as they arise … We also do not allow intimidation of students, or political indoctrination in the classroom.’ He went on to say, however, ‘that the First Amendment does not apply to the university because it is a private institution. It can choose its policies for how to treat faculty utterances.’ On the other hand, the minutes reported that he had ‘tried to articulate’ the views of the faculty, ‘and the position he has taken seems to have support on campus. But this position is not uncontested, and it could be changed.’
Some members of the faculty interpret Bollinger’s statements as a threat: the First Amendment, he seems to be saying, is a right that the university could revoke. Columbia supports the First Amendment and freedom of expression, but this doesn’t guarantee that an academic would continue to be employed by the university if she expressed views that were thought objectionable, for example, by individual students who might solicit the support of the state. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bollinger said that the ‘university has more work to do in enriching the curriculum and adding to the scholarship in the Middle East department’.
The probable re-emergence of HR3077 will no doubt be buoyed by the passage of the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Review Act, which President Bush signed into law on 16 October 2004, compelling the State Department to create a special office to monitor and combat acts of anti-semitism abroad, including ‘acts of physical violence against, or harassment of, Jewish people, and acts of violence against, or vandalism of, Jewish community institutions, including schools, synagogues and cemeteries’. The State Department objected to the bill because it gives precedence to the human rights of Jews over other ethnic and religious groups. Among the acts to be monitored are the efforts (or lack of them) of foreign governments to promote ‘unbiased’ curricula in schools.
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