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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2009

Freedom of Inquiry Seems Always in Jeopardy

By Robert Chernomas
I attended a conference last year “Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times” commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research in New York. During the conference it became clear that the risks did not come exclusively from the usual suspects and that in sig­nifi­cant ways threats to academic freedom today are in some ways greater than they were in the past. What follows is a sampling of what I heard.

The Notorious
It is easy to identify notorious examples of the enemies of free inquiry at the New School’s two founding moments. In 1919, the New School’s first moment founders like Charles Beard, John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Wesley Clair Mitchell, Emily James Putnam and James Harvey Robinson “took as their mission the creation of a protective space for scholars to ex­plore the most important social and political issues of the day. Free from the constraints of the old school, connected as it was to corporate, political and to religious forces.”

According to Ira Katznelson, a political science professor at Columbia University, the precipitating events were the Octo­ber 1917 resignation by Beard from his tenured position at Columbia, followed by Robinson in December, after Pre­sident Nicholas Murray Butler had guided the board of trustees to dismiss Henry Dana, an assistant professor of compa­rative literature and a socialist, and James McKeen Cattell, a distinguished te­nu­red professor of psychology and a pacifist, for their outspoken opposition to the war in 1917 and 1918, their campaigning against the draft, and their advocacy of conscientious objection.

The second moment was in 1933 when the University in Exile was created to provide a safe haven for scholars and artists whose very lives were threatened by National Socialism. Melvin Johnston, then president of the New School, fought tirelessly to rescue more than 180 scholars including Max Wetheimer, Karl Brandt and Claude Levy Strauss.

Princeton professor Joan Wallach Scott noted that as early as 1902 in an essay on academic freedom, Dewey warned of the erosion of the education mission by the need to curry fa­vour with funders.

“The great event in the history of an institution is now like­ly to be a big gift rather than a new investigation or the development of a strong and vigorous teacher.” Today, Scott argues “the sums may be larger and their impact on university research operations greater, but the pressure from financial backers to bring universities in line with corporate styles of accounting and management was already powerfully present a century ago.”

She goes on to identify Clarence Birdseye, an attorney and the father of the future frozen food magnate, who in 1907 compared college standards unfavourably with business principles. He urged faculty and administrators to “imitate a good manufacturer,” and alumni “to help introduce business methods into the work of your alma mater.”

Scott’s view is that “businessmen and politicians, then as now, have had little patience with the ideal of learning for its own sake, and even less respect for faculty who often espouse ideas at odds with their view of the purpose and value of higher education.” Dewey, she argues, was particularly concerned for the academic freedom of the social scientist who dealt with issues of social importance like political economy and historical interpretation.

There is likely nothing more notorious tied to academic freedom in the United States than the McCarthy period. Ellen Shrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University in New York, provided an eloquent and detailed account of the purges of the McCarthy period. In her words, “above all, these cases showed how vulnerable the nation’s institutes of higher learning were to external pressures and how readily these institutions accommo­dated themselves to the imposition of political tests for employment.”

She goes on to detail how the FBI, university administrations and the American Association of Universities (an or­ganization composed of the presidents of the nation’s leading research universities) used financial and Orwellian means to fire at least 100 academics. She notes that “every single non-tenured faculty member who tangled with the inquisition lost his or her job.” Orwellian you ask? The AAU created something called the “obligation of candor” for American faculty members.

As Shrecker recounts, “Because professors required special freedom for their academic work, the AAU explained, they had to be completely open about their activities. Refusing to answer an official investigation’s questions about their past politics and associates thus violated that newfound obligation of candor. And, at the very least, required their institutions to mount an inquiry into the unfriendly witness’s fitness to teach.”

Shrecker asks how much the academy has learned from its mistakes. “And as the highly publicized dismissals of people like Sami Al-Arian at the University of South Florida, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, and Norman Finkel­stein at DePaul University at Chicago revealed, universities are still accommodating themselves to the demands of poli­ticians and other outsiders to eliminate embarrassing faculty members. Especially, I would stress, if they oppose the right wing Zionist line.”

Chuck Vest, former president of the Mas­sachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about how the federal government’s Tech­nology Alert List, included, at one time, urban planning and landscape architecture, denying some foreign students access to these programs at MIT. After meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and contacting Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge he managed to get “such really security-critical fields of study” off the list. Being president of MIT has its privileges.

Suspected Suspects
Khalil Shikaki, an associate professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Re­search in Ramallah, and a senior fellow of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, returned to the West Bank in 1986 after being away for several years. He sensed dramatic political change, but had no empirical sources to document this transformation. So he decided to do a sur­vey that would examine the changes in the society among Palestinian students.

To Shikaki it was clear that conservative ideas were becoming a serious threat to the more liberal, secular ideas of the nationalists. The Israelis forbid his research, denying themselves information that might have prevented their miscalculation of what was happening in the 1980s in Palestinian universities and beyond.

When the Palestinian Authority was established, Shikaki’s research spread to perceived corruption within the PA. He used to send the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a summary of his findings after every survey he conducted, “He (Arafat) asked me to do that. And in general, his response was positive. But once I zeroed in on the question of corruption, he didn’t like it.

“In one of my surveys I was very critical, pointing out in the summary that I sent him, the great damage that I thought corruption was doing or perception of corruption was doing to him and to the state building process. Two hours later my own fax came back to me from his office with his own handwriting over it. And he wrote: ‘Knowledge and figures can be dangerous’.”

The Insidious Suspects
New School professor Jonathan Veitch suggests that fears about threats to academic freedom tend to focus on “major scandals and controversies,” invoking “struggles against the forces of darkness.” He asserts, “those titanic struggles mask a much more prosaic and insidious struggle to preserve aca­demic freedom in the midst of the overweening demands of the marketplace. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the force of the market is better understood abstractly than it is in the thousands of compromises we make with it every day.”

It is true that American universities have always formed partner­ships with outside entities, but according to Veitch the risks to academic freedom are all the more true now because, among other things, market pressures engender sensitivity to profits and university/industry partnerships, which in turn allow corporations first look at research developed in university laboratories.

There is mounting evidence that, if anything, Veitch underestimates the effects of corporate power over university research. In a recent article in the International Journal of Epidemiology (Corporate influences on epidemiology 2008 37(1): 46–53.) Neil Pearce argued that “Corporate influences on epidemiology have become stronger and more pervasive in the last few decades, particularly in the contentious fields of pharmacoepidemiology and occupational epidemiology. For every independent epidemiologist studying the side effects of medicines and the hazardous effects of industrial chemicals, there are several other epidemiologists hired by industry to attack the research and to debunk it as ‘junk science’. In some instances these activities have gone as far as efforts to block publication. In many instances, academics have accepted industry funding which has not been acknowledged, and only the academic affiliations of the company-funded consultants have been listed. These activities are major threats to the integrity of the field, and its survival as a scientific discipline.”

The Gatekeepers?
After exploring a range of risks to academic freedom, Akeel Bilgrami, a philosophy professor at Columbia University, ar­gued the following: “Economics is perhaps about the worst offender among disciplines in inuring itself in alternative frameworks of thought and analysis. In fact, I would venture to say that I have never come across a discipline which combines as much extraordinary sophistication and high-powered intelligence with as much drivel.

“Some of the most brilliant intellectuals I have known to this day make claims about the trickle down effect. And present (with) them the most sophisticated constitutive methods despite the plain fact that wealth has not trickled down — at least not to the places where it needs to trickle down — anywhere in the world, in the entire history of political economy. If a physicist were to make some of the claims that economists have made which have been falsified as repeatedly as they have, they would not only have their careers terminated, they properly would be the laughing stock of the profession.

“There is no direct political influence that forces the sort of refusal to give up on its assumptions in a discipline such as economics. Regulation is wholly within the discipline’s profession. And even there, there may be very little browbeating or intellectual bullying. It is largely self-censorship, done with career advancement firmly in mind that threatens academic freedom in such disciplines.

“Why do I say this is not a case of dishonesty as when one refuses to accept counter evidence and argument, but rather a case of denying academic freedom? Because these are cases in which a discipline discourages the development of frameworks outside of the set of assumptions on which there is mainstream consensus.”

A conference participant referred to a speech by George Soros in which he identifies graduate training in neoclassical economics as a cause of the economic crisis. The charge was that practicing economists in business, banks and government institutions are not trained to think critically about these principles “that have been unleashed around the world and now we have to live with the repercussions.”

Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council and New York University professor, suggested it is not as though neo-liberalism and the ideology of private interest just automatically spread everywhere. Followers of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Freid­man followed the Dewey example “in many ways better than many of those on the left and they made the language of the private and of narrow economic self-interest and the assumptions of these sorts of technical management of the economy that you are talking about seem natural, obvious and the only way things could work at a time when people became inarticulate about what the public and the public interest meant.”

Schrecker added that these interventions were “funded very consciously, self-consciously by a group of conservative businessmen and philanthropists. We know where the money was coming from.” It was coming from conservative foundations, a number of them, “that set out specifically as early as the 1970s to create structures that would intervene in the public discourse and provide expertise that had previously come from universities, from academic intellectuals. These are thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institution that are providing and supporting intellectually this ‘drivel’, to use Bilgrami’s phrase.”

Drivel, it would seem, as with other consequences of risks to academic freedom, can have extraordinary consequences.

Robert Chernomas is a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and admits to receiving his PhD in economics from the New School and that this conference took place after the outbreak of the economic crisis.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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