Stephen Leberstein: Open Season on Academics

The year began with threats of violence against Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center, following Glenn Beck’s repeated denunciations of Piven on his Fox network show and the posting of her home address on his blog. At the same time, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD student in political science hired to teach a course on Middle Eastern politics at Brooklyn College, was fired just days before his first class following a complaint to the Chancellor by Assemblymember Dov Hikind.

FIGHTING BACK

As a result of a massive letter-writing campaign and the united stance of the department, Petersen-Overton was re-hired several days later. Piven’s colleagues have rallied to her defense – and the Graduate Center has taken the precaution of posting a guard outside her classroom door.

Now the Republican Party of Wisconsin has launched an “open records” request for all e-mail that William Cronon, University of Wisconsin-Madison historian and president-elect of the American Historical Association, may have sent containing the words “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” “union,” or the names of anti-union Republican legislators targeted for recall.

Cronon had recently written an op-ed piece for The New York Times suggesting that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on public sector workers’ bargaining rights was out of line with the best traditions of the state, more akin to the tactics of the disgraced, late Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demand came just after Cronon used his new blog, Scholar as Citizen, to inquire about the role of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in drafting the bill stripping collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin’s public employees, including those at the University of Wisconsin. ALEC drafts model laws that Republicans then introduce in state legislatures, and there are striking similarities between Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation and that introduced in other states, and Cronon’s blog post may have hit a nerve.

That same week the Mackinac Center for Public Policy followed suit with its own open records request in Michigan, seeking any
e-mails from faculty at labor studies centers at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, and Wayne State that contained the words “Scott Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison,” or “Maddow.” The person responsible for this request, the Mackinac Center’s Ken Braun, said, “There is a very specific type of discussion that I am looking for, and that is why it is targeted at these three unique departments at these three universities,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education. But Braun refused to discuss exactly what the Mackinac Center was looking for.

Braun’s motives are hardly a mystery, though it remains to be seen how the Michigan FOIA request will play out. But the threat to the free exchange of critical ideas is real, however random it may appear. It’s easy enough to imagine ways that the Wisconsin Republican Party or the Mackinac Center might use an out-of-context quote to demonize its author, especially if found on her university e-mail account. Beck, for example, has conjured up a ridiculous conspiracy theory that holds Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, responsible for the economic collapse of 2008, based on their short 1966 article about how poor people win concessions from government.

As for Michigan, labor studies centers are already under attack by Republican legislatures in California, Indiana and elsewhere, and the Mackinac Center is apparently seeking ammunition to shutter the ones in Michigan. If you happen to be a tenured, distinguished professor, or the president of the American Historical Association, chances are good that your university won’t try to fire you, as might very well have happened in an earlier period. But if you’re an adjunct lecturer or other contingent faculty member, there are no guarantees you can count on to keep your job. The very randomness of the targets makes the attacks all the more frightening: how can you be sure you won’t be next?

The result is intended to stifle the kind of critical inquiry that is at the heart of the academy, and thus to restrict public discourse on the most important issues of the day.

Cronon’s aptly titled blog, Scholar as Citizen, puts it best. That’s the role he and Piven and Petersen-Overton and many others are playing, at their risk but to the benefit of our tottering democracy. But how many others, especially the majority of college teachers without protection who need their jobs to pay the rent, will play it safe rather than risk standing up to speak out about the truth they have found in scholarship? Even the end of the Glenn Beck show on Fox News hasn’t yet banished the ghost of Joe McCarthy from academia.

VIGILANCE

What’s needed is resistance, persistence and, as the cliché has it, eternal vigilance. Universities must stand firm against outside political pressure. We must defend existing protections like tenure, and extend due-process protections of intellectual freedom to our growing legions of contingent faculty as well.

If we remain courageous and assertive about academic freedom in its broadest definitions, maybe with a bit of luck, we will soon see the end of these thuggish assaults cloaked behind the legal veil of FOIA.

* This article originally appeared in the The Clarion, the official newspaper of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress.

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