Purdue University has become the first public institution of higher education to adopt a free speech policy called the ‘Chicago principles,’ condemning the suppression of views no matter how ‘offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’ they may be. (Tyler Kingkade, “Purdue Takes A Stand For Free Speech, No Matter How Offensive Or Unwise,” Huffington Post, May 15, 2015).
Colleges and universities often boast of their diversity in terms of race, sex, gender or sexual orientation, but too often they fail to encourage diversity of thought. (Kathleen Parker, “In Name of Free Speech at Purdue, Beyond,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, Thursday, May 21, 2015, 7A).
Cliches, however shopworn, can retain their usefulness provided they continue to describe their object with some accuracy. One cliche that has lost almost all value is “speaking truth to power.” These days, it almost invariably is attached not to an act of genuine courage but to its opposite, the spouting of some politically favored bromide. (Mitch Daniels, “This climate change contrarian gives us an important reminder about science in general, ”Washington Post, October 12, 2021).
To its credit, the Purdue University Board of Trustees in 2015 passed a resolution defending free speech on its college campus. The new policy was strongly endorsed by the Purdue President Mitch Daniels who, quoted by Parker, condemned universities that spawn “a bunch of little authoritarians with an inverted view of our basic freedoms.”
While the policy is correct, the implied narrative of the threat to academic freedom and diversity of thought as coming from the Left, progressives or liberals, constitutes an extraordinary rewriting of the experience of a hundred years of higher education. Any serious revisiting of the history of the modern university shows clearly that the ideas, disciplines, purposes of higher education have been shaped and transformed by money, power, the perceived needs of United States national security, and conservative ideology.
Since the end of the Cold War, some scholars have begun to examine other aspects of the anti-communist hysteria as it related to the academy. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, in Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism: 1945-60, addressed the multiplicity of ways in which funding priorities, rightwing assaults, official pronouncements from government officials, lobbying efforts by big business groups, and shifting electoral political currents affected and formed the content of academic programs since World War II.
For example, disciplines then, and now, have been shaped by dominant "paradigms," or approaches which have included assumptions about the subject, aspects of the subject that deserved study, theories that were most appropriate for understanding the subject of the field, and the methods that should be used to study subjects in the field. Most important, all the social sciences and humanities adopted views of their disciplines that did not challenge ongoing U.S. Cold War assumptions about the world. In each case, dominant paradigms of the 1950s and beyond constituted a rejection of 1930s and 1940s thinking, which were shaped by the labor and other struggles of the Depression era.
In the words of scholar Henry Giroux, the military-industrial-academic complex influenced personnel recruitment and retention and the substance of research and teaching. Disciplines with more ready access to research dollars -- from engineering to psychology -- defined their research agendas to comport with the interests of the government and corporations.
However, students in the 1960s began to demand new scholarship and education. Opposition to the Vietnam War particularly stimulated demands on professors to rethink the historical character and motivation of United States foreign policy. William Appleman Williams and his students, the historical revisionists, articulated a view that the United States practiced imperialism ever since it became an industrial power. Classrooms where international relations and foreign policy were taught became "contested terrain" for argumentation and debate between the older and more benign view of the U.S. role in the world and the view of the U.S. as an imperial power.
The contestation spread. Students demanded more diverse and complicated analyses of race and racism in America, patriarchy and sexism in gender relations, and working-class history. Every discipline and every dominant paradigm was subjected to challenge. The challenges were also reflected in radical caucuses in professional associations and even in some of the more upright (and "uptight") signature professional journals. As a result, there was a diminution of Red Scares in higher education, for a time.
The spirit of ideological struggle in the academy diminished after the Vietnam War and especially after Ronald Reagan became president. Reagan brought back militant Cold War policies, radically increased military expenditures, declared Vietnam a "noble cause," and developed a sustained campaign to crush dissent and reduce the strength of the labor movement. The climate on campus to some degree returned to the 1950s.
However, a whole generation of 1960s-trained academics were now tenured faculty at universities around the country. They institutionalized programs in African American Studies, Women's Studies, Peace Studies, and Middle East Studies. Critical theorists populated education schools, American Studies programs, and other pockets of the university. Faculty continued the debate with keepers of dominant paradigms, created interdisciplinary programs, and developed programs shaped by key social issues such as racism, class exploitation, gender discrimination, the environmental crisis. and war.
But by the 1990s, a new version of the Red Scare was surfacing. Some conservative academics and their constituencies talked about declining standards they said were caused by the new programs. Others criticized what they regarded as an insufficiently rosy view of United States history. They claimed that the United States was being unfairly condemned for the killing of millions of Native Americans or because slavery and racism were presented as central to the history of the country. They formed academic associations and interest groups to defend against critical scholarship.
David Horowitz came along. Overseeing a multi-million-dollar foundation funded by rightwing groups, Horowitz launched a campaign to purify academia of those who had records of teaching, research, and publication that he saw as unduly critical of the United States, ruling political or economic elites, or the global political economy. He opposed those scholar-activists who participated in political movements or in any way connected their professional and political lives. And he opposed those academics who participated in academic programs that were interdisciplinary, problem-focused, and not tied to traditional fields of study.
Horowitz published a book in 2006, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, in which he presented distorted profiles of illustrative faculty whom he believed violated academic standards. Most of those identified either engaged in political activity and/or participated in interdisciplinary scholarly programs that he found offensive: Middle East Studies, Women's Studies, African-American Studies, American Studies, and Peace Studies.
In conjunction with the book and similar assaults on those he disagreed with on his electronic news magazine, Horowitz encouraged right-wing students to challenge the legitimacy of these professors on college campuses and encouraged conservative student groups to pressure state legislatures to endorse so-called "student bill-of-rights legislation." Such legislation would have established oversight by state legislatures of colleges and universities, especially their hiring practices.
Campaigns led by Lynn Cheney, the former vice-president's wife, and former Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, included the creation of an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. As Giroux summarized it, ". . . ACTA actively supports policing classroom knowledge, monitoring curricula, and limiting the autonomy of teachers and students as part of its larger assault on academic freedom" (Giroux, The University in Chains, Paradigm, 2007, 162).
Horowitz, ACTA, and other conservatives who attacked the university targeted visible academics for scrutiny and persecution. Ward Churchill, a provocative professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, was fired after a university committee was created to review his scholarship because of controversial remarks he made off campus. Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University political scientist who had written several books critical of interpreters of Israeli history and foreign policy, was denied tenure after a coordinated attack from outside his university led by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Distinguished political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt became the subject of vitriol and false charges of anti-Semitism because they published a long essay and book analyzing the "Israeli lobby." More recently, the University of Illinois reversed its contractual relationship with Professor Steven Salaita who posted electronic messages strongly critical of the state of Israel.
In addition, the new Red Scare has reinforced and legitimized the dominant paradigms in various academic disciples and created an environment of intellectual caution in the academy. While the impacts are not easily measurable, untenured faculty cannot help but be intimidated by the public attacks on their senior colleagues. The system of tenure and promotion in most institutions is vulnerable to public pressures, individual reviewer bias, and honest disagreements among faculty about whether published work and teaching is worthy of promotion and tenure. Therefore, just as the administrators and faculty of the 1950s felt vulnerable to outside assault on their institutions, those passing judgment on today's faculty might see the necessity of caution in hiring and retaining faculty whose perspectives are new, different, radical, and engaged.
In short, the real threats to academic freedom and free speech on college campuses have almost always come from those who wish to defend the status quo in scholarship, teaching, advocacy, foreign and national security policy, and the way the economy is organized.
Furthermore, in a recent book Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola, (“Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War,” Pluto Press, 2021), argue that today the most fundamental question that supporters of real academic freedom should address is what politically motivated and economically powerful forces are raising the issue of academic freedom and individualism and what newer supporters mean by these terms. From the standpoint of these authors, vast resources of the Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, their think tanks and support groups, advocate an higher education that celebrates individual freedom and the virtues of western civilization “while denying the existence of actual material and historical legacies of racial, gendered, and class-based exclusions, marginalizations, and violences.”
In short, Wilson and Kamola argue, these powerful economic interests in US society today seek to remake higher education to celebrate “individuals maximizing utility within the freedom of immaculately self-regulating markets.” And, for them, “manufacturing a campus free speech crisis” uses the traditional language of academic freedom to stifle scholarship and debate on issues and traditions of scholarship that have been growing to equip students with a more accurate understanding of the past and the present. And educational spokespersons like President Daniels, cleverly misuse the apt phrase “speaking truth to power” to defend those who wish to stifle real debate on issues of educational and public policy significance.
An earlier version of this essay was posted on May 21, 2015.