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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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It Could Have Been Much Worse
How the terrorist attacks have impacted the academic community

By Robert M. O’Neil


 
   
The devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred just as the academic year was getting underway. Indeed, for those campuses with relatively late starting dates, classes had not even begun when the acts of the terrorists and the government’s initial response dramatically redefined public dialogue in the most basic ways.

By the end of the fall semester and quarter, we should be able to assess the impact upon higher education of these momentous events. Such an early assessment is the focus of this essay.

In judging the initial effects of September 11 on the academic world, opinions vary even more than ordinarily. For the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in a mid-December report,“college and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response” to the attacks. “When a nation’s intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization,” the statement continues,“they give comfort to its adversaries.”

In a similar vein, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) charges on its Web page that “many colleges and universities are acting to inhibit the free expression of the citizens of a free society,” with specific reference to strongly anti-terrorist views, and that “some administrations continue selective repression as if nothing had occurred.”

From a different perspective, the Chronicle of Higher Education opened its account of the campus experience in the month after the attacks by observing that “professors who criticize U.S. government or society find little tolerance of their views,” adding that faculty members “across the country have found their freedom to speak out hemmed in by incensed students, alumni and university officials.”

Reflecting on the earliest of the campus controversies, Freedom Forum First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters expressed a similar concern that “at a time when the country could most benefit from the diverse perspective that we depend on academe to provide, there will be immense pressure on those in the academic community to repress their views.” John Whitehead, a highly principled conservative who heads the Rutherford Institute, warns that Attorney General Ashcroft’s aspersions upon the patriotism of those who criticize administration policy (most prominent in the academy) invites a “new McCarthyism.”

There is a third view, different from both of the above, which may turn out to be closer to the mark. At its early November meeting, Committee A (Academic Freedom and Tenure) of the American Association of University Professors adopted a statement which might best be summarized as “things could have been a whole lot worse.” Although its members were “aware of a few disturbing lapses in academic freedom,” Committee A declared itself, on the whole,“pleased …that the quality of discussion and debate, the commendable degree of interest, and the civility shown by members of the higher education community…have boded well for academic freedom and the pursuit of the common good.” The statement closed by noting the “need to maintain a close watch on the situation.”

As the semester drew to a close in December, there was a remarkable flurry of activity triggered by the terrorist attacks. Hampshire College, seldom bashful about expressing views on major issues, became the first institution to condemn the war in Afghanistan through a lopsided (and possibly suspect) referendum of students and faculty. Three days later, several major universities, including Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin-Madison, announced that they could not in conscience aid federal investigators in arranging or conducting interviews with foreign students whose names appeared on a Justice Department list of people who might be able to provide information about terrorist activity.

Several cases involving outspoken faculty came to conclusion during this same December period. On the day of the attacks, University of New Mexico historian Richard Berthoud had told his freshman class that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” Despite a profuse apology, in which he conceded he had been “a jerk” and had made “an incredibly stupid joke,” the UNM administration eventually barred Berthoud from teaching freshmen in the near future, placed a reprimand in his file, and promised an intensive post-tenure review.Though recognizing that Berthoud’s remark was protected by the First Amendment, the University’s provost noted the “unique vulnerability” his students must have felt on the day of the attack, and concluded that his outspoken colleague “failed to act responsibly toward his students at that time.”

Across the spectrum, there is Orange Coast (California) Community College political scientist Ken Hearlson, who was reported to have accused Muslim students in his class on September 18 of being “terrorists” and “murderers.” At one point during a heated discussion, he was said to have pointed to an Islamic student, declaring, “You drove two planes into the World Trade Center…and killed 5,000 people.” Hearlson was immediately placed on leave for the balance of the semester.

After a painstaking investigation, the college administration concluded that the evidence did not warrant further suspension, and thus reinstated Hearlson to his teaching post, but announced that a reprimand was in order. The letter which conveyed that lesser sanction was not released, though Hearlson feared even such a lesser sanction would have a “chilling effect” on his future teaching.

During that same busy week last December, Lakeland (Ohio) Community College announced that it had barred a Muslim cleric from teaching a scheduled spring course on “Understanding Islam” after it viewed a 1991 videotape of the cleric making anti-Semitic remarks, and raising funds for Islamic Jihad. The college president explained that the controversy which the tape had already evoked “could be a distraction to the course objective” and justified the course cancellation.

This action was strikingly reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s earlier suspension of a computer science professor who had appeared on a television program soon after September 11, his academic affiliation prominently displayed, while acknowledging earlier involvement in a terrorist organization. The University’s president explained her decision to place the professor on leave because his “continued presence on the campus at this time adversely affects the operation of the university.”

Many more cases could be cited, involving not only teaching faculty but also professional and staff members who incurred official displeasure by speaking out in the days after September 11. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni Report lists no fewer than 117 such incidents. The FIRE Web page lists at least a dozen cases involving professors alone.And when it comes to students, despite the absence of reported sanctions (much less litigation), demonstrators on opposite sides of the current debate—especially with regard to the war in Afghanistan—have come close enough to blows to merit coverage in the national media.

Yet even a full recital of specific incidents would fail to measure the import of September 11 for the academic community. There are subtler implications, about which we know too little to offer more than a preliminary account, with any assessment of impact necessarily deferred for now. The potential effects for academic science have, for example, several potentially ominous dimensions. Anthrax is, for most of us, a lethal virus that we fervently wish to avoid. But apart from the obvious effect on a few microbiologists who actually experiment with such organisms, the laudable goal of protecting society from such risks could encumber academic science in ways about which we can only speculate.

The first round of anti-terrorism legislation, already in force, may even have such effects since it bars felons from possessing biological agents and, as the Chronicle reports,“compels institutions to check the backgrounds of scientists working with pathogens.” Legislation already under consideration could go further in the oversight of those who study deadly viruses and bacteria; University of California System Health Affairs Vice President Michael Drake has warned that “we run the risk of limiting our ability to do research, while doing nothing to increase national security.”

In a quite different way, academic science already has experienced the post-September 11 removal from government Web sites of sensitive information—for example, EPA data about chemical accidents, and CDC reports on how to prepare for a poison gas attack—that had been readily available (and in steadily growing volume) to the public as well as to scientists.The Electronic Freedom Foundation devotes a substantial portion of its Web page to an index of “the Chilling Effects of Anti-Terrorism,” including a specific section which details important information recently removed from at least fifteen U.S.Web sites. Obviously some such information may have been expendable, but apparently in the process a substantial amount of valuable data has dropped below or off the radar as a direct result of September 11, with potentially serious losses to academic science.

A third and quite different type of risk bears close watching, even though it is much too early to pass judgment on its gravity. Take the poignant case of Kathleen Hensman, the librarian in Delray Beach, Florida, who recognized several suspected hijackers as former users of her computer terminals and so reported to law enforcement agents. Such action, prompted by the best of patriotic instincts, was a clear breach both of the professional librarians’ ethical code, and of the legal protection which Florida, like 47 other states, accords the privacy of library borrower records.Yet, at first, as the New York Times reported, “almost no one thinks Ms. Hensman did the wrong thing.”

One person who differed from that consensus, and so stated during a television interview, was Judith Krug, longtime champion of civil liberties and director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Her concerns about Ms.Hensman’s action had barely been made public when she became the target of public indignation and suggestions of disloyalty. It would be easy to forget that it was Hensman who broke the code and the law, however laudable her motives, and Krug who simply blew this whistle. Few of us could say with confidence that, in her position, we would not have reported what Ms. Hensman reported, or that, upon discovering such action, we would not have found fault as did Ms. Krug.

This incident may turn out to be unique, but the implications are not likely confined to the Delray Beach library reading room. Comparable dilemmas are likely to confront many in the academic community, just as they already have faced journalists who wish to display patriotic insignia when they appear on the air, or agonize whether they should report to the CIA or the FBI strategic information they have gleaned from news-gathering activities.

The occasional but inevitable tension between doing what is patriotic on one hand, and what is right or lawful on the other, has probably never been more acute in the lifetime of any of us who today comprise the American academic community. Such issues as these greatly complicate the task of assessing the import of September 11 for the academic community.

Early answers are at least possible at several levels.As the stated concerns of those across the political scale remind us, dissenters and critics of various stripes are at risk to a greater degree than would have been the case had the terrorist attacks never occurred. On September 10, few of us would have cared greatly about one individual professor’s disdain for the Pentagon, or another’s having raised funds a decade earlier for a Middle Eastern political cause. Since September 11, we do care very much within the academic world about such activities, even though they continue to fall well within a citizen’s First Amendment freedoms.

At the same time, the actual extent of campus conflict has been far narrower than a pessimist, or even a realist, might have expected in the days immediately after September 11.Whatever the exact number of professors who have been taken to task for speaking out on these issues in recent weeks, things could have been much worse (as the AAUP Committee A statement notes with some relief)—and they may yet get much worse.

Finally, however, the case list must not define the full measure of our concern.We need to watch closely, and guard against, subtler threats to academic freedom, such as those that may curtail or encumber academic science for reasons that bear little relationship to anthrax or weapons or bioterrorism. In those dimensions, it is much too early for anything more than a preliminary report, and a healthy caution.

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