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By Robert M. O’Neil
fter ahalf century of secrecy, the U.S. Senate
Government Operations Committee released, inMay
2003, sealed transcripts of interviews with people who
had been targeted as potential witnesses before Senator Joseph
McCarthy’s subversive activities panel, but none of whom
was ever publicly interrogated. The toll on such putative
victims of Senate red-baiting was incalculable; at least one
prospective witness took his own life before learning of his
eventual reprieve. When the transcripts were finally unveiled,
a year and a half after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,
Congressional reactions were predictably mixed.
Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the first committee member
to comment, insisted that a recurrence of such excesses was
inconceivable in the 21st century. “There’s a greater awareness,”
he reflected, “of McCarthyism and what tactics can be used by
people who are trying to quiet dissenters.” And, he added on
a hopeful note, “there’s greater resistance against those who
would try to still voices that they disagree with.” Next to speak
(and in a quite different vein) was Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold,
who had cast the only Senate vote against the USA PATRIOT
Act. “What I’m hearing from constituents,” he cautioned,
“what I’m hearing fromMuslimAmericans, Arab Americans
and others suggests a climate of fear toward our government
that is unprecedented, at least in my memory.”
Each of these usually like-minded liberal lawmakers knew
whereof he spoke. Levin had been an undergraduate in Ann
Arbor at the very
time the University
of Michigan callously
purged three senior
professors for refusing
to identify colleagues
as suspected
subversives. Feingold,
meanwhile, placed his
warning in context
by reminding his
listeners that he too
had some appreciation
for the legacy of
McCarthyism: “Don’t
forget that I am today
the junior senator
Several years later, as we mark the sixth anniversary of
the terrorist attacks, the jury is still very much out on which
appraisal—Levin’s rather sanguine view or Feingold’s more
ominous insight—is closer to the truth.
When it comes to specific issues of academic freedom,
a similar paradox prevails. During the immediate post-9/11
September 2007
An Assessment of Academic Freedom
How anti-terrorism measures have impacted the higher education community
period, when one would have anticipated
that outspoken professors would be
vilified as unpatriotic or worse, the actual
response was surprisingly mild. The New
Mexico historian who told his freshman
class, on the afternoon of the very day of
the attacks, “anyone who can blow up the
Pentagon gets my vote,” received only a
reprimand after a lengthy investigation.
The Columbia anthropologist who later
called for “a millionMogadishus” at a
teach-in also received only a mild rebuke.
Most recently, in the summer of 2006,
aWisconsin political scientist and a
NewHampshire psychologist were fully
protected from any formal sanction after they joined other
“revisionists” in suggesting that the attacks on theWorld Trade
Center and the Pentagon had been essentially an “inside job,”
orchestrated by, or in collusion with, the Bush administration.
So far, so good, a close observer of academic freedommight
have observed as recently as a year ago.
As memories of the horrors of that dreadful day in
September 2001 blur and fade, the actual impact upon the
academic world of the hijackings and of theWar Against
Terrorism also becomes increasingly elusive. Three recent
observations illustrate the complexity of the current landscape:
• Although the American Association of University
Professors (AAUP) has formally censured eleven
institutions since the summer of 2001, none of the cited
transgressions related in any way to the events of September
11. (Four derived from the way NewOrleans institutions
handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the
others were equally remote from current political tensions.)
• Equally elliptical is the revelation from surveys conducted
in the spring of 2007 that the trauma of September 11 may
have had a curiously positive impact upon the curricula
of many colleges and universities—not only in the growth
of student interest inMiddle Eastern Studies and Arabic
language and literature, but more broadly through
heightened interest in religious studies, international
relations and foreign policy, and even on the expansion of
liberal arts and general education requirements.
• Finally, the number of foreign graduate students headed for
U.S. campuses has steadily increased for the past three years,
though it has not yet quite regained the international levels
of the last year unaffected by anti-terrorism.
Given such trends and crosscurrents, a broader assessment
of the condition of academic freedom seems most appropriate.
The state of faculty personnel matters—previously one
of the bright spots on this mixed canvas—has become a bit
cloudier, and for reasons that may curiously reflect our steadily
During the immediate
post-9/11 period,
when one would
have anticipated that
outspoken professors
would be vilified as
unpatriotic or worse,
the actual response
was surprisingly mild.