Double Standards: Fresno and Columbia

Early February featured an interesting development from Fresno. Students of Bradley Lopez, a health instructor at Fresno Community College, claimed that Lopez was using class time to spread his personal anti-gay views. Lopez denies the allegation, asserting that all of his comments fell “within the scope of health science.”
The students’ concerns attracted the attention of the local ACLU branch. In a six-page letter to FCC administrators, ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Gill criticized Lopez for presenting “as ‘fact’ and ‘science’ inaccurate information that reflects his own highly discriminatory and religiously-based views.” According to Gill’s letter, students in Lopez’s class reported him using a slide asserted that counseling or “hormonal therapy” were the “recommended treatment” for homosexuality. Neither academic freedom nor the 1st amendment, the ACLU letter maintained, applied to professors who present “factually inaccurate information.”
The Gill letter also suggested that Lopez’s inaccurate remarks might create a “hostile environment” for gay and lesbian students on campus.
The ACLU’s “hostile environment” claim strikes me as very troubling. There’s no evidence that Lopez punished any gay or lesbian students, or that he retaliated against students who failed to accept his anti-gay views. There’s no evidence, in fact, that Lopez ever did anything inappropriate to any student. Surely, for instance, the ACLU wouldn’t suggest that a professor opposing racial preferences in admissions produced a “hostile environment”?

But the ACLU’s argument that academic freedom doesn’t apply to professors using class time to promote their political agendas or to make clearly erroneous statements of fact strikes me as perfectly reasonable. The AAUP likewise seems disinclined to apply academic freedom to Lopez’s defense: the AAUP’s Craig Flanery told the Fresno Bee that “academic freedom isn’t the right to say anything you want.”
This common-sense definition of academic freedom, however, doesn’t exist on one major campus. Indeed, the basic outline of what occurred at Fresno—students complaining about a professor who used class time to spout factual inaccuracies that conformed to his worldview, and eventually were aided by sympathetic outside defenders of academic freedom—occurred a few years ago at Columbia. Only there, the factual inaccuracies involved not anti-gay comments (hardly a popular view among the professoriate) but anti-Israel classroom comments. And at Columbia, the public voice of the faculty, led by former provost Jonathan Cole, the message was clear: outside and interest-group criticism of faculty misconduct in the classroom is little more than a renewed McCarthyism.
As Cole wildly charged at the time, “We are witnessing a rising tide of anti-intellectualism,” entering into “another era of intolerance and repression.” Dozens of Columbia professors signed a public letter organized by Cole signed a public letter demanding that the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, publicly defend the “academic freedom” rights of such anti-Israel zealots as Professor Joseph Massad—not on the grounds that what Massad was accurate in telling his class that, for instance, Israelis originated the tactic of hijacking airplanes in the Middle East; or that early Zionists allied with anti-Semites to drive Jews from Europe. Instead, the Cole group contended, the criticism of Massad was, by its very nature, improper, since it came, in part, from off campus.
Bollinger didn’t make such a public statement, but Columbia essentially accepted the Cole group’s demand—a special committee whose majority had pro-Massad conflicts of interest produced a whitewashed investigation, and Columbia gave Massad tenure (on his second try, no less).
So will Cole and his ideological comrades go to the barricades for Prof. Lopez, suggesting that “academic freedom” gives Lopez the same right as Massad—to use class time to make wild, erroneous assertions that forward his political agenda? Somehow, I suspect that the Columbia faculty won’t be applying the Massad standard to Prof. Lopez.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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