The Wolfers and Bastardizing Academic Freedom

Academic freedom carries with it rights as well as responsibilities. The concept derives from the belief that academics, because of specialized training in their subject matter, have earned the right to teach their areas of expertise and to follow their research questions as the evidence dictates—free from political pressure from the government. Indeed, only through a guarantee of such freedom can academics engage in a search for truth.

A corresponding responsibility, of course, is that academics will actually seek to pursue the truth. If professors’ research methods imitate the likes of James Carville or Karl Rove, then what purpose exists to safeguard the academy from the government? Indeed, at public universities, if the professoriate functions as partisan hacks, selectively plucking items to advance a political agenda, what’s to stop legislative demands that the faculty mirror the partisan breakdown of the state, to ensure proportionate representation to all political viewpoints?

A newly announced project called “Crying Wolf,” organized out of the Center on Policy Initiatives, seems blithely unconcerned with any requirements associated with academic freedom. As John has noted, project coordinators Peter Dreier (a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College), Nelson Lichtenstein (a historian of 20th century U.S. history at UC Santa Barbara who directs the university’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy), and Donald Cohen, CPI executive director, are recruiting professors and graduate students (in “history, sociology, economics, political science, planning, public health, and public policy”) to perform “paid academic research” that can “serve in the battle with conservative ideas.”

The initiative is open about its biases: it intends to “construct a counter narrative” against what it describes as conservative opinions about taxation and regulation policy.

At one level, the “Crying Wolf” project is (unintentionally) hilarious. Its directors believe that their project will transform the debate on tax and regulation matters. The Wolfers’ efforts will generate “the first reaction of millions of people(!!), as well as opinion leaders,” thereby undermining “the credibility and arguments of the organizations and individuals who use such dire social and economic prognostications to thwart progressive reform.” In other words: what two of the best-run political campaigns in U.S. history (Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2008), plus countless essays in the media, the political press, and high-quality blogs could not accomplish will be achieved by some graduate students’ scholarship-for-hire essays. Such expectations raise doubts regarding the level of knowledge that these so-called experts bring to U.S. politics and public policy.

At three other levels, however, this initiative is deeply troubling.

First, the project provides an Alice-in-Wonderland conception of what constitutes academic research. I don’t have any problem with academics citing their research to influence public policy or political debates; as in the recent faux controversy about Obama’s job offer to Joe Sestak, I sometimes do so myself. The Wolfers, however, envision faux scholarship, in which the trappings of real scholarship (they demand factual accuracy, and have established an advisory board that mimics a peer-review process) are intended to support propaganda. In the words of the project’s introductory e-mail, the CPI will pay money to “give substance and scholarly integrity” to the directors’ preferred policy outcomes on such matters as taxes and public budgets; labor market standards; financial regulations; and “inclusionary housing.” In short, the Wolfers intend to reverse customary academic procedure (researching the evidence, and then attempting to ferret out the truth). They have already established their truth: that “history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are ‘crying wolf.'” They look to pay academics to assemble evidence that will “prove” the foreordained truth.

Second, as Erin O’Connor has pointed out, the prestige of the sponsors suggests that involvement in the project promises professional advancement: “Grad students can now make fifty cents per word to scramble the difference between disinterested scholarship and agenda-driven advocacy work . . . along the way, they will make great connections that could help them with future employment.”

Third, the project’s leadership features some of the biggest names among historians of the 20th century United States. Advisory Board member Lizabeth Cohen teaches 20th century U.S. history at Harvard. Lichtenstein’s work includes a much-lauded biography of Walter Reuther. Advisory Board member and Penn professor Tom Sugrue has written two extraordinary books on racism in the North. (I’ve assigned both Lichtenstein’s and Sugrue’s books in graduate-level classes as well as Ph.D. reading lists.) This isn’t Duke’s Group of 88—these are people whose scholarship (at least in the case of Lichtenstein and Sugrue) pays attention to matters of public policy, rather than retreating into a fantasy world of all race/class/gender, all the time. Their involvement in a project of this type illuminates the depth of the corruption in the contemporary humanities.

In the end, almost no chance exists that the Wolfers will exercise any impact on any public policy debate. But little doubt exists that their project imperils academic integrity.

KC Johnson

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.

3 thoughts on “The Wolfers and Bastardizing Academic Freedom

  1. When is someone going to point out the foolishness of using the “Cry Wolf” analogy. I don’t read Aesop for everyday enjoyment, but I do remember the story of the lonely shepherd boy and that he was the butt of the joke. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” made so many false alarms that when the wolf finally arrived, no one believed him.
    If anyone (including Professor Dreier) had any intellectual curiosity, they would Google “Cry Wolf” and find out why it doesn’t play. I have read 10 or 15 online essays about this and think I may be the only one to remember. The joke is on the professor and someone should point it out.
    Jim Blackstone
    Spring, Texas

  2. I subscribe to the theory that this is Big Academia’s attempt to buy off enough students to keep the Democrats from being completely bled out in November… and maybe enough to keep Obama from being booted out of the Oval Office in 2012. This is indeed propaganda, but it’s not aimed at the public — it’s aimed squarely at college students, by far the stupidest and most gullible people on the face of the planet.

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