Each fall, the NEA comes out with Thought & Action, the union’s higher education journal. (The 2010 edition is not yet online.) The publication functions as a clearinghouse for defenders of the academic status quo; safe from their position of dominance within the academy, they rail against their imagined oppressors. This year’s edition includes defenses of such trendy matters as “learning communities” and Arizona’s ethnic studies curriculum, along with an entry on “liberation bibliography.”
In this light comes a piece from an AAUP stalwart, Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker, who purports to uncover the “roots of the rightwing attack on higher education.” Her thesis? The malicious and deceptive activities of the “right wing”—not the activities of the academic majority—have convinced most Americans to view the academic majority as “radical, elitist, and somehow alien to most ordinary citizens.” This argument serves two complementary purposes: it fits into Schrecker’s predisposition to see the “right” as latter-day McCarthyites; and it absolves Schrecker and like-minded colleagues of any responsibility in creating a contemporary academy characterized more by ideological groupthink than by a commitment to free inquiry.
Schrecker’s essay begins by pointing out, accurately, that a backlash developed against the excesses of the late 1960s—perhaps most notably, the decision of Cornell’s administration to cave in and create a black studies program in 1969—and that politicians (most but not all Republican) exploited this backlash. But, Schrecker also notes, some professors—whom she intemperately refers to as “hysterical,” “Cassandras,” and characterized by “more than a whiff of elitism”—also worried about the academy substituting its traditional pursuit of the truth in favor of embracing a commitment to pursue “social justice.” (Schrecker also complains that these “conservative” professors tended to oppose faculty unionization.)
Yet somehow, the arguments of these faculty members continued to resonate. Could the intellectual quality of the “conservative” critique explain its staying power? Of course not, in Schrecker’s world. Instead, the professors who yearned for the “golden age when intellectually serious (white male) undergraduates eschewed politics and lounged appreciatively at the feet of their professors to soak up the truths purveyed by Plato, Shakespeare, and the other Greats” only remained relevant because these professors prostituted themselves to “a highly self-conscious and well-financed campaign to destroy the influence of the academic left.”
Even Schrecker concedes that this thesis “smack[s] of a conspiratorial mindset.” But a wild conspiracy theory appears to be her only explanation as to why the “academic left” currently has so little influence in society at large, even as it dominates the academy itself. She faults the usual suspects—the Olin Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation—for contributing to “conservative intellectuals, student interns, alternative campus newspapers, and right-wing faculty groups.” On the other hand, grants from organizations such as the Ford Foundation to left-wing professors are OK.
Schrecker also worries about the influence of “right-wing” academic organizations that she suggests have benefited from these organizations’ financial largesse. (Again, she seems to have no problem with faculty organizations funded by left-wing foundations.) She singles out three groups—NAS (which “claimed to represent those allegedly suppressed right-wingers within the professoriate”), ACTA (which has pressed “for such academic ‘reforms’ as the restoration of the traditional curriculum”), and FIRE. Demonizing some of the groups’ donors allows Schrecker to avoid engaging the groups’ actual critique of the academy.
Schrecker’s comments about FIRE most clearly demonstrate her intellectual bankruptcy. FIRE, she writes, “fought against the speech codes designed to make campuses more welcoming to women and people of color.” Despite this almost fantastic description of the goals of speech code advocates, Schrecker reluctantly admits that FIRE “supported academic freedom.” But, laments this member of the AAUP’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, FIRE’s efforts “undermined public support for higher education.”
Of course, it wasn’t FIRE that undermined public support for higher education—it was the policies adopted by the academic majority at dozens of colleges and universities around the nation. Yet somehow, in Schrecker’s version of history, FIRE deserves condemnation, while the leftists who betrayed academic freedom need a defense. This, in short, is nothing more than argument by denunciation.
It’s quite true, as Schrecker notes, that the academic community has lost “the confidence of the American public.” This propagandist for the academic status quo unintentionally gives a sense—if unintentionally, through the utter weakness of her argument—of why this decline has occurred.