Robert J. Lieber: Sifting and Winnowing: The Uses and Abuses of Academic Freedom

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Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found. (University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1894)[1]

The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition… Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research…It carries with it duties correlative with rights…

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject…

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations…Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others…(American Association of University Professors, 1940).

These two straightforward statements, from 1894 and 1940, aptly express the essence of academic freedom. Yet in the contemporary academic world, this admirable ideal is sometimes distorted or invoked in ways that have little to do with its definition and purpose. Moreover, to the extent that threats to academic freedom exist, they come predominantly not from outside academia and from the political right-as was the case in the early Cold War years-but more typically from within the academy and from the left. Although there are instances of pressure from the right, they are mostly evident vis-a-vis primary and secondary education, on issues such as evolution, intelligent design, sex education, and separation of church and state or come from voices that are almost entirely ignored by academics (Horowitz 2006). Nonetheless, concerns about academic freedom are typically expressed in terms that evoke a bygone era rather than current realities. The problem is described by a University of Wisconsin political science professor who observes that, ‘‘The vast majority of censorship within universities has come from the left in the era of political correctness,’’ and who adds that ‘‘the AAUP has not been nearly as good on that as it was during the McCarthy era, when the threat came from outside the university and left-wing professors were being persecuted’’ (Donald Downs, quoted in Wilson 2007). In the following essay, I first elaborate on the frequent mischaracterization of threats to academic freedom, the failure to distinguish between criticism and censorship, and the disproportionate alarm expressed about criticisms, including those that emanate from the political right. I then turn to an assessment of the way in which those who do not agree with prevailing academic convictions about gender, race, ethnicity, diversity, Middle East studies, and certain other subjects are more likely to face ostracism and exclusion than those who share these dominant views. The problem is much less acute in some disciplines than in others, but the resulting effects truncate the kind of critical engagement, or the sifting and winnowing of serious ideas, that best reflects the ideals of the university. The Mischaracterization of Threats to Academic Freedom Fears are repeatedly voiced about dangers to academic freedom. But these expressions of concern exhibit a great deal of hyperbole. In essence, there is a common mischaracterization. It treats criticism as though this were tantamount to censorship. To be sure, criticisms can be shrill and they may be warranted or unwarranted, fair or unfair, and serious or unserious, but they simply do not amount to the banning or suppression of scholarly ideas. Those of us who venture to express our views about matters of public policy and engage in debates about domestic and foreign affairs should expect that at times our ideas will evoke vigorous and even caustic disagreement. And even under the best of circumstances our words may come back to haunt us. Our written and spoken words are fair game, and we can hardly complain when these are subjected to comment and criticism.

In Middle East studies and among much of the academic left, denunciations of U.S. foreign policy, past and present, and sweeping condemnations about America’s world role are common. This has been evident for a considerable period of time, beginning at least as early, for example, as the debates about the 1973 Middle East War and Arab oil embargo, and continuing through the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Rushdie affair, Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the 9 ⁄ 11 terrorist attacks, war and insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of professorial writing and speaking on these subjects has been subject to strong criticism, some of it from within the academy and a considerable amount from outside. In response, a number of Middle East scholars have complained about what they consider to be intimidation and threats to academic freedom. Their alarms are expressed in various ways. For example, an established Middle East expert, writing in a book for a top university press, voices such concerns in earnest but hyperbolic language: ‘‘The last several years of often vicious attempts to intimidate members of the academy, particularly the Middle East Studies community, have been both disturbing and angering.’’ The author refers to ‘‘grim’’ circumstances and declares a determination to pursue her scholarship, ‘‘as a protest against those who seek to curb the polyphony of the academy’’ in ‘‘saying ‘no’ to the trampling of free speech…’’ (Brand 2006:xiii). Still others add to the complaints about infringement of academic freedom by alleging a prohibition on criticism of Israel.

It is not at all evident, however, that anything like intimidation, the ‘‘trampling of free speech,’’ or the curbing of the ‘‘polyphony of the academy’’ has occurred. Indeed, much of the alarm about censorship is a reaction to having one’s words held up to critical scrutiny, both inside and outside the academy. For example, Martin Kramer’s (2001) thoughtful critique of Middle East Studies has elicited angry reactions among those he has identified for what he describes as analytical deficiencies in their work. But one need not agree with every single conclusion he draws to note that a very large part of his monograph consists of copious quotations from the words of the academic figures whom he critiques.

As for any prohibition on criticism of Israel, the opposite is far more prevalent in the majority of academic Middle East studies programs and departments. Indeed, even while citing examples of what he considers to be inappropriate efforts to protest or even forestall Israel’s critics from expressing their views, Wolfe (2006) concedes that ‘‘none of those cases resulted in suppression of ideas.’’ And he adds that ‘‘even Walt and Mearsheimer, despite the factual errors and sometimes hysterical tone of their working paper, received a very lucrative offer from Farrar Strauss to publish a book based upon it.’’

A much earlier case in point concerns assessments of the Iranian revolution. In 1979, a prominent international relations scholar wrote in a New York Times op-ed about Ayatollah Khomeini that, ‘‘…the depiction of him as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false.’’ The author ventured the prediction that ‘‘Iran may yet provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country,’’ and weeks later he responded to a rejoinder from a Times columnist by writing, ‘‘To single out Iran for criticism at this point is to lend support to that fashionable falsehood embraced by Mr. [Anthony] Lewis that what has happened in Iran is the replacement of one tyranny by another’’ (Falk 1979a, 1979b). In light of subsequent events in Iran, the writer of those words has come in for periodic and even strident criticism, so that nearly three decades later his words are still recalled and quoted.

Criticism of such judgments is fair game, as is the give and take in debates about 9 ⁄ 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, radical Islamism, and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Indeed, such criticism can even be unfair, but cases in which moderate, conservative or right-wing criticism has led to genuine infringement on academic freedom-through censorship, punitive action or dismissal- are very hard to find. Moreover, an alleged case involving University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill does not constitute a breach of academic freedom at all. Churchill, who gained notoriety for likening some of those killed in the 9 ⁄ 11 attacks to ‘‘little Eichmans,’’ became the subject of an academic investigation which determined that he had committed research misconduct. A report by the University’s Privilege and Tenure Committee ‘‘found, by clear and convincing evidence, three instances of evidentiary fabrication by ghost writing and self citation, two instances of fabrication of material, one instance of falsification, two instances of plagiarism, and one instance of failure to comply with established standards on the use of author names on publications,’’ according to a letter from the President of the university to the Board of Regents recommending Churchill’s dismissal (Monastersky 2007). In other words, the actions taken by the University of Colorado against Churchill have been for serious violations of academic principles and do not constitute suppression of academic freedom.

Others have pointed with alarm to David Horowitz’s controversial book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. His criticisms come from outside the established academic and think tank community and are at times polemical, though they do include copious and sometimes damning quotations and endnotes. Whatever the merits or lack thereof in his critique, Horowitz’s book is not taken seriously within the academy, and there exists little evidence that academic freedom has been infringed by his condemnations

Is There a Threat to Academic Freedom?

There are threats to academic freedom, though they are almost entirely the opposite of those cited by some contributors to this forum. In practice, it is scholars who do not share the dominant sympathies, ideologies, and beliefs that characterize the current Middle East studies community who are marginalized, often excluded, and thus isolated and even stigmatized. The response to their work takes a variety of forms, some of them subtle, others less so.

One form of bias involves marginalizing serious scholars. Distinguished academic authors who do not conform to the dominant Middle East studies worldview, and whose work has elsewhere been recognized and honored, are subjected to ad hominem attacks and their important writings are often absent from the syllabi of courses on the Middle East, the Arab world, and Islam. For example, two of America’s most distinguished authorities on the Middle East, Princeton University Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis and Professor Fouad Ajami of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, are virtually ostracized in vast swaths of the academic world because they do not attribute the region’s ills mainly to America, Israel, and ⁄ or Western imperialism. Other serious scholarly authors, such as Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, and Michael Doran, are similarly slighted-when they are not being attacked ad homine.

What is insidious about this marginalization is that the ideas and writing of these scholars are less subject to critical engagement. Because dissenting authors are treated in this way, those who disagree with them only rarely take part in the genuine debate and dialog that are essential to any discipline, and students who study these subjects risk missing the opportunity to think about, explore and assess competing ideas.

An even more overt problem concerns campus speakers programs. Lectures by such authors are relatively infrequent compared with those who articulate the conventional wisdom, and when such invitations are extended, the speakers may face the prospect of hecklers who seek to disrupt their lectures or the presence of groups who aim to prevent them from speaking altogether.[2] One obstructionist tactic includes making claims of racism or hostility to Islam. Another involves creating such a prospect of disorder that university authorities have become reluctant to see the event take place and have even gone so far as rescinding invitations tendered to these scholars.

For example, consider the reactions to Daniel Pipes, a serious and widely published scholar, albeit one who has been the subject of controversy for his website, Campus Watch. Pipes has been a frequent critic of radical Islamism and his aim has been to foster balance in Middle East studies. He does so by scrutinizing the discipline and commenting about courses, conferences and writings, though he has not sought to intervene in cases of hiring and promotion. There is certainly room for debate about Campus Watch, but Pipes has been subject to misquotation, virulent ad hominem attacks, and spurious allegations of Islamophobia. His campus appearances have been marked by threats and disruptions and there have been repeated attempts to prevent him from speaking.[3]

Still another real infringement on academic freedom involves the process of faculty hiring. Here, the issues and pressures are complex and the context highly subjective. Nonetheless, there is reason to infer that subtle and not so

subtle political considerations affect hiring in Middle East studies and in certain other disciplines, and that those who express ideas that do not conform to the prevailing ethos face an uphill struggle. One recent applicant for a faculty position recounts a promising interview experience that turned sour when he was accused of being too conservative in his assessments of the Islamic world. He notes, ‘‘I met again with the search chair, who tried in vain to assure me that the ideological litmus test I’d just failed in fact had never occurred. I asked her if she had ever heard a committee member accuse a candidate of being ‘more liberal than others in the field.’ Of course she answered ‘never.’’’ The writer concludes by observing, ‘‘If getting a Middle East or Islamic history job at a college or university means converting from following Bernard Lewis to the false messiah Edward Said, I won’t be changing jobs anytime soon’’ (Furnish 2007).

An egregious assault on academic freedom has been taking place in Britain, where there have been repeated attempts to organize boycotts of Israeli universities. The most recent of these was a May 2007 resolution of the University and College Union, calling on its branches to debate the withholding of cooperation from Israeli institutions. The anti-Israeli bias and the anti-intellectual bigotry on display is quite striking.[4] Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, its colleges and universities enjoy academic freedom (a feature altogether absent among its neighbors), they are open to students and faculty of other ethnicities and faiths, and they host an extraordinary range of scholarly and political views (some of these extremely critical of Israel). Moreover, Israel is the sole country subject to such exclusion, while countries with appalling human rights records and in which academic and intellectual freedom is routinely abused or nonexistent are subject to no such sanctions.

Challenges to academic freedom are not limited to Middle East studies. Comparable problems exist in some other fields of study. These difficulties are most evident for those whose work or writing does not share many of the pieties of political correctness, particularly in regard to such topics as gender, race, diversity, and sexual orientation. A dismaying example can be found in campus speech codes, some of which have attempted to curtail free speech not because it is obscene, racist or risks inciting violence, but because it might be perceived as hurtful or insensitive. Given the historic patterns of robust and raucous free speech in American public life from the time of the founding of the republic to the present day, such restraints on speech are excessive and unwarranted.

A More Subtle Problem

Although strictly speaking not a matter of academic freedom, one problem that does exist is the often truncated range of discourse now tolerated on many college campuses. Here too, it can be useful to invoke another fundamental AAUP statement on academic freedom. This one dates from 1915, and includes the words, ‘‘The university teacher…should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine’’ and ‘‘should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves’’ (quoted in ‘‘Anne Neal vs. Roger Bowen’’). But in many universities, students are not being exposed to the ‘‘best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine.’’ This stems from the fact that the professorial political spectrum ranges mostly from moderate left of center liberalism to the farther reaches of sparse or missing altogether. As one thoughtful (nonconservative) observer notes, ‘‘The absence of conservative minds from the liberal arts curriculum and the off campus ignorance of them…are standard features of intellectual life’’ (Bauerlein 2006).

Data for the political affiliations of college faculty provide evidence of this. One study has shown that Democrats outnumber Republicans by huge margins: 21:1 among anthropologists, 9:1 among political and legal philosophers, more than 8:1 among historians, and nearly 6:1 among political scientists (study by Dan Klein, cited in Neal 2006). A study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, published in 2005, found that 72% of faculty self-identified as liberals and 15% as conservative (Rothman et al. 2005). Another authoritative survey, this one by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, found that 5.3% of faculty identified as far left, 42.3% liberal, 34.3% middle of the road, 17.7% conservative, and 0.3% far right (study cited in Neal 2006).

One consequence of this politically tilted environment is that some faculty members are tempted to inject their personal political preferences into their teaching in ways that are completely extraneous to the subject matter at hand. This evokes complaints from off-campus, for example by Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (a right of center group critical of what it considers political imbalance in academia). She offers a litany of complaints about the campus atmosphere: ‘‘disinviting politically incorrect speakers; mounting one-sided panels, teach-ins and conferences; sanctioning speakers who fail to follow the politically correct line; politicized instruction; virtual elimination of broad-based survey courses in favor of trendy, and often politicized courses…; reprisal against or intimidation of students who seek to speak their mind; political discrimination in college hiring and retention; speech codes and campus newspaper theft and destruction’’ (Neal 2006). One need not accept the entire list, nor assume it applies to all or even many universities, in order to recognize that there is some merit in these complaints.

The relative paucity of conservative scholarly voices and literature in the universities deprives all of us of the opportunity to incorporate intellectually serious traditions and ideas as we and our students contemplate not only the debates of the past, but the great issues of our era. Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, has addressed this shortcoming by observing that, ‘‘We need to subject it [conservatism] to the full analysis-critical and appreciative-of the academy…It would be healthy for everyone if the academic curriculum broadened its scope, if the lineage of conservatism were consolidated into a respectable course of study-that is, if Hayek won one-tenth the attention that Foucault receives’’ (Bauerlein 2006).

Bauerlein’s observation comes from a discipline outside the field of international studies, but another more subtle concern has been expressed by Robert Jervis, one of the leading scholars within our discipline (and certainly not a conservative), who cautions about the potential unintended consequences of truncated discourse:

An intriguing complication is that our explanations here may of necessity be strongly influenced by our own policy preferences. The political science profession is dominated by liberal Democrats, which means that most of us feel that the country is harmed by the conservative tendencies that are so powerful now and have operated throughout most of American history. Our preferences may drive us toward explanations involving forms of false consciousness because it is otherwise hard to explain why so many of our compatriots act against what we believe to be their own interests (Jervis 2005:316).

Jervis’s remark is well worth contemplating, and his caution about invoking explanations of ‘‘false consciousness’’ is insightful. A recent article in Perspectives on Politics appears to succumb to exactly this temptation. In their essay entitled, ‘‘Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy: A Study in Weberian Activism,’’ the authors recount how in October 2004 they and a number of prominent international relations scholars signed a letter critical of existing policy in Iraq and calling for a major shift in American foreign policy. The letter received little attention in the media and none by television news or in the major national newspapers. The authors address what they term ‘‘the Failure of Weberian Activism,’’ and in so doing appear to attribute this to the media’s failure to distinguish between ‘‘political partisanship and scientific scholarship’’ ( Jackson and Kaufman 2007:100). In short, they take it as self-evident that their position represents a ‘‘scientific consensus,’’ blame the public and the media for being unwilling or unable to assess the worth of competing claims, and nowhere appear to consider the possibility that foreign policy assessments other than those in their own letter may have any validity.

In summary, the problem of truncated discourse is not, strictly speaking, a matter of academic freedom, but it comes at a cost in terms of intellectual breadth and rigor. What is needed is greater intellectual pluralism, which would serve both the ideal of ‘‘fearless sifting and winnowing’’ called for by the University of Wisconsin Regents and the ‘‘free search for truth and its free exposition’’ invoked by the AAUP Statement.


American Association of University Professors. (1940) Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Available at htm. (Accessed June 26, 2007).

Anne Neal vs. Roger Bowen. (2007) Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9: A9. Bauerlein, Mark. (2006) How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking. Chronicle of Higher Education, December 15: B7.

Brand, Laurie A. (2006) Citizens Abroad: Emigration and the State in the Middle East and North Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Falk, Richard. (1979a) Trusting Khomeini. New York Times, February 16.

Falk, Richard. (1979b) Letter to the Editor, ‘‘In Iran, a ‘Balance of Hopeful Signs’’’. New York Times, March 28.

Fraser, Kelly. (2006) Mideast Talk Leads to Scuffle. Michigan Daily, December 4. Also see the account by journalist.

Furnish, Timothy R. (2007) Colleges Score Perfect Grade in Liberal Bias. Investor’s Business Daily, June 29.

Gabriel, Brigitte. (2006) Muslims Muzzling Memphis. American Thinker, April 8. Available at (Accessed June 29, 2007).

Horowitz, David. (2006) The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, and Stuart J. Kaufman. (2007) Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy: A Study in Weberian Activism. Perspectives on Politics 5: 95-103.

Jervis, Robert. (2005) APSA Presidents Reflect on Political Science: Who Knows What, When, and How?Perspectives on Politics 3(2), 309-334.

Kramer, Martin. (2001) Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Monastersky, Richard. (2007) U. Of Colorado President Recommends Dismissal of Ward Churchill. Chronicle of Higher Education June 8: A12.

Neal, Ann D. (2006) Advocacy in the College Classroom. Academic Questions 19(4): 71-77.

Pipes, Daniel. (2005) Accounts of My ‘Interesting’ College Talks. Available at ttp://www.danielpipes. org/blog/433. (Accessed June 19, 2007).

Rothman, Stanley, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte. (2005) Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty. The Forum, Online Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics 3(1): 1-16. Available at (Accessed June 29, 2007).

Wilson, Robin. (2007) The AAUP, 92 and Ailing. Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8: A11.

Wolfe, Alan. (2006) Free Speech, Israel, and Jewish Illiberalism. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 17: B8.

[1] This statement appears on a plaque at the entrance to the university’s Bascom Hall in Madison, Wisconsin.

[2] Numerous examples of this problem have been reported. For example, University of Michigan Emeritus Professor Raymond Tanter’s talk on Iran was disrupted at the Ann Arbor campus (see Fraser 2006). Also see the account by journalist Brigitte Gabriel, concerning her invited talk at the University of Memphis (Gabriel 2006).

[3] For example, there have been incidents at York University in Canada and University of California campuses at Berkeley, Irvine, and Los Angeles. See Pipes (2005) and Gabriel (2006).

[4] The former leader of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, Baroness Deech, has described the boycott as anti-intellectual ‘‘bigotry’’ (House of Lords Hansard text for 12 June 2007, pt 0012,,htm; accessed 13 August 2007).

Robert J. Lieber: Sifting and Winnowing: The Uses and Abuses of Academic Freedom

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