Antiterrorist Threat
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Dec 13, 2001

Written after the publication of a list of dissident professors -GW 




Critics say new report targeting un-American rhetoric on college campuses in the wake of Sept. 11 undermines academic freedom
For years, the far right has been fuming at academia over what it sees as the espousal of multiculturalism and political correctness by leftist professors. Now, after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a right-of-center watchdog group cofounded in 1995 by longtime culture warrior Lynne V. Cheney (wife of the vice president), and Sen. Joseph Leiberman (D-Conn.), has assaulted the Ivory Tower with a scathing report accusing scores of educators and students of unpatriotic activity for having spoken out on campuses against the military campaign in Afghanistan. It is, critics charge, a blacklist, and some local college faculty members agree.

The paper, titled Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It, opens with a quote from Cheney, dated Oct. 5, stating her belief that colleges need the study of American history "to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom." The five-page text, written by Anne Neal and Jerry Martin, then goes on to denounce professors as the "weak link" in the war against terrorism, and condemns them for advocating "tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil."

Appended is a 14-page compilation of 117 antiwar statements made primarily by scholars (the report is online at www.goacta.org/Reports/defciv.pdf) who are usually identified in the report by institution and department rather than by name.

Some of these quotes are as mild as "Ignorance breeds hate" or "We should build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls," while others are stronger, such as "We are complicit." Still, the report concedes that support for the war at colleges is running at about 70 to 80 percent, as opposed to about 90 percent for the general public. Even this relatively high rate of approval among students, however, is somehow alarming to the authors.

Because the Washington, D.C.-based group has mailed copies of Defending Civilization to 3,000 colleges and universities, many in the academic community are worried that the professors quoted in the report could be unfairly victimized for remarks taken out of context. They also worry that those who speak out against the government in the future may be targeted.

Lawrence Wittner, a history professor at the University at Albany and author of the acclaimed study The Struggle Against the Bomb, shares this concern. In a recent e-mail, he wrote, "Defending Civilization is little more than a blacklist-one that encourages conservative college and university administrators to crack down upon or fire faculty whom they deem insufficiently patriotic. Furthermore, it will have the effect of silencing other faculty, who will fear-with some justification-that exercise of their academic freedom will jeopardize their careers." Dr. William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions, the SUNY system's professional staff and faculty union, echoed Wittner's view. Scheuerman, whose daughter escaped Tower One of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, sent an as-yet-unpublished letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he described the tactics of the ACTA as "McCarthy-like," and wrote, "I am appalled that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni is exploiting the horrific events of 9/11 to promote their own very 'un-American' agenda. . . . Disagreement with our political leaders is only dangerous when it stops. And that's what the Council of Trustees and Alumni want. They are trying to intimidate dissenting faculty and students into silence, and, failing that, they are using the present circumstances as an opportunity to jam an uncritical 'America is the best,' 1950s-style curricula down the throats of frightened administrators and faculty. Most Americans believe we're the best, but we won't remain so for long if the very American activity of challenging orthodoxy is suppressed on U.S. campuses."

Calls to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni requesting comment were not returned. But in what could be taken as a political disclaimer, the report states, "While professors should be passionately defended in their right to academic freedom, that does not exempt them from criticism."

Other than the opening quote, the extent of Ms. Cheney's role in the report is unclear. The ACTA's web page lists her as the "chairman emeritus," and although the group says she has "seen" the paper, it denies she has read it. A visible hand on her part in authoring the paper could have become a campaign issue for Democrats in 2004, which may explain the ACTA's claims that she was not directly involved.

The Defending Civilization report might be only the beginning of academia's worries. On Dec. 2, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department was considering relaxing the restrictions on the FBI's ability to spy on domestic political and religious groups. He made headlines again last week when, under questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he declared that critics of the administration's antiterror measures (who include some of the committee's members) "only aid the terrorists," and "give ammunition to our enemies."

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2001 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.   

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