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September 30, 2002

Forum reports attacks on academic freedom

By Michael Terrazas

Academics are questioned for their patriotism, innocent reputations are dragged through the mud, politicians are capitalizing on the fears of the populace—and lists are being maintained of homegrown “enemies of America.”

Sounds a lot like the heyday of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, but it is not; it is the United States of the 21st century, and a new kind of threat has brought with it a new kind of paranoia—one that is already claiming its victims. Will one of those victims be academic freedom?

That was the question on the minds of seven professors and a modest crowd gathered in Glenn Auditorium the evening of Sept. 24. “Academic Freedom in Times of War,” a panel discussion sponsored by the newly renamed Middle Eastern and South Asian studies (MESAS) department, examined the cultural and political pressures being applied to a range of academic disciplines, sometimes with chilling effect. Devin Stewart, associate professor and chair of MESAS, gave a brief introduction and moderated the event.

The parallel to McCarthyism was made by Shalom Goldman, MESAS associate professor, who closed the evening with an ominous blotter of early 1950s cases in which American professors were blacklisted for supposedly “communist,” “anti-American” or “subversive” viewpoints. More than 800 faculty members across the country were blacklisted, Goldman said, most of whom never worked again in higher education.

“Our current situation is much more frightening than McCarthyism,” Goldman said. “The World Wide Web enables people to be defamed instantly—one can immediately read about the professor who has ‘violated’ the [societal] norms.”

Goldman’s remarks immediately followed fellow MESAS Associate Professor Kristen Brustad, who recounted three current assaults on academic freedom, one involving a FAME-type program for freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; another involving a professor of Middle Eastern origin at the University of South Florida; and the third a new website ( devoted ostensibly to monitoring “anti-American” and “anti-Israel” sentiment and scholarship at Middle Eastern studies departments around the country.

“This bias,” the website explains, “results from two main causes. First, academics seem generally to dislike their own country and think even less of American allies abroad ... Second, Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them.”

The site maintains “dossiers” both on individual professors and institutions as a whole. Brusted did not bother to dispute the website’s claims and took no sides regarding her first two examples; her purpose, she said, was merely to report.

“I’m not here to tell you we’re perfect,” Brustad said. “I’m just asking if you see any patterns.”

Some of the threats to academic freedom described in the forum are taking place in Emory’s backyard. Benjamin Freed, adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, spoke on the debate in Cobb County over science education in public schools, and whether teachers who mention the word “evolution” should be forced to teach “alternate theories” on the origin of life.

Freed, who consulted with the Cobb Board of Education (BOE) and who interacts frequently with some of the county’s science teachers, said instructors even shy away from talking about dinosaurs “since dinosaurs mean fossils, and fossils can lead to talk about evolution.”

“Science has been absent from the Cobb BOE’s public statements,” Freed said. “The board is forming its science curriculum based on public opinion, religion and politics.”
Freed, Brustad and Goldman constituted the second half of the forum; in the first half, Gordon Newby, professor of MESAS and director of the Institute for Comparative and International Studies; Laurie Patton, associate professor and chair of religion; and Oded Borowski, associate professor of MESAS, discussed threats to academic freedom arising within their own disciplines.

Newby talked about the swing within the academy from the “great man theory” of old—when Western-oriented academics focused on “great men,” who invariably were rich, dead and white—to the more current enamoration with the “authentic voice,” whose views are somewhat immune to criticism so long as they emerge from within their respective cultures and/or ethnic groups.

Patton, a scholar of Hinduism, said some foundations have emerged both in India and the United States that seek to promote study of the religion. Their goals are worthy, Patton said, since there is “less and less money” in the field, but many scholars feel some foundations have taken an ethnocentric stance that sometimes is too aggressive in seeking to discredit non-native, Western scholars.

Borowski, a Biblical anthropologist, gave a brief overview of the field and disputed the notion that Biblical anthropology exists merely to locate physical evidence proving the veracity of Biblical events. This viewpoint must be pervasive, Borowski said, because some individuals even within the field react negatively to new discoveries—often made possible by new technology—that do not support their personal beliefs.