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Interview with David Horowitz on Reforming Our Universities

Illinois Academe editor John K. Wilson interviewed author David Horowitz via email about his new book, “Reforming Our Universities.”

Illinois Academe: In your new campaign to “Adopt A Dissenting Book,” you urge students, “If your professor refuses to grant your request, appeal to the next higher authority, which would be the Department Chair, and after that the Dean of Students. If you are unsuccessful with this appeal, then take the request to the university administration beginning with the Provost or President, then the Board of Trustees.” What power do you think that administrators or trustees should have to order faculty to add books to (or subtract other books from) a course?

David Horowitz: I don’t think that administrators or trustees should have direct power over faculty in the selection of books in the classroom. The point of this exercise is to find people within the academic community who will encourage recalcitrant faculty to do the right thing, the liberal thing by providing students with texts that reflect more than one perspective on controversial matters so they can draw their own conclusions. I would like to see an office of academic standards created by the administration with a review board whose majority would be faculty with representation from the administration and student body. The standards should be set by faculty. It’s important that they be written and made public within the university community. A grievance procedure should be provided for students or faculty members feel they are not being observed. A review committee composed of a faculty majority should then examine complaints and this board should be empowered to make recommendations in a manner suited to the requirements of academic freedom. 

IA: It’s clear from your book that you think the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” should be banned from all social science courses in the entire country, and only allowed in environmental studies if critical views of the documentary to oppose it are included. What punishment do you think should be imposed on a professor who illicitly shows the documentary?

DH: I said no such thing, nor have ever suggested anything like it. I have never called for the banning of any book or reference material from any course nor would I. I believe that academic standards and academic freedom principles require that students be provided with materials that will allow them to think for themselves. Consequently a controversial film such as “An Inconvenient Truth” should be accompanied by critical materials that provide students with the means to compare claims and evidence and make up their own minds. I think this is particularly true when the film is shown in social science courses whose instructors are not professionally qualified to
evaluate climatological claims. This is probably where your misunderstanding of my intentions originates. I have never suggested any “punishments” for any teachers. In the only specific case I have been involved in regarding an infringement of academic freedom by a professor I endorsed without reservation the course of action taken by the Dean (in this case of Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) who was a faculty member herself. I have described this case and its result at length in my book.

IA: You write, “I had a talk delayed for twenty minutes by demonstrators at the University of Chicago and had to deliver my speech while a large undergraduate stood in the middle of the room with her back to me in protest (she was not removed by the Dean and police officers present because she was black, and they feared adverse publicity).”(10) Why would a person standing in silent protest prevent you from speaking, and how do you know that the university refused to remove her because she was black?

DH: I did not say that I was prevented from speaking. I said my talk was delayed -- which it was -- until a group of demonstrators (with the exception of this one student) were persuaded to sit down. The twenty minutes were taken up by a university provost (or perhaps its was a dean) attempting to persuade the demonstrators to allow me talk. The lone remaining protester did not prevent me from speaking, nor did I say she did. I knew the campus police were deterred by the fact that she was black because I asked them why they had not enforced university rules and removed her and they told me of a recent similar incident which had resulted in a photograph in the campus paper, The Daily Maroon, with a caption that referred to them as the campus “gestapo.” Obviously it’s not good PR for a campus authority to be portrayed as a Gestapo oppressing a minority.

IA: You write, “The legislative resolutions I had sought were merely instrumental—a way of getting universities to focus on the problem and take steps towards a solution. It was never my intention to seek government management of universities, as my opponents claimed (and continue to claim).”(72) Yet the Students for Academic Freedom Handbook currently on your website notes that legislators might pass the Academic Bill of Rights as a state law “imposing penalties for non-compliance” and declares, “you and your SAF organization need to be ready to support and assist legislators in their efforts.” Aren’t you expressing support for government management of universities?

DH: Although the fact remains and the record will show that I have never supported legislative control of university curricula or government penalties for non-compliance with the Academic Bill of Rights, you have certainly embarrassed me with this one. I had never read those sentences before and no one before you ever brought them to my attention or referred to them in a critique of my efforts. They do not appear in any of the previous attacks on my campaign and if they had I would have removed them from this particular document at the time. I have already done so now, having been alerted by your comment. I apologize for this oversight, but since you are the only person who has ever raised it, I cannot think the sentences have resulted in any damage, particularly since I have said so much to the contrary since the beginning of my campaign. This lapse has been generally overlooked.

The handbook you mention was not written by me and does not list me as one of the authors. I did write a guide for our students which is listed on our website as “Mission and Strategy” and can be found here: http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/documents/1917/pamphlet.html Section 4 of this document is titled: “To Secure the Adoption of “The Academic Bill of Rights” as University Policy” This reflects the unwavering aim of my academic freedom campaign which has been to make academic rights for students university policy. I have never said that the wording of the Academic Bill of Rights is the only wording of an academic freedom policy that would be acceptable to me. I have said yes on each and every occasion where university officials have asked us to withdraw our legislation if they would put their own version in place. I cannot see how I could be any clearer about my intentions. The phrase you single out does not reflect anything that I have written or said in the seven years of my campaign. I have never sponsored legislative measures that would be statutory or include penalties, and never supported such an idea. I have never supported the idea that government should manage universities. It is an idea that I find both dangerous and absurd. I have from the beginning of my campaign and in all my public statements said very clearly that I believe universities themselves should establish academic freedom standards for students where they do not already exist -- which today is everywhere in the university system except for the public universities in Ohio and Pennsylvania that our campaign has directly affected.

IA: You recount your conversation with Elizabeth Hoffman, president of the University of Colorado: “I was quick to point out that I was not asking her to hire conservative faculty. I said the university could insulate itself from an attack by...bringing conservative academics to campus as visiting professors.”(67) Isn’t hiring conservatives as visiting professors precisely a demand to hire conservative faculty?

DH: Hardly. A visiting professor is a visiting professor. He or she is brought to a university to provide a fresh or unrepresented perspective or experience, and is not brought in as a permanent member of the faculty. That’s the difference. Aren’t you and other members of the AAUP – as self-professed “liberals” – even slightly embarrassed by the fact that university faculties in the liberal arts have become so monolithic in recent decades? That most students go through four years of a university education without ever encountering a conservative adult? How do you think faculties got that way? In a fit of absent-mindedness?

IA: You also celebrate Hoffman being “fired” because she failed to get rid of Ward Churchill quickly enough as “an important message to university administrators.”(115) This isn’t actually true (Hoffman resigned), but why would you support the firing of presidents who refuse to immediately purge left-wing faculty?

DH: I have never called for the purging of leftwing professors, although this is a frequently deployed AAUP slander. I publicly defended Ward Churchill and UC Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chereminsky when efforts were made to dismiss them for their extreme leftwing political views. I would never support the firing of a professor or the firing of a president for refusing to purge faculty for their political views. Where did you get such an idea? I did not ask Elizabeth Hoffman to get rid of Ward Churchill, either before or after the fracas over his Internet article.

Not did I ever celebrate Hoffman’s departure from the University of Colorado. I suggested that if she had followed my advice and found ways to encourage intellectual diversity at her campus (by methods short of hiring faculty for their political views) she would have been in a better position to defend herself from public attacks when the Churchill scandal broke. I never said I supported such attacks. The message her dismissal sent was that having an intellectually diverse academic community would insulate universities against such attacks. You are correct in pointing out that she wasn’t formally “fired” (and I accept that I should have made that clear in my text). Nonetheless, her “resignation” was a mere formality. She was forced out. Hers was not a voluntary departure.

IA: You claim that “Contracts had been signed which allowed government officials to decide whom universities could hire, what salaries they could pay, who they could admit as students to their institutions, and even what kind of statements teachers could make in the classroom.”(96) The footnote you offer for this statement is about high school proficiency exams, and has nothing to do with higher education (or anything you wrote). You also claim that “diversity statutes” such as Title IX “gave large government bureaucracies power over such matters as curriculum, course content, and faculty personnel decisions.”(147) Since you offer no footnotes, I was curious to know in what contracts or cases has Title IX or other statutes given the Executive Branch control over college curricula, courses, or personnel decisions?

DH: C’mon. The diversity policies of the federal government and diversity investigations conducted by the Department of Education have had a profound effect on the hiring of faculty at universities and you know it. Do I need to burden my text to provide chapter and verse of specific cases to make this point? In fact I did give a horrifying example in my text of the chilling impact of federal sexual harassment statues on classroom discourse by noting that Alan Dershowitz had been forced to tape his rape law lectures to protect himself from harassment suits by over-zealous feminists and that one of his colleagues had stopped teaching rape law all together for this very reason.

IA: You denounce AAUP president Cary Nelson as “politically correct” because he changed his view of a poet after discovering some of her anti-war poetry.(143) You seem to think that Nelson changed his view of the poet solely because she opposed World War I, rather than because of the quality of the newly discovered poetry. How do you know this?

DH: I didn’t denounce Cary. I suggested that his attitude towards the poet Sara Teasdale was dictated by political rather than literary judgments. He said that he had regarded her as a “sentimental poet” until he discovered she had written anti-war poems. Since he didn’t explain how adopting an anti-war position was not sentimental or how the texts of these poems were not sentimental I think the evidence speaks for itself.

IA: You praise schools such as Temple and Ohio’s colleges for adopting a variation of your Academic Bill of Rights to allow student grievances. Can you name one example where any college has enforced any of these new provisions to stop the kind of “indoctrination” you oppose?

DH: As I explained throughout my book, the problem of indoctrination on college campuses is a failure of universities to enforce the very principles of academic freedom and academic professionalism that they claim to honor. In my book I describe a case at Penn State, which has the best academic freedom policy in the nation, and is only one of a handful of universities that even recognize a student’s right not to be indoctrinated. I advised a student named A.J. Fluehr through the Penn State grievance process and won a ruling from Dean Susan Welch that a professor in the communications department had infringed the First Amendment rights of Mr. Fluehr, in effect requiring him to subscribe to the instructor’s point of view. I believe there have been several cases of successful complaints regarding students’ academic freedom at Temple, which is the only other Pennsylvania University to recognize such rights.

IA: You criticize the College of DuPage trustees for going too far in response to their concerns about too many liberal speakers on campus, and you cite a forum where three speakers were critical of Israel and claim that the trustees could “employ the language of the [American Council on Education] to require that DuPage programs support intellectual pluralism.”(211) Does that mean that you think trustees should be able to ban a forum on campus if it doesn’t include an opposing point of view? And isn’t that a strange attitude considering that the AAUP defended you when St. Louis University banned you from speaking for that very reason?

DH: No, I don’t think trustees should be allowed to ban a forum they disagree with. Supporting intellectual pluralism means just that: supporting ideas not banning them. I think it’s deplorable that panels are called “academic” when they are entirely one-sided, but I have never called for banning them. I have never supported opinion bans and I am sorry that the AAUP feels it necessary to keep suggesting that I do. Perhaps this is because the AAUP can’t handle the intellectual argument I have actually put forward. I have publicly praised the AAUP’s stance in defense of free speech at St. Louis University much as I have deplored the AAUP’s stance against academic freedom at DuPage and elsewhere.

IA: You attack the Illinois AAUP’s letter to the DuPage trustees expressing concern about a ban on “opinion” discrimination: “In the AAUP’s view, apparently, a student failing to grasp the ‘correct opinion’ about ‘reality’ should expect to receive a failing grade. This was about as succinct a definition of indoctrination as one could ask for—imposing a matter of opinion as though it were a statement of fact.”(213) But the problem is that anyone can claim that a statement of fact is simply a matter of opinion and then demand the right not to be discriminated against, such as claiming that evolution is an opinion and creationism must receive the same grade in a biology class. How do you easily distinguish between facts and opinions? And do you think that adding “opinion discrimination” to anti-discrimination laws and rules is a good idea?

DH: Anyone can claim anything. That doesn’t mean we can’t distinguish opinion from fact, even if there are gray areas where making the distinction may not be so easy. The theory of evolution is a theory but the scientific community has a way of establishing theories via the assembling of compelling evidence. It is an established fact – not an opinion --that the universe is not 6,000 years old as creationists maintain. The theory of “intelligent design” is not accepted as a scientific fact by the scientific community. This does not mean it should not be discussed but it does mean that in the view of the biological sciences it is an opinion not a fact.
I never suggested that we add “opinion discrimination” to anti-discrimination laws. I have said that instructors should not present their opinions as scientific facts, which means that they should make students aware of the existence of divergent opinions (and not necessarily all such opinions) in a fair-minded manner, and should assign students texts and materials, which would allow them to compare opinions and make up their minds for themselves. I believe this is precisely what the AAUP’s 1915 “Declaration on the Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure” both states and intends.

IA: You wonder, “Why had the AAUP and the faculty unions eschewed a path of negotiation and compromise and decided to conduct a political war instead?”(217) Actually, didn’t you start the political war by proposing legislation about the Academic Bill of Rights before you ever contacted the AAUP and faculty unions? And why exactly should the AAUP compromise academic freedom at all?

DH: No I didn’t. I first approached the AAUP – that is, before I published the Academic Bill of Rights or approached any legislator. I vetted it with Michael Berube, Todd Gitlin, Eugene Volokh, Alan Kors and Stanley Fish – and removed any wording that was unacceptable to any one of them. The AAUP met my overtures with silence. More to the point, as I indicated in my book, no one in the AAUP has ever contacted me since its publication or suggested changes or offered to engage in a constructive dialogue about these issues. I, on the other hand, have made several efforts to start such a discussion with Cary Nelson, Robert Post, Roger Bowen, Michael Berube and William Scheuerman and have been rebuffed by all of them.

I have never asked the AAUP to compromise academic freedom principles. My Academic Bill of Rights is entirely composed of the academic freedom principles laid down in the 1915 Declaration. The AAUP’s responses to my bill have consisted of gross misrepresentations (claiming that I want to fire faculty liberals, require the hiring of Nazis, force professors to teach intelligent design or holocaust denial, and reject the idea that there is such a thing as provable “knowledge”). As I document extensively in my book, the AAUP has acted in bad faith throughout this campaign. If they are prepared now to sit down in good faith and undertake a serious discussion of these issues, I am more than ready to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read my book and come up with these questions. I will take it as a testament to the accuracy of my text that these are the most important quarrels you have with what I have written. If the AAUP had been as forthcoming from their side as you have we would be much further advanced in addressing the problem of classroom indoctrination than we are.