Exclusive Illinois Academe interview with AAUP head
(and Illinois AAUP annual meeting keynote speaker)
ILLINOIS ACADEME: You were forced out of your job as president
of SUNY at New Paltz largely because of your refusal to ban a conference
on campus dealing with sexuality. Did that encounter make you realize
the importance of academic freedom, or did you have a commitment
to academic freedom long before that incident?
BOWEN: If only it were so simple. The conference on female sexuality
resulted in an investigation by a special commission that clearly
stated my defense of academic freedom was both right and appropriate.
A couple years later, the new chancellor, Robert King, personally
rebuked me for “permitting” “The Vagina Monologues”
to be performed on my campus. His rebuke was followed by repeated
visits from King’s vice chancellor who likewise had no understanding
of or appreciation for academic freedom. SUNY had been taken over
by non academicians who had, then at least, strong support from
Governor Pataki. The climate was poisonous and inhospitable to academic
freedom. Of course such people and such incidents tend to make one
more aware that academic freedom is, like democracy, an ideal that
requires constant battle and eternal vigilance.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: Geoffrey Stone, in his new book Perilous Times,
on the history of civil liberties in America, argues that if more
university presidents (and the AAUP) had followed the lead of Robert
Hutchins at the University of Chicago and stood up against McCarthyism,
the harm to academic freedom would have been much smaller. Why do
you think that college presidents then and now are willing to sacrifice
academic freedom in the face of external pressure? And what can
be done to convince presidents to defend academic freedom? Should
we privately lobby them? Should we lead crusades to have presidents
who infringe on academic freedom fired? Should we launch petition
drives and letter-writing campaigns? Should we educate presidents
about academic freedom before a crisis ever hits?
BOWEN: I think your last question contains the best answer, but,
sadly, education does not change the reality that presidents are
too seldom answerable to the faculty. Trustees and regents and donors
influence presidential behavior far more powerfully than do faculty,
and governing boards seem to prefer presidents who are more responsive
to “bottom line” issues than to the ethics of the academy.
When I was under fire at SUNY, one presidential colleague phoned
me and said that he wanted to speak out in support of academic freedom
but was afraid of losing his job and added that he hoped I would
“understand.” Hutchins was a rarity, alas.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: Lawrence Summers at Harvard is under fire for
many things, including his suggestion that women are genetically
inferior at math and science. Should presidents be as free as professors
to express unpopular opinions without facing sharp criticism or
the threat of losing their job? Do they have academic freedom, too?
BOWEN: President Summers forgot, momentarily at least, that the
Harvard president occupies a position in the academy with a level
of public exposure and interest not unlike the Pope’s position
in the Catholic Church. Presidents have a responsibility to choose
their words carefully—to self censor, in effect—and
they diverge from that responsibility at their own peril. If Summers
had addressed issues solely within his field of expertise, economics,
he would have been on safer ground. This aside, I rather prefer
the New School president Bob Kerrey’s position that says presidents
should feel free to address controversial issues, albeit, they should
do their homework before speaking on issues outside their expertise.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: Your nemesis from those SUNY days, trustee Candace
De Russy, has just announced that she plans to push adoption of
the Academic Bill of Rights in New York. David Horowitz has referred
to the AAUP as a Stalinist organization because of its opposition
to his Academic Bill of Rights. Do you think his plans to pass this
as legislation in Congress and 20 states will succeed, and what
can AAUP members do to stop it?
BOWEN: David Horowitz is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He has
shamelessly plagiarized from the AAUP’s statements on academic
freedom, but added a totalitarian codicil that would make government,
or university administrators, regulators of speech in the classroom.
Here is a conservative who wants a Big Brother government to impose
ideological balance, using regulation rather than the marketplace
of ideas to guarantee that conservative ideas have a greater presence
in the academy. De Russy is Horowitz’s feminine doppelganger
who believes she is on a holy mission to remake the academy in the
image of Lynn Cheney. Who, indeed, in this drama is the “Stalinist”?
The AAUP must expose them for their Stalinist agenda.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: The AAUP has been going through a long, gradual
decline in membership. What can the AAUP do (both nationally and
at campus chapters) to reverse this slide and bring more professors
into the organization?
BOWEN: Otherwise put, how can we end academic feudalism? Academics
are too divided by their narrow disciplines to show their concern
for the wider profession. Right now about 45,000 professors in the
AAUP are subsidizing a million academics whose freedom to profess
is being constantly challenged by the Horowitz’s and de Russy’s.
Two out of three faculty who phone us for help are non-members.
As the AAUP assumes a higher profile in coming to the aid of faculty’s
academic freedom, more will join.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: An increasing amount of the teaching at many universities
is being done by graduate assistants and non-tenure-track faculty.
What is the AAUP doing to reach the growing ranks of these kinds
of college teachers who have not traditionally been involved in
BOWEN: The national council recently voted to give graduate students
full voting rights in the AAUP; and we constantly monitor the growth
of contingent faculty and publicize the exploitative working conditions
they suffer. At the national level we will have to advocate more
forcefully for fully funding higher education, which means increasing
the number of tenure lines and converting contingent faculty positions
into full-time continuing positions.
ILLINOIS ACADEME: The biggest academic freedom controversy of our
time seems to be University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill.
I’ve encountered many people who seem to think that if academic
freedom protects him, maybe it’s not a good idea. Since no
other professor seems to have written anything quite so offensive
as Churchill s reference to “little Eichmanns,” what
would be the harm of investigating and firing just this one professor?
BOWEN: The slope is very slippery. “Little Eichmanns”
is indeed offensive to most people’s moral sensibilities and
Churchill must have been suffering a moral lapse when he wrote those
words; or, more seriously, he betrayed his ignorance of history.
But the statement itself should not result in an investigation or
a termination. Academic freedom also protects his other writings,
one of which is a thoughtful attack on “holocaust-deniers.”
Maurice Isserman’s recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher
Education asks whether Malcolm X—who uttered words as offensive
and advocated violence, something Churchill has not done—would
be allowed to speak at Hamilton College today. I encourage readers
to look at this essay.