Academic Freedom at Risk After Decades of Right-Wing Attacks and Cuts to Education

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As higher education faces an increasingly dire crisis of underfunding, we look at one of the consequences of this crisis: the growing threat to academic freedom. Academic and author Henry Reichman takes on this threat in a new book, out this week, titled “The Future of Academic Freedom.” In it, he writes, “Academic capitalism—or, as many term it, ’corporatization’—has greatly impacted academic work and the ability of the faculty to unite in defense of professional norms, including academic freedom.” Academic capitalism is just one of a number of topics Reichman tackles in the book, which starts by asking what academic freedom is, and expands to look at the loss of public funding for institutions of higher education and the harassment of faculty members for political speech.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Federal prosecutors brought new money laundering charges Tuesday against 16 parents who paid bribes to get their children into top schools as part of the college admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues. Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are among the parents facing the additional charges, along with previously announced fraud charges, after allegedly paying $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California. They were recruited by the crew team, even though they did not practice the sport. Fourteen defendants pleaded guilty Tuesday to fraud charges in the case, including the actress Felicity Huffman, who said in a statement, quote, “I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

AMY GOODMAN: Since breaking, the college admissions scandal has laid bare the many ways higher education is rigged for the wealthy, from the ability to pay for tutors and test prep, to the staggering number of legacy admissions at many of the nation’s top schools.

Meanwhile, higher education faces an increasingly dire crisis of underfunding. We turn now to look at one of the consequences of this crisis: the growing threat to academic freedom. Academic and author Henry Reichman takes on this threat in a new book, out this week, titled The Future of Academic Freedom. In it, he writes, “Academic capitalism—or, as many term it, ’corporatization’—has greatly impacted academic work and the ability of the faculty to unite in defense of professional norms, including academic freedom,” he says. Academic capitalism is just one of a number of topics Reichman tackles in this book, which starts by asking what academic freedom is, and expands to look at the loss of public funding for institutions of higher education, and the harassment of faculty members for political speech.

We’re joined in our studio by Hank Reichman, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Describe what’s happening on American campuses, what you’re so concerned about.

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, what I’m particularly concerned about is that in the past several decades we’ve seen a shift from understanding higher education as a common good for the entire society and more and more as something for the individual student to get out of it. You know, they say it’s all about a career, an entry-level job, etc. And this is reflected in the whole structure of higher education, where it’s all about bottom lines and not really about the contribution that, through research, teaching and service, universities and colleges contribute to the society as a whole.

And I think that the scandal with Felicity Huffman and others is just one example of what happens here, where, increasingly, a handful of people are struggling for an ever smaller number of spaces, and the kinds of colleges and universities, like here in New York, CUNY, or where I have taught for 25 years, in the California State University system, are increasingly underfunded, as their student bodies become more and more—less white, shall we say, more diverse. And so, this is a real problem. And it’s reflected, for the faculty, in ways that cramp the faculty’s ability to really serve the public good.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the things that you get into is the increasing corporate impact on how institutions make their decision, the donors, who—everything from the speakers that appear at universities. You go into how folks like Ann Coulter and others are invited to speak at universities, but often subsidized or funded by outside, private groups, like the Koch brothers or others. Could you talk about that impact on the decisions that universities make about who comes to speak and what kind of institute they develop or what kind of research they go into?

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, the more public funding is eroded and the more the public mission of the university is made secondary, the more university administrators look resources of funding, look for money. And it makes them vulnerable to the efforts of politicized groups from the outside.

Now, there have always been donors who want to fund the things that they support and not things they don’t support. That’s obvious. It’s logical. But in the past, hopefully, most colleges and universities held, “Well, but it’s got to be subject to the oversight of our faculty and fit in with our curriculum.” But increasingly, you know, these agreements are becoming secret. They’re not really in the interest of the entire university.

And these same funders are also funding outside speakers. There’s this—you know, we hear these occasions where a controversial speaker, like Coulter, comes to campus because a student group invited her—maybe the Young Republicans. But that student group doesn’t necessarily have the money to pay her fee. She’s not in it for—she’s in it for the provocation, but she’s also in it, frankly, for the money.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: She gets like $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a speech.

HENRY REICHMAN: Yeah, exactly. And so, she gets supported by an outside organization. And, in fact, there’s a concerted campaign. And that’s their right to do it. But when it tilts the whole playing field in a way that really isn’t balanced, isn’t fair, the impact on the institution is serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the case, one of the cases you talk about in your book, The Future of Academic Freedom, of Trinity College professor Johnny Williams.

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, Johnny Williams is an African-American sociology professor at Trinity College, and he tweeted something about white supremacy in response to a police shooting. And he put on a hashtag that some people thought advocated violence. I don’t think it did, but it’s almost irrelevant. Within hours, literally, he was deluged with death threats against him, his family. He was forced to go into hiding. And, in fact, the administrators of the college even went so far as to close the school for half a day. Now, unfortunately—this is bad enough, but what’s unfortunate is that the Trinity College administration, rather than standing up initially, right away, for his academic freedom and saying—

AMY GOODMAN: This is Trinity in Connecticut.

HENRY REICHMAN: This is in Connecticut, yes. Rather than standing up right away for his academic freedom, they said, “Well, we’ll investigate him.” Well, what does that say, you know? Fortunately, we have an AAUP chapter at Trinity, and they mobilized the faculty, and our national office helped out. And ultimately, Trinity was forced to acknowledge that there was nothing that Johnny Williams said that should be subject to university discipline at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of tweeting, you have a whole chapter on this whole impact of social media on academic freedom, on the faculty’s right to speak. Could you talk about that?

HENRY REICHMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, we get a lot of attention paid from President Trump and others about, you know, the rights of these conservative outside speakers. But a far bigger danger right now are these systematic threats, often through blacklists, like this thing called Professor Watchlist, which lists professors who are allegedly too left and too liberal, and that result in these mob actions, literally, online. And it’s bad enough, of course, for those people who are the victims, and I outline a whole number of exemplary cases. But one has to think of all the other people who look at it and go, “Oh, I’ve got to be careful. I’m not going to say anything controversial from now on.”

And it’s not even just on Twitter and social media. It’s often sometimes they send students into class to surreptitiously film what professors are saying, and then edit it out of context. And, of course, a professor sometimes will say something controversial, not because he or she believes it, but to provoke discussion. That’s the whole purpose of education.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on college campuses. This is Trump speaking at the signing of the order.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In America, the very heart of the universities’ mission is preparing students for life as citizens in a free society. But even as universities have received billions and billions of dollars from taxpayers, many have become increasingly hostile to free speech and to the First Amendment. You see it all the time. … Under the guise of speech codes and safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today. … Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions. And that’s exactly what they are, anti-First Amendment. Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s President Trump. Talk about campuses under the Trump—during the years of President Trump.

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, I think, first of all, the comments that Trump made are just—I mean, they’re, frankly, ridiculous. There is more free expression, more discussion going on, on college and university campuses, from all perspectives, in the United States, every day, than in almost any—I would say, any other institution in the United States. Imagine the kind of discussions we have on college campuses taking place in corporate boardrooms or other workplaces. So, I think it’s really kind of ridiculous.

He talks about trigger warnings being a problem. To be honest with you, I know of no college or university that imposes anything that could be called a trigger warning on its faculty or its students. So, I think this is all rather phony.

And it’s highlighted by the fact that Donald Trump’s favorite university is Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell, where in fact precisely what he describes is the norm. You are not allowed there to say what you think. There is no free speech or academic freedom on that campus, in the way we commonly understand it at most American colleges and universities.

Are there incidents where conservative speakers have been silenced? Yes. It’s occasionally happened. But in almost—I would say, actually, in every case, the administration of the university has taken action to protect future speakers, to make sure that those things don’t happen again. So, I think this is nothing but a red herring. And it’s very dangerous because it creates an atmosphere on campus, that—of fear and of fright. And at best, the Trump executive order will simply add to the paperwork that university administrations have to do to justify their funding.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hank, I wanted to ask you about the whole issue of how the working conditions of faculty at the universities affect academic freedom. Several decades ago, two-thirds of most of the faculty at most universities were tenured faculty. Today it’s just the reverse. Only about a third are tenured or tenure-track faculty. The rest are contingent. They’re part-time lecturers. They have to cobble jobs at three or four different colleges together to make a full-time job. How has that affected academic freedom? And also, what about the argument that some people say, that, “Hey, no one is guaranteed a lifetime job. Why should university professors have tenure and be allowed to stay at the same job, no matter what they do?”

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, let me start with the last, because I think there is a big misconception about tenure. It’s not a guarantee of a lifetime job. It’s simply that a tenured professor should only be dismissed for cause. We leave it to the university to decide what cause is. There are obvious things: not showing up for class, research fraud, sexual harassment. Those are obvious things. But then, only after a due process procedure with, essentially, a jury of their peers. So it really isn’t lifetime. It’s a protection for academic freedom.

And you’re right. The erosion of the tenure system in the last several decades is, I would argue, the single biggest threat to academic freedom and, ultimately, to the quality of higher education in the United States, that now three-quarters of people who teach in American colleges and universities have—are not only not tenured, they have no access to the tenure track. The image of the privileged, elite professor who’s tenured is—it’s a shrinking group in every university, even in elite schools. And the result is very dangerous.

And if I have the—if I can, let me give you, I think, a very good, illustrative example. There was a community college instructor in Colorado, a philosophy instructor who taught an introductory class. He had been teaching it for a number of years. He was a part-time adjunct. And he was instructed to start teaching a new curriculum designed to encourage student graduation. Well, he thought it was a curriculum more suitable to a middle school than a college. He thought it would not prepare his students for a 4-year school. But he dutifully taught it, but decided to write a letter to the accrediting agency saying that—you know, raising questions about it. And he very judiciously gave it to the administration to say, “Make sure I’m not making any factual mistakes in here.” Well, within two days, an administrator was observing his class. And four days after that, he was summarily dismissed, allegedly for teaching violations so severe that they had to—well, it was a pretense. It strains credulity to believe that that’s why he was fired.

And it highlights a number of things. Here he was, exercising his academic freedom to speak about institutional concerns, the nature of the curriculum, what he was teaching. And he had no job security. There’s no unions allowed in Colorado community colleges. So he could just simply be dismissed. And the irony here is—we were able to investigate it in the AAUP, and we put them on what we call our censure list. But had they been a little more clever, less brazen, shall we say, and not fired him, simply let him finish teaching the course and then said, “Oh, we’re not rehiring you,” you know, we would have been in a much more difficult position to try to show how this was really a violation of his academic freedom, when in fact we would have known that that was the real reason he was dismissed. So, this is the kind of thing, I think, that we see happening and that really is my biggest concern about academic freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of protest? You have students now occupying an admin building at Johns Hopkins because of their involvement with ICE. You have the students and faculty at Hampshire, have now gotten their president thrown out, protesting the corporatization of the university and the threat to Hampshire?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’ve got about 30 seconds.

HENRY REICHMAN: Well, let me just say, a lot of people think that students pose a threat to free speech on campus—student demonstrations. I actually think sometimes they may, yes, but I’d rather an active student body that protests and gets involved and, because they’re students, makes mistakes and learns, because that’s what it means to be a student. Juan and I did that in college, and I think our schools were for the better for it, and so were we.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Henry Reichman, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors. His new book, The Future of Academic Freedom. He’s an emeritus professor of history at California State University, East Bay.

Happy Birthday to David Prude and Matt Ealy!

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