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Shedding Light on the Professoriate

The Washington Examiner, August 16, 2007 - Winfield Myers wrote,

[Note: This version is slightly amended from that which appears in the Washington Examiner.]

Lisa Anderson, the former dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs best remembered for her failed attempt to bring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to campus, had a complaint yesterday for the Web publication Inside Higher Ed.

"Young scholars of Middle Eastern literature or history are finding themselves ‘grilled' about their political views in job interviews, and in some cases losing job offers as a result of their answers," Anderson said. She carefully stressed that she wasn't talking about those who study policy or the current political climate.

This situation has arisen, Anderson said, because "outside groups that are critical of those in Middle Eastern studies ... are shifting the way scholarship is evaluated."

Anderson's lamentations are part of a rising chorus from professors who consider themselves besieged by external organizations whose mission is to critique the performance of scholars. These include the one I head, Campus Watch, to which Anderson clearly alluded in her remarks.

Academic radicals have for years controlled campus debate by blackballing internal opponents, intimidating students and crying censorship whenever their views or actions were challenged.

They got away with such behavior for two principal reasons: A sympathetic media assured the nation that universities were in the front lines of the fight for liberty and justice, and there were few external organizations or individuals offering sustained critiques of politicized scholarship and teaching. These helped ensure that the public's reservoir of good will toward universities remained full.

But times are changing.

Scholars no longer operate in an information vacuum. Their words carry great weight not only with their students, who pay for and deserve far better than they receive, but with the media, which funnel their often politicized, tendentious views to a broader public. Given such influence, it should shock no one that the professoriate is scrutinized and, when found wanting, challenged.

Anderson and company's frequently alleged claims that outsiders threaten their freedom of speech is, on the one hand, risible. Campus Watch and other organizations or individuals who critique academe don't possess the authority of the state; we have no subpoena power, no ability to force their acquiescence, nor do we seek it.

What we've challenged isn't the academics' right to speak as they wish. Rather, we've challenged their ability to practice their trade in hermetically sealed conditions free from the need to answer to anyone but themselves. We've held them accountable much as countless organizations and journalists have critiqued the behavior of other professions, from doctors and lawyers to clergy and businessmen.

Given this new reality on campus, it's almost understandable that outside critics could make the doyens of Middle East studies long for the days when they could operate behind closed doors. Continued...

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