Academic freedom, a cornerstone of democracy, is in trouble, according to Beshara Doumani, professor of History at UC Berkeley and editor of the just-published Academic Freedom After September 11. The book brings together some of the nation’s leading scholars (Joel Beinin, Judith Butler, Kathleen Frydl, Amy Newhall, Robert Post, and Philippa Strum) to analyze the new challenges facing higher education in the United States—including the rise of conflicting interpretations of what constitutes academic freedom. Doumani recently spoke with Inside Higher Education’s Scott Jaschik about the book’s theme:
Q. How severe do you consider the attacks on academic freedom, post-9/11?
A: Academic freedom is facing its most serious threat since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Some of the repressive but short-lived measures imposed on U.S. population after previous crises makes the post-9/11 period look tame in comparison. But the Global War on Terrorism is distinct from previous wars in ways that do not bode well for the future of academic freedom. The unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties following the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001, the national “Take Back the Campus” campaigns of special interest groups, the changes in the grant language of major foundations, and the attempts to legislate political intervention in area studies programs are but some of the developments post 9/11 that have impacted academic freedom in structural ways. This comes at a time when the academy is in the midst of an economic and institutional transformation driven by the increasing commercialization of knowledge. Buffeted between the forces of anti-liberal coercion and neo-liberal privatization, colleges and universities are more vulnerable than ever to the myriad ways in which outside government agencies and special interest groups are reshaping the landscape of intellectual production.
Q: Do you think the war in Iraq has changed the state of academic freedom?
A: The war in Iraq is but a part of the Global War on Terrorism and its spinoffs on the domestic front. It is a truism that war and truth do not go well together, but we usually take comfort in the fact that wars end while the pursuit of knowledge is endless. Herein, however, lies the danger of this new and unique Global War on Terrorism. It is a war without end and it is a virulently anti-intellectual war in that terrorists are represented as irrationally evil and freedom is said to be a God given right. Both are located outside of history and society. The black and white warning by President Bush, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” not only asks other countries to surrender their foreign policy. It also asks academics to give up what they hold most dear: the use of critical reason in the free pursuit of knowledge.
Read the entire interview (along with a growing discussion in the comments section) here.