Shedding Light on the Professoriate

Posted: 8/26/2007 1:32:00 PM
Author: Winfield Myers
Source: This article appeared in the SPFME Faculty Forum of August 26, 2007.

Shedding Light on the Professoriate
by Winfield Myers

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. They had much to hide:

In May at Stanford, Arzoo Osanloo of the University of Washington decried “Western, paternalistic attitudes towards Muslim women,” and asserted that Iranian women had made great strides since the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power and implemented Sharia law.

She failed to mention the regime’s ongoing crackdown on women who wear Western clothing or makeup, the brutal punishments (including death by stoning) of women accused of adultery, or the continuing illegal detention of American scholar Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

In a failed attempt to silence critics and elicit media sympathy, some Middle East studies scholars claimed to have received death threats. Most recently, Nadia Abu El-Haj, an archaeologist at Barnard College whose spurious denial of an ancient Hebrew connection to Jerusalem is designed to delegitimize the Jewish state, made such an unsubstantiated claim. Preceding her in making questionable charges were Khaled Abou el Fadl of UCLA and Joel Beinin of the American University of Cairo, whose charges against a journalist were dismissed.

Last November, Michigan professor Kathryn Babayan aided efforts to disrupt the public lecture of her former colleague Raymond Tanter, who was invited to campus to speak about Iran.

Moreover, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, the umbrella group for scholars of the field, has yet to utter a word in protest of Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz’s successful settlement against Cambridge University Press, which saw the American-authored book “Alms for Jihad” pulped and pulled from bookstores.

During a follow-up interview for a teaching position in a large state university, Middle East studies professor Timothy Furnish was told that he “appeared to be more conservative than others in [his] field” and that he “sounded like Daniel Pipes.”

No, he didn’t get the job.

Winfield Myers is a member of The Examiner’s Board of Bloggers and blogs at