Academic Freedom Ain't What It Used to Be

This summer the Wisconsin-based staff of the Center for Media and Democracy had the pleasure of working with Molly Riordan, an Ithaca College student, who came out to Madison to be our intern. A smart and politically engaged student, Riordan quickly took to our work, adding and editing numerous articles on SourceWatch, our collaborative online encyclopedia of the people, issues and groups shaping public opinion and public policy.

I suggested that she write an article on something of interest to her. What resulted was the cover story for the third quarter issue (now available online) of our award-winning quarterly publication PR Watch. In her article "Academic Freedom Takes a Step to the Right," Riordan takes a look at Students for Academic Freedom, a conservative organization with over a hundred campus chapters that claims to promote "academic diversity." Closer examination of SAF reveals its close affiliation with "Marxist-turned-conservative activist" David Horowitz and a pattern of only identifying cases involving conservative students resisting alleged "leftist indoctrination."

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on a bill working its way through the House of Representatives that would "ensure that students hear 'dissenting viewpoints' in class and are protected from retaliation because of their politics or religion." While the measure appears to support students' rights, critics said it could impinge on academic freedom and silence liberal faculty members, adding that universities already have procedures to address student grievances of this type. As it turns out, the Student Bill of Rights, as some call it, is the work of House Republicans, Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom.

One striking things about Horowitz and SAF's campaign is how they have "consciously co-opted liberal catchphrases such as 'diversity' to make their version of academic rights more marketable before an academic audience already familiar with these terms as they apply to racial, ethnic and gender diversity," Riordan writes.

In fact, Horowitz admitted this linguistic tactic in his essay, "The Campus Blacklist":

"I encourage [students] to use the language that the left has deployed so effectively in behalf of its own agendas. Radical professors have created a 'hostile learning environment' for conservative students. There is a lack of 'intellectual diversity' on college faculties and in academic classrooms. The conservative viewpoint is 'under-represented' in the curriculum and on its reading lists. The university should be an 'inclusive' and intellectually 'diverse' community."

Riordan continues:

Horowitz's most fundamental linguistic trick in this campaign has been his transformation of the concept of "academic freedom," a phrase that is usually seen as the very opposite of 'government control.' Horowitz states that "the academic freedom campaign is designed to preserve the intellectual independence of the university." However, he makes it appear as though academic freedom will be achieved by restricting universities' autonomy. If passed by state legislatures, his bill would make it possible for the state to intervene whenever it deemed material presented by a professor was "controversial" or "inappropriate."

Riordan's complete story for PR Watch is available online as well as the other stories making up our third quarter issue. If you are not already a financial supporter of the Center for Media and Democracy, please consider making a donation now. Your contribution supports the publication of stories like Riordan's. Donors will receive our award-winning publication, PR Watch, for one year. Please donate now.