Sunday, May 08, 2005

Horowitz and the Academic Bill of (No) Rights

Sure, there are problems with academia; we all know that, if we have been anywhere near a college or university over the past decades. But they are not ones that can be solved in the manner David Horowitz suggests in his misnamed “Academic Bill of Rights” (ABOR). Nor are they problems that can be addressed by lawmakers, but it is lawmakers Horowitz is addressing to get both his “Academic Bill of Rights” and its sister “Sister Bill of Rights” (SBOR) enforced. Right now, 17 states and the Federal government have at least begun to consider enacting them. They need to be stopped, or we will be on the verge of losing.

What is going on?

There have been plenty of posts on ABOR and SBOR (here is mine), so I won’t go into detail about the problems with it. I want, instead, to write more generally about the problems in academia and the way Horowitz is trying to turn them to his own advantage.

Horowitz is taking advantage of what is certainly a deplorable situation within American academia—but for his own ends, not really to help solve the problems that are most certainly there. It’s true, for example, that the entire peer-review system of academic publication effectively limits research only to areas that will be acceptable to established reviewers. In peer review, the panel is hidden (as is the name of the researcher being reviewed) and is generally made up of people in the higher reaches in the field. They are likely to be invested in previously perceived wisdom and unlikely to look kindly on something that rocks the boat—and anyone eyeing publication in a peer-review journal knows this, and tailors their writing accordingly. Ideas outside of the mainstream, therefore, are penalized by what is supposed to be a process protecting against cronyism. Yet peer-reviewed journals command the highest respect in terms of promotion and hire.

Peer-review is part of a hierarchy of publication evaluation that makes Horowitz crazy. In ”What Makes David Run: David Horowitz Demands Attention for the Idea that Conservatives Deserve a Place in Academe”, Jennifer Jacobsen writes about Horowitz that:

While he wants desperately to be included in the academy--for professors to assign his books and invite him to speak in classes--he seems eager to punish it, in part, for turning a cold shoulder to his work….

Mr. Horowitz has always wanted to be a scholar himself.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Columbia, he attended the University of California at Berkeley. He says he got bored with his graduate program and left with a master's degree in English. "Everything had been mined," he explains. There was "nothing to research that was interesting anymore."

Instead he wrote a book on American foreign policy in the cold war, a book on Marxist theory, and one on Shakespeare.

Horowitz had to publish elsewhere—and publish he did! But he has carried that resentment behind his dismissive statement that there was “nothing to research that was interesting anymore” (clearly nonsense, as anyone who has even scanned academic writing since will assure) with him ever since. His interests did not match those of the academic powers-that-be of the time.

Along with that hierarchy of types of publications (at the top are the university presses and the peer-reviewed journals), there are other hierarchies in academia, not the least being that of the degree itself. Horowitz did not earn the “terminal” PhD that would have brought him into the fraternity, and those books that tumbled from his pen were published by the likes of Tavistock and, today, Regnery, not known as the best academic houses. So, no matter how brilliant his work, he had two strikes against him when it came to academic viability: lack of degree and lack of “serious” publishing.

Was this wrong? Yes. And it may well be the basis of Horowitz’s jihad against academia. His solutions, however, will not solve the problem. Sure, they might get him into academia, but they would end up being used to keep people out. What Horowitz has done, then, is turn his anger at academia to another purpose, to destruction of any American opposition to the right-wing movement he represents.

According to an unsigned article in the May/June 2005 issue of AFT On Campus entitled “Silencing the Professoriate: Don’t let the Academic Bill of Rights Become Law in Your State,” Horowitz bases his claim for the ABOR on his contention that:

professors behave as “political advocates in the classroom, express opinions in a partisan manner on controversial issues irrelevant to the academic subject, and even grade students in a manner designed to enforce their conformity to professorial prejudices.” (10)

This is simplistic at best, and instituting the ABOR in response would be like using a bulldozer to transplant a rose—especially when the rose only needed to be moved a few feet to more appropriate light.

No longer would professors feel free to challenge their students, to get them to think and argue. They would move slowly towards simply presenting a party line. So, even if Horowitz is right, there would be no improvement. The rose might even live (though I doubt it)—but the destruction to the landscape would be incalculable.

Again, there are plenty of problems with academia. Another that does need to be addressed is the tenure system, or what it has become. Meant to protect scholars from retribution for unpopular positions, the tenure system serves now to compensate those who stick around and toe the line. It has become a reward, not a protection. In many universities, we now have two tracks: tenure and temporary (including adjunct). The difference? Those tenured or on the tenure track have job security and higher pay. Those who are temporary hires or working on a course-by-course (adjunct) basis have none and earn less. Are the tenured and tenure-track professors more experienced? Are they better teachers? Do they publish more? No, no, and no. Many of the tenured and tenure-track, when serving on hiring committees for temporary faculty, even find themselves rejecting applicants more qualified than themselves.

Combined with the hierarchy of publishing, tenure provides a way of keeping those in, in—and those out, out. It may or may not be true that academia is a great deal more liberal that most of America thinks (one recent study claiming this to be the case is flawed, at best), but those ensconced there have a great deal of power to keep those they want, and to keep others beyond the gates. Also, once you are in, and attain tenure, you are there for good. Many of the scholars who cannot get a toehold in academia, not surprisingly, are at least as good as those coasting along with cushy positions. Many of the outsiders are actually better.

But, bad though this is for academic pursuits in America, this will not be changed by Horowitz’s “Bills.” They will merely change one standard for another.

AFT On Campus goes on to say that:

"These bills are based on the assumption that academics don’t behave professionally,” says William Scheuerman, AFT vice president and president of the United University Professions/AFT at the State University of New York. “And they also side-step the fact that institutions have procedures for students to challenge abusive faculty.

“[Horowitz’s] goal of ‘intellectual diversity’ directly contradicts the principle of ideological neutrality in the classroom, the bedrock of his Academic Bill of Rights,” Scheuerman noted in a Northeast Public Radio commentary he delivered in March. “If professors should keep their politics out of the classroom, as Horowitz argues, why should a dearth of Republicans in the classroom matter? It only matters if you’re a conservative who wants to use the classroom as a platform for preaching your conservative ideology, which is precisely what they want to do.” (11)

Once more, there are serious problems for academia, and they won’t be solved until the established powers within the unions, administrations, and academic departments are willing to act for the good of the whole and not simply for their particular vested constituencies. Certainly, they won’t be solved by outside entities stepping in and, say, insisting that a certainly political “balance” be maintained in hiring, simply exchanging one vested group for another.

All of us could help change the universities—and we must (more on that in future posts)—especially if we are going to keep the real need for reform from becoming a stalking horse for the more nefarious agenda that Horowitz walks point for. First, though, we do have to fight the ABOR and the SBOR—harmless thought they might sound.

Think the vested interests in academia now are capricious?

Just wait. If Horowitz gets his way, they will seem absolutely benign.

[Posted on dKos, BoomanTribune, and BarBlog]

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