USC Academic Senate
Winter 2002/2003 Edition 

Volume 4, Number 1, 2002-2003


 

 In This Edition

  A Letter from the President
  Open Letter to Senators and Other Colleagues
  Health Care Costs, Preferences, Risks and Equity
  Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Faculty
  Non-tenure-track Faculty at USC
  Marshall Online Teaching Evaluation System
  Concerning Terminations of Tenured Faculty
  Mediation
  The University After 9/11

The University After 9/11
William G. Tierney, Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education

Commentators have been fond of saying that "everything changed" after the tragedy of a year ago. Part of what changed, apparently, was that the fog of moral relativism has lifted and we are now a nation united in the ability to speak with one clear voice. We are able to condemn terrorists and use every means at our disposal to root out evil wherever we may find it. Who our friends and enemies are is equally clear. As President Bush stated shortly after the attacks of September: if you support terrorists, then you are a terrorist. The nation has rallied around the President's call to arms. We are a nation at war.

Those of us who work in universities have never done particularly well when called upon to fall into line and act with a singular version of moral clarity. Insofar as we work in organizations devoted to the intellect, we are trained to be able to see events and phenomena from multiple perspectives and engage one another and our students in thoughtful dialogue and debate. Out of these conversations we gain a sense not of how simple the world is, but how complex. Of consequence, when someone tells us, "my country, right or shut up" we have a reflex reaction.

One response, of course, is to fall into line and do as we are told. Who needs ambiguity and nuance when your house is on fire? Just grab a bucket and start putting out the fire. A second response is to ensure that we do not shut up and to make certain that our campuses remain arenas of thoughtful conversations about the current problems that confront the nation.

To be sure, we will be rebuked when we do not follow orders. The North Carolina legislature has moved to cut the budget of UNC because the fall reading list for freshmen included a book about the Koran. The Governor of Colorado and state legislators have denounced the University of Colorado for inviting Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian writer and educator, to speak on campus. The legislature in Missouri has sought to cut funding from the University's budget because the director of the public television station decided that personnel should not wear flag pins on camera. Leonard Peikoff took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to let us know that the greatest obstacle to US victory is "our own intellectuals . . . and multiculturarlists rejecting the concept of objectivity." A website has been established to monitor faculty and institutions that are critical of US actions in the Middle East. Individual faculty were listed on the website as "hostile" to America; the result was that the professors were spammed with thousands of e-mails.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) have condemned faculty because in the view of ACTA we have not been sufficiently vocal in support of the Bush administration. In a recent report they observed that many faculty "invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil." Out of the 3600 colleges and universities in the United States ACTA cited 117 instances of unpatriotic comments. Statements such as "we have to learn to use courage for peace rather than war" by a professor of religious studies at Pomona came in for criticism. ACTA is not a fringe group. Lynne Cheney, former governor Dick Lamm, William Bennett, Joe Lieberman and the late David Reisman have been on their various Boards. The report goes on to observe that the faculty's voice has been mute in its condemnation of the terrorist attacks and insufficiently patriotic.

Congress has gotten into the fray by its passage of the Patriot Act. In their effort to root out terrorists, Congress created a law that has quite specific implications for campus life. Federal law officials may now collect with far fewer restraints extensive information about students from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Government officials may now seek stored voice-mail without wiretap authorization on campuses. A search warrant is still needed, albeit the standard for issuance of the warrant is much looser than what has been the case for wire-taps. The ability of the government to obtain court orders for electronic surveillance on campuses has been increased. Federal agents may now install certain devices such as "Carnivore" with a greatly expanded scope to track Internet use. Student records may now be turned over to law enforcement without the consent of the student. Indeed, as long as the law enforcement agency has a court order, the college or university is obliged not to disclose the records have been released. Similarly, a record may be provided to federal law officials of the books a graduate student checks out of the library; a gag order prevents the librarian from disclosing the existence of the request or that the records were released. In other words, with much of the Patriot Act there is no way of tracking its implementation. Big Brother has arrived.

The government also has moved on what appear to be several related fronts. If a school at a university has declared that army recruiters are not welcome on campus because of the discrimination gay and lesbian people face in the military, the institution will now have its federal monies taken away. Two of the more recent institutions to face such pressure are Harvard and USC. The Law School at USC bent over backwards to ensure that students interested in the military as a possible career could meet with recruiters outside the Law School. However, because of its principled stance, the Department of Defense began proceedings to remove federal funding from the entire university. USC gave in, and DOD may now recruit students through the Career Services Office at the Law School.

The US Department of Education has moved to eliminate on its website any links with researchers or organizations that have policies that do not agree with the Bush Administration. The elimination has nothing to do with fighting terrorism, but in a world where moral clarity is honored above all else, why suffer the niceties of competing viewpoints about a research topic? A federal commission on the protection of human subjects has been disbanded because, in the eyes of many, it did not conform to the ideological standards set by the Bush Administration. The Office of Homeland Security has expressed an interest in limiting scientific publishing, especially in publishing data sets and methods that might lead to replicating results; in effect, research in some areas may shift from the "right to know" to the "need to know" which of course erodes fundamental assumptions of academic freedom and scientific inquiry. Openness has been at the heart of academic research, and now that stands to be curtailed as well.

One response is simply to shrug our collective shoulders, get on with our work and not think too much about the ramifications of the changes that are happening. During times of crisis perhaps it is easier not to invite controversial speakers to campus. The reading of controversial texts is sure to anger some individuals, so why not choose books that are more mainstream? It may be too bad that federal agents can get confidential information about my students, but if they have nothing to hide, what's the big deal? Who would care about the books that my graduate students read, anyway? Maybe DOD is being a bit ornery about recruiting, but it's wartime, after all, shouldn't we all just pitch in and silence our objections?

When we begin to ask such questions as if the answers are self-evident, then we demean the underlying premise of academic life: the search for, creation, and discovery of truth. As Mary Burgan, General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors has written: "The university is a place for going to the source of ideas that threaten us - for finding causes, explaining problems, and seeking out solutions based on knowledge." Academic freedom is not a peacetime luxury; academic freedom is a necessity if we believe that the free exchange of ideas is fundamental to a healthy democracy.

Democracy is a noisy conversation, and one central purpose of universities has been to be a convener of those conversations. Those who claim that moral ambiguity and dissent are immoral, mistake what those individuals who rushed into burning buildings died for on September 11th. The responsibility of the professorate is not to retreat to the confines of his or her office and wait until the terror passes. The obligation of the academic is to convene such conversations on our campus, in our classrooms and with one another.

References related to this article can be found at http://www.usc.edu/dept/chepa.