The term “academic freedom,” as we have pointed out from time to time, is an “antagonym.” That is to say it belongs to a class of words and phrases that can mean two opposite things: cleave, oversight, sanction, bound, and dust for example. Academic freedom can be the right of academics to bluster or their obligation not to. It can also be cited as a warrant for disrupting campus events or a reason why those events should be protected from disruption. These days it is not uncommon for mobs of activists to prevent an invited speaker from talking only to hear afterwards that the mob was exercising its “academic freedom.”
“Academic freedom,” in short, can be a banner under which parade various illiberal efforts to prevent the free exchange of ideas on campus. Those who might think this is exaggeration ought to make the acquaintance of an organization called—yes!—“Free Exchange on Campus.” It doesn’t have an acronym but for shorthand let’s call it Freex. It describes itself as “a coalition of groups that has come together to protect the free exchange of speech and ideas on campus.” It started in spring 2006 as a coalition of ten groups (principally the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Civil Liberties Union) that came together to fight David Horowitz’s proposed “Academic Bill of Rights.”
Since then the Freex coalition has grown to 23 members. Common Cause now makes common cause with Mobilize.org; the Mobilizers speak the same tongue as the Modern Language Association, which marches forward with the Progressive States Network, which newly deals with the Roosevelt Institution, which does some hard travelin’ with People for the American Way. And so on. It is a coalition known these days mostly for leftist activism. It is funded by the Open Society Institute, a charity founded and chaired by George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator who also funds Moveon.org and who declared a few years ago that removing President George W. Bush from office was the "central focus of my life." He professed willingness to spend his entire fortune to defeat President Bush, "if someone guaranteed it."
Such a coalition with such a person bankrolling it is free to call itself anything it wants, but its chosen name, Free Exchange on Campus, seems especially misleading. Much of its effort is spent on caricaturing those critics of American higher education who see evidence of narrow-mindedness and illiberality. Such critics—NAS among them—are, in the title of one of Freex’s publications, simply producing Manufactured Controversy. In Freex’s view, the criticisms or rather “attacks” are “baseless and driven by political motives rather than the best interest of students.”
Let’s declare outright that Freex is welcome to its share of the stage. Freex showcases the best arguments of the academic left as to why we and other critics should be ignored. Arguing in the name of “free exchange” why critics should shut up and be ostracized when they don’t, is, if nothing else, amusing spectacle.
Freex has three main bloggers and four “contributors.” The Freex website provides bios on all seven. Craig Smith, one of the three bloggers, is Deputy Director of the American Federation of Teachers. Chris Goff is an assistant at AFT, and Megan Fitzgerald is the program director for the Center for Campus Free Speech.
Freex just swam into view for us by posting a criticism of Macalester Alumni of Moderation—Mac Mods—an alumni group at Macalester College in St. Paul that has been criticizing their alma mater for its failure to include a wider spectrum of differing views in courses and on campus generally. We wrote about Mac Mods last week, and the Chronicle of Higher Education this week picked up the story about the group’s planned protest this coming weekend. Mac Mods has been excluded from the annual alumni weekend and has organized a small sit-in at the “rock,” a campus landmark.
What in the world in the name of “Free Exchange on Campus” can be wrong with a group of political and cultural moderates calling for more dialogue on campus? Leave it to Freex to explain. Freex thinks that Mac Mods founder, Roger S. Peterson (Macalester 1967), has made a mountain out of a molehill. In what passes for Freex’s due diligence, it examined the controversy and was able to find only two minor complaints from Mac Mods. First, Peterson cited some articles in the college’s alumni magazine as one bit of evidence of the college’s bias. Second, Freex quotes from the Chronicle article, to the effect that Macalester College inadequately explained its decision to rebuff Mac Mods.
If these were Mac Mods’ only complaints, of course, neither NAS nor the Chronicle of Higher Education would be paying attention. But in fact, Macalester College has a long and fairly accessible record of actions that appear at odds with the spirit of academic freedom. The student newspaper in October 2007 reported on a student’s complaint that a history course, “Advanced Studies: Historians and Critical Race Theory,” taught by Professor Peter Rachleff, was effectively closed to white students. Professor Rachleff denied it, but the provost found Rachleff’s screening of students “appears to be on a racial basis.”
The editor of the student newspaper, Amy Ledig, a month later offered an overview titled, “How Tolerant Are We?” citing a debate over “gender-blind bathrooms” in which opponents were intimidated into silence, and complaining about Macalester’s liberal-based “intellectual censorship and repression.”
Mac Mods has busied itself for several years gathering accounts of such censorship and repression. Back in 1998, campus activists managed to derail a planned visit by Ted Turner, on the ground that he owned the Atlanta Braves, whose name was supposedly offensive to Native Americans. A local reporter picked up the Mac Mods’ complaints and published a story in June 2007 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune noting among other things that, “Macalester's History Department offered no courses on the American founding or World War II during this last academic year. But it listed many courses with titles such as ‘Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America and the Early Republic’ and ‘Consumer Nation: American Consumer Culture in the 20th Century.’”
For those who care to look at the Macalester curriculum there is abundant evidence of a narrowing of horizons, an exclusion of whole topics within the liberal arts, and a greatly disproportionate emphasis on identity studies.
But our topic here isn’t Macalester College. It is rather, the group Free Exchange on Campus. Freex treats Mac Mods derisively:
Most attacks on higher education have been characterized by frivolous accusations and bizarre hyperbole. This particular episode demonstrates how willing partisans are to grasp at straws in order to "prove" that the academy is biased.
It is hard to know what criticism of a college, other than one launched by the AFT, the AAUP, the ACLU, or one of Freex’s other sponsors, would seem credible to the folks at Freex. When criticisms are put forward based on concrete and specific instances, Freex automatically labels them frivolous, overstated, or exceptional. When criticisms are put forward in broader terms, Freex automatically characterizes them as vague, unsubstantiated, and misleading. We have yet to find a Goldilocks “just right” criticism of leftist excess in higher education that is neither too hot nor too cold, nor too large, nor too small for Freex.
Presumably Freex exists because the defenders of leftist orthodoxy on campus are at least mildly worried by the public criticism coming from traditionalists, independents, old-style liberals, and conservatives. We appreciate the compliment and hope to amplify those worries.