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Worse Than McCarthy

By Ellen Schrecker

Chronicle of Higher Education

February 10, 2006

When Barrows Dunham, chairman of Temple University's philosophy department, faced the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he knew that his job was on the line. He was determined not to cooperate with the committee or name names; so, after giving his name, address, and -- reluctantly -- his date and place of birth, he invoked the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. He was more forthcoming with Temple's investigation, explaining to a special faculty-administration committee why he had joined the Communist Party and why he left it. Even so, the university dismissed him on the grounds that he had abused the Fifth Amendment and so was unfit to teach.

Unlike Dunham, the Temple professors who appeared in January before the Select Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives were not risking their jobs. The panel's inquiry, the fruit of David Horowitz's current campaign to enact an "academic bill of rights," sought to find out whether students were facing political and religious discrimination within the commonwealth's classrooms. Though the testimony the committee received was decidedly mixed, at no point were any professors quizzed, as Dunham was, about their politics.

Whatever threat investigations like Pennsylvania's continuing hearings pose, it will not be a replay of the McCarthy era. At that time, at least 100 academics lost their jobs, and thousands more took loyalty oaths or faced other political tests. With one exception, every junior faculty member who tangled with the anticommunist furor lost his or her job. Tenure was no protection. Nor were private institutions immune. The pressure on the nation's colleges was so intense that even as progressive an institution as Reed College fired a senior professor. Moreover, because an unofficial blacklist existed and many academics kept their troubles to themselves, we will never have an exact accounting of the toll. Nor can we fully assess the intellectual fallout: books that were not written, research projects not initiated, and courses not taught.

The situation is different today. Despite the post- September 11 patriotic furor that discourages dissent, few faculty heads have rolled. The academy, it seems, has learned its lesson from the McCarthy era. Or has it?

During the late 1940s and 1950s, anticommunism focused on the off-campus political activities of individual professors. Like Dunham, most of the victims of the era's purges were Communists or former Communists who did not want to name names. Their extracurricular affiliations and behavior -- in particular, their refusal to cooperate with investigating committees -- caused their dismissals, not their teaching or scholarship. Surprisingly, despite the insistence that Communists were unqualified to teach, no evidence was ever produced to show that those people had skewed their research or indoctrinated their students. The notoriety of harboring a Fifth Amendment witness was enough to make colleges shed politically embarrassing professors.

Today's assault on the academy is more serious. Unlike that of the McCarthy era, it reaches directly into the classroom. In the name of establishing intellectual diversity, Horowitz and his allies want to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods. Such an intrusion not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity of American higher education.

Some fields are more vulnerable than others. Just as charges of communist sympathies in the 1950s destroyed the careers of people who studied China, so today the Arab-Israeli conflict plagues scholars who come from or study the Middle East. Predictably, the first major academic-freedom case to arise after September 11 involved a Palestinian nationalist, the already- controversial University of South Florida professor of computer engineering Sami Al-Arian, suspended and then fired after the federal government charged him with supporting terrorism. His summary dismissal, even if the university were to revisit it in light of his recent acquittal, is a classic violation of academic freedom: It involved his off-campus political activities.

More troubling than the Al-Arian case, however, has been the campaign to depict the entire field of Middle Eastern studies as radical, one-sided, and hostile to Israel and the United States. Through Web sites, publications, speeches, and such efforts as the Boston- based David Project's attack on Middle East studies at Columbia University, polemicists have disseminated the notion that most professors in the field are seriously biased. Those charges have become so widely accepted that Congress has considered imposing constraints on federally financed area-studies centers.

The main scenario involved the late Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, whose work, it is claimed, so dominates the field that its practitioners not only promote an anti-American worldview but also subscribe to the trendy postmodern discourse on race, class, and gender that makes contemporary scholarship so repellent to ordinary Americans. That scenario delegitimizes most Middle Eastern scholars -- and provides ammunition for a broader assault on the academy like Horowitz's.

Invoking what he calls "intellectual diversity," Horowitz insists that universities must redress the preponderance of liberals on college faculties. He and his allies support their argument by citing a recent study showing that most professors in the humanities and social sciences tend to vote Democratic. Such may well be the case, but what difference does an academic's party affiliation make?

For Horowitz et al., it makes a lot. At the heart of their campaign is the assumption that liberal professors bring their politics into the classroom and discriminate against their conservative and Christian students. There is, however, little concrete evidence to support that assumption. The grievances that grace the Web sites of Students for Academic Freedom and similar groups reveal more about their authors' senses of entitlement than they do about the misbehavior of the supposed tenured radicals who teach them.

When pressed during the Pennsylvania hearings, neither Horowitz nor his allies could back up two of the examples he has used of serious classroom abuses. Furthermore, several college administrators testified that they had received no official complaints about professorial discrimination.

Despite its heavy reliance on the traditional rhetoric of academic freedom, the "academic bill of rights" seriously undermines that freedom. By injecting extraneous political considerations into personnel and curricular decisions, the measure not only interferes with those areas of educational policy that are the traditional responsibility of the faculty, it also disregards the professional standards that guarantee the quality of American higher education.

Academe maintains those standards by policing itself through peer review. Operating through a dense web of institutions -- departmental committees, faculty senates, disciplinary associations, scholarly journals, and so on -- that process ensures that the nation's college professors do not abuse their students' rights and that their work meets commonly accepted disciplinary standards of evidence and accountability. While not entirely infallible, the system has worked well enough to produce an educational establishment that is, at least at the moment, the best in the world.

For that system to function properly, however, it must be controlled by its own members. Outsiders may have opinions about a particular field, but they do not have the training or expertise to assess the work of an evolutionary biologist, say, or a specialist in medieval Islam. Professors must make the main decisions about hiring, tenure, promotion, and curriculum: Otherwise, we cannot maintain the quality of higher education.

Unfortunately, the academy may have more trouble fending off the current assault on its autonomy than it did in the 1950s, when its members still got respect, and the system of higher education was on the verge of expansion. Now colleges must cope with the public- relations fallout of decades of conservative attacks on their supposed political correctness and quest for diversity. At the same time, they must deal with the fiscal cutbacks that have forced them to raise tuitions and substitute part-time for full-time teachers, stratagems that only further undermine already dwindling public support for higher education.

According to The Chronicle's most-recent figures, 17 state legislatures have considered some version of the "academic bill of rights," while Congress may incorporate it into the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. At their recent annual meetings, both the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association condemned such measures; the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and other faculty groups have mobilized against them with some success, turning back initiatives in California, Ohio, and elsewhere.

Still -- with Web sites asking students to report on their professors (and even an abortive offer to pay students to do so at the University of California at Los Angeles), and statewide hearings like those in Pennsylvania -- it is hard to imagine that encroachments on academic freedom will not encourage self-censorship. That's especially a concern for untenured and part-time teachers. Perhaps allegations of the Bush administration's violations of individual rights will provoke enough of a national backlash for academe to deflect the growing assault on its autonomy. If not, the political chill that characterized the McCarthy era may well return to our campuses.

Ellen Schrecker is a professor of history at Yeshiva University, former editor of Academe, and the author of several books on the McCarthy era and its aftermath, including Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Little, Brown, 1998).