Witch Hunt at UCLA
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 22 January 2006)
'UCLA STUDENTS: Do you have a professor who just can't stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter? It doesn't matter whether this is a past class, or your class from this coming winter quarter. If you help expose the professor, we'll pay you for your work."
This grotesque offer appeared last week on a new website taking aim at members of the UCLA faculty. The site, created by the Bruin Alumni Assn., a group founded by 2003 UCLA graduate Andrew Jones, offers differing bounties for class notes, handouts and illicit recordings of lectures ($100 for all three).
A glance at the profiles of the "targeted professors," however, reveals that they have been singled out, in most cases, not for what goes on in their courses, but for the positions they have taken outside the classroom — and outside the university.
I earned my own inaccurate and defamatory "profile," for example, not for what I have said in my classes on English poets such as Wordsworth and Blake — my academic specialty, which the website pointedly avoids mentioning — but rather for what I have written in newspapers about Middle Eastern politics.
My colleagues and I are being targeted for speaking out on the kinds of urgent social matters and universal principles that it has always — in every society and every age — been the task of intellectuals to address.
The website assumes that any professor who speaks out in a public forum must at the same time be indulging in ideological abuse of his or her students — proselytizing them, indoctrinating them. And it's actually not just any professor; it's only the supposedly "liberal" ones, since "conservative" faculty are not targeted on the website.
Naturally, a professor who speaks out in public expects to receive criticism in public. Criticism is one thing; a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations and utter falsehoods, dragging in one's family and stretching back to one's high school days, is something else entirely. This is no way to assess someone's classroom conduct.
Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with me or my colleagues, or our teaching. A method for assessing how professors treat their students is already built into how universities work. Every course at UCLA gives students the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors, and those evaluations are used in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions; abusive professors don't get very far in their careers.
So the point of the website is not really to produce genuine "evaluations" of classroom dynamics — a cause that would hardly be well-served by a tiny group of politically motivated zealots accountable to no one and trying to use the cash nexus to break the sacrosanct bond between teacher and student. The point, rather, is to silence voices that go against the zealots' right-wing orthodoxy, and to subject the classroom to outside political surveillance, not simply by vigilante groups like this one, but ultimately by the state itself.
Jones, who created the website, is a former leader of UCLA's campus Republican organization. He explicitly aligns himself with the "student academic freedom movement" begun by conservative activist David Horowitz (although Horowitz last week criticized Jones, whom he said he'd once fired for pressuring students to file false reports about their professors).
The two distinguishing features of the academic freedom movement are the total absence of any significant student involvement and its use of Orwellian language — in which slogans such as "academic freedom" actually mean their opposite.
One member of the website's advisory board is state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who has introduced a bill creating a "student bill of rights" — written not by students but by their paternalistic "friends" who assume they aren't up to the task of thinking critically for themselves.
Morrow's bill, which failed to pass last year but will be reconsidered this year, would wreak havoc. It could impose unprecedented state monitoring of classrooms and compel professors to teach discredited materials. It asserts, for example, that "curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas, and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints."
The intention is presumably to force "liberal" faculty to teach "conservative" materials, as though a university education functions according to the same degraded logic as the Bill O'Reilly show. But the bill could also force a professor teaching the Holocaust to teach the views of Holocaust deniers ("dissenting sources").
Such subtleties don't keep the conservative crusaders up at night. Irrespective of the damage their campaign inflicts, members of the hard right — who currently control all three branches of government and yet seem irrationally convinced of their own disempowerment — are seeking to impose their worldview on our university system through crude intimidation and "big government" intervention that reactionaries normally grumble about when it's taking care of the poor, the ill or the elderly.
Their success would almost certainly guarantee that what gets taught would be determined not according to scholarly criteria but according to political pressure. I'd hate to be mistaken for a "conservative," but the barbarians really are at the gates.