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Bill Maxwell: Academic freedom under threat on college campuses

By Bill Maxwell

Because professors live for intellectual exploration and publish works that challenge orthodoxy, they have been the indispensable interpreters of the nation's zeitgeist since our first universities were founded in the 1600s.

For that status, they often pay a heavy price.

Today, as a result of the speed and ubiquity of social media, the views of scholars are instantly available to anyone with a computer. And, unfortunately, because of increasing tribalization of ideologies and the election of President Donald Trump, an anti-intellectual, professors are targets of politics like never before.

University-focused publications, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, report that in addition to virulent criticism of professors being on the rise, many administrators worry about the physical safety of those who are controversial.

The American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education report a new rash of death threats against professors, forcing some schools to temporarily shut down until signs of immediate danger have eased.

Not surprisingly, given the rise of the so-called alt-right, most physical threats are against professors whose research or comments on social media involve race — always just below the surface, ready to erupt when the right agent comes along.

One professor who attracted the attention of the alt-right was forced to take paid leave, a precedent for his school. His life and the lives of his family members were threatened because he wrote about white supremacy on Twitter. His college closed for a day after administrators learned of the death threats. The professor was asked to stay away from campus while on leave.

Another professor, a classics scholar, was harassed for views she expressed in an article arguing that classists betray accuracy when failing to note that statues were often painted and did not always reflect the ideal of whiteness now equated with white marble. In other words, a lot of classical statues were not so white after all. For that, she was threatened with death.

The professor whose commencement speech criticized Trump's racist views was attacked by the president's supporters. After the speech, the professor's other scheduled talks were canceled by schools fearing retaliation from the president's followers.

When a communications and pop culture adjunct went on Fox News and sided with Black Lives Matter advocates defending their right to have exclusively black protest spaces on Memorial Day, all hell broke loose among the alt-right. The college dismissed the adjunct.

What have we come to when our public universities and colleges routinely cave in to conservatives, when these institutions shut down academic freedom and speech that is protected by the First Amendment?

Conservatives are getting what they want: professors to engage in self-censorship. The academy's reason for being disappears with self-censorship. Scholars owe their loyalty to one thing: truth, especially the kind that upsets anti-intellectuals and autocrats.

It is no cliché that free speech and academic freedom are essential to a healthy democracy. The American Sociological Association represents scholars who are regularly attacked. In a published statement, it defends its membership: "The ability to inject controversial ideas into (the public) forum is paramount to a better understanding of our society and essential to ensuring a robust exchange of ideas on college campuses. In principle, ASA does not take a position on such ideas themselves but does take the position that all individuals have the right to express themselves. In that context, we expect thoughtful consideration regarding the way in which the ideas are expressed. We also expect the safety of those expressing them."

ASA further argues that threatening the lives "of those whose rhetoric we oppose undermines the robust and democratic exchange of ideas. Ideas — regardless of how controversial — should only be attacked by alternative ideas. Mutual understanding requires more discussion rather than a stifling of discourse."