November 2001 aaUPBEAT
Sept. 11 & Its Aftermath
The Role of the Faculty
The terrorist attacks of September 11 were deeply felt on
campus. Members of the University of Delaware community have family,
friends, and neighbors who were killed, injured or harmed by the
attacks. Our campus community also includes Muslims, Middle Easterners,
Pakistanis and Indians - groups that in different parts of the country
have been subjected to harassment and sometimes violence as part of the
Sept. 11 backlash. The University community has responded to the
post-Sept. 11 world with various attempts to comprehend what happened,
mourn for the dead and their loved ones, and increase understanding
between the different religious and ethnic constituencies that make up
our campus population . We must continue in this same vein.
After Shirley M. Tilghman was inducted as Princeton
University's 19th president on Sept. 28, 2001, she informed the
ceremony's attendees that higher education had a special role to play
in the post-Sept. 11 world we now inhabited.
"With generosity of spirit and mutual respect," she said, "we
must listen carefully to one another, and speak with our minds and our
hearts, guided by the principles we hold dear. By conducting difficult
discussions without prejudice or anger, by standing together for
tolerance, civil liberties and the right to dissent, by holding firm to
core principles of justice and freedom and human dignity, this
university will serve our country well. By so doing, we will be true
This view , although tailored for the environment of alarm
following the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, is not an
untraditional view. Higher education administrations and faculties are
pretty much unanimous in their description of the academy as an
environment in which free thought and free expression are hallowed
rights, whereas censorship is an unAmerican behavior practiced by
Soviet or Islamic style dictatorships. The message of such thinking is
clear: we have transcended the free speech failures of other societies.
But have we?
Gary Michael Tartakov, professor of Design at Iowa State
University, doesn't think so. Following an Association of Asian Studies
conference held this month in Baltimore, Tartakov sounded a pessimistic
note with regard to free speech on U.S. campuses. His concerns didn't
focus as much on administration attempts to curtail such speech as on
the cumulative effect of what he believes to be years of disconnect
between the professoriate and the very idea of its potential role as a
questioner of insufficiently examined government policies. "In
reality," Tartakov said, "academics do almost nothing to make the free
speech issue a vital one anymore. For the most part, they speak within
the confines of what's acceptable."
Tartakov's view is not an isolated one. Even friendly faculty
members from neighboring countries wonder about the status of free
speech on U.S. campuses, once known globally for promoting public
discussion of critical issues.
John Thompson, a professor at the University of New Brunswick
and a former chair of the Canadian Association of University Teachers'
Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, views U.S. campuses' relative
intellectual quiet not as a new phenomenon, but as a legacy of the
"The McCarthy era has had long-term consequences for American
society, to this day. One consequence, particularly in the academic
sphere, has been a noticeable lack of fundamental criticism of much of
American government policy, foreign or domestic."
Although Thompson's analysis doesn't account for the upsurge
of U.S. campus free-speech activism during the 1960s, it does place
that activism in perspective as a temporary phenomenon uncharacteristic
of the general post-WWII trend. Even the 1960s, however, often have
been romanticized as freer than they were. As the Chronicle of
Higher Education recently reminded its readership, "During the
Vietnam war, tenured professors were dismissed and even jailed for
espousing views many considered anti-American."
As the Chronicle also points out, however, at the
beginning of the new millennium some of the pressures brought to bear
on faculty outspokenness are different, at least on the surface, from
previous eras. One example provided by the magazine is that two days
following the Sept. 11 attacks, two students at Saint Olaf's College in
Minnesota filed a complaint with the dean of students. They alleged
that any faculty criticisms of the government in the wake of the
attacks, and before a methodical military response to terrorism could
be worked out, ran the risk of damaging students' ability to cope with
the New York and Washington D. C. tragedies. Summing up their position,
the students stated, "For professors to make negative judgments on our
government before any action has taken place only fosters a cynical
attitude in the classroom."
Greg Kneser, Saint Olaf's dean of students, sympathized with
the students. Maintaining that Sept. 11's events had created a
difficult psychological situation for students, Kneser insisted that
consequently the post-Sept. 11 period wasn't a good time to increase
student unease with too much "intellectual" debate. "There were
students who were just scared," Kneser said, "and an intellectual
discussion of the political ramifications of this (i.e., the
terroristic attacks) was not helpful for them."
Susan Sontag, the cultural critic, would not be surprised at
such a response to Sept. 11. In recent articles and commentary to the
non-print media, Sontag says that criticism and alternative analysis
have been eliminated from the list of possible responses and been
replaced by a variety of counseling strategies. Rather than promoting
thought, she maintains, the intellectual community by and large has
accepted the government's lead in taking care of a public perceived to
be too child-like or too emotionally fragile to handle the strain of
Writing in Le Monde and also The New Yorker,
Sontag stated, "Leading American figures, and those who would like to
be, have let us know that their duty is only one of manipulation: to
impart confidence and manage the pain. Politics, the politics of
democracy - which involve disagreements and encourage sincerity - have
been replaced by psychotherapy."
One professor, who tried to make Sontag's "politics of
democracy" work in more than a psychotherapeutic way, found out that
such an effort could be rough going. On Sept. 13, Robert Jensen, a
University of Texas journalism professor, published an op-ed piece,
"Stop the Insanity Here," in the Houston Chronicle. The article, which
attempted to analyze the terrorist attacks in the context of U.S.
foreign policy, was met with a firestorm of negative responses,
including letters and phone calls to University of Texas President
Larry Faulkner, demanding that tenured professor Jensen's job be
terminated. Jensen's offending language included the assertion that,
although any attempt to defend what the terrorists did would be "to
abandon one's humanity," it was nonetheless true that the attacks on
New York and Washington were "no more despicable than the massive acts
of terrorism - the deliberate killing of civilians for political
purposes - that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.
For more than five decades throughout the Third World, the United
States has deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in violence so
indiscriminate that there is no other way to understand it except as
terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of terrorism by client
In an unprecedented move, University of Texas President
Faulkner responded to the uproar surrounding Jensen's article by
publicly denouncing him in a letter to the Houston Chronicle.
Although acknowledging Jensen's First Amendment rights, Faulkner
announced his solidarity with the op-ed piece's critics by writing, "I,
too, was disgusted by Jensen's article." Faulkner also insisted that
"Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted
foolishness on issues of public policy."
The collision between the professor and the president sparked
a dispute that soon became national, receiving coverage in a variety of
media outlets and sparking internet debate on the status of campus
free-speech rights in this time of crisis. Meanwhile, the University of
Texas newspaper, The Daily Texan, editorialized that
Faulkner's attack on Jensen was a campus embarrassment that "made the
University look like a place hostile to unpopular ideas." On the other
hand, Front Page, the Center for the Study of Popular
Culture's online magazine, insisted that President Faulkner should
force Jensen to "put students and the subject matter he is supposed to
teach ahead of his own personal biases. If he refuses, Jensen should be
fired." The magazine made this recommendation, believing that tenure
should not stand in the way of ousting Jensen for continued "violation"
of his teaching responsibilities.
Such incidents hint at the scope of current tensions regarding
higher education's role during the post-Sept. 11 period. Although early
September's traumatic events are receding, the evolving situation in
Afghanistan and the White House's commitment to pursue its war on
terrorism will force the professoriate to continue grappling with the
implications of its role as the nation's largest collection of
professional thinkers. What are we supposed to do during a time of
crisis? What is the best way for us to contribute?
Obviously, faculty members across the nation are a disparate
group with a wide range of informed opinions on many topics both within
and outside their specific fields. Consequently, it's impossible for
the AAUP to talk about academe's "role" as if such a role can be boiled
down to a specific ideological stance on, for instance, how to fight
terrorism. Rather, as faculty members, we must define our group role in
a broader way. We must see ourselves not as the advocate of a single
world-view, but as the advocate of everyone's First Amendment right to
express their own world-view. We must value ourselves not merely as the
defender of popular opinion, but as the enemy of the repression of
unpopular opinions. We must stand for clarity, even when clarity raises
questions that might force policy-makers to rethink their policies.
Often such clarity must be of the long-range kind, touching upon issues
that are apparently only at the fringes of U.S. interests but that
nonetheless could have a significant impact on U.S. interests.
Take the issue of Pakistan-India tensions as an example.
As part of the current U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan, the
U.S. has befriended Pakistan in order to have a base geographically
close to Afghanistan so that we can pursue the war on terrorism with
greater efficiency. India, however, claims that the U.S.'s support of
Pakistan is contradictory since, according to India's leaders, Pakistan
supports anti-Hindu terrorism in Kashmir. Simultaneously with this
U.S.-India rift, the new closeness of the Pakistani government of
General Pervez Musharraf to the United States also has fomented civil
discord and anti-government sentiment within Pakistan. This turbulence
has been created by sections of the Pakistani population that, either
for Islamic or foreign policy reasons, don't approve of greater
closeness between the U.S. and Pakistan. Such tensions at the so-called
periphery of our war on terrorism gain added significance when we
remember that both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.
When considering these India-Pakistan problems, particularly
India's charge that Pakistan supports anti-Hindu terrorists in Kashmir,
it's also important to recall that some of the leaders in India's
current government, which has been labeled "Hindu Nationalist" by its
critics, have played a discomfiting role over the last fifteen years in
promoting anti-Muslim sentiment within India, a sentiment that on
occasion turned tragically violent. Once we recognize such facts, the
phrase "let's build a global alliance against terrorism" becomes more
complicated to implement than the rhetoric makes it seem. In fact, we
are forced to confront the possibility that an impulsively built global
anti-terrorist alliance could light dangerous fuses in other parts of
No group in the U.S. is better equipped to contribute to
public discussion on such issues than higher education faculty. Indeed,
it is part of our mission to do precisely that. We can't predict what
such discussions' outcomes will be, but we certainly can use our
collective strength to guarantee that they do occur - in an open, First
Amendment-protected, multi-perspective way.
In times like these, such discussions aren't a luxury, they're
As Michael Berube, an English professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, recently wrote:
"I reminded my students: Public ignorance is at once a luxury
and a tragedy. We can no longer afford to leave such matters to our
elected officials and a small handful of foreign-policy 'experts,'
whose capacities for moral judgment and historical reflection may, in
fact, be no greater than our own. For if democracies are going to
respond to terrorists as democracies, then we all have the
right - and the obligation - to determine what form that response
The academy is the obvious place for such a discussion to
begin. In a time of national crisis, we as faculty must reflect on the
special role we play as teachers, scholars and intellectuals. This role
cannot be played through silence or the encouragement of shortsighted
analyses, but only through the molding of academic freedom into a tool
for guaranteeing that national policies aren't decided without first
being subjected to the rigors of critical thinking, even when such
thinking includes unpopular ideas.