Universities and the ‘War on Terrorism’

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I first became associated with the University of Illinois in 1956, when I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Illinois in Chicago. At that time the Chicago campus occupied the northern half of Navy Pier. Needing money to help with expenses, I applied for a job at the University Bookstore. It was there that I was confronted for the first time with a concrete manifestation of the Cold War.

As an eighteen-year-old youth, I was told that in order for me to be employed by the bookstore, I would be obliged to sign a loyalty oath swearing that I was not a member of any organization which the US Attorney General had declared to be subversive. I signed the oath. After all, I considered myself aloyal American. But I did not begin to comprehend the real meaning of it all until I transferred to the Urbana campus, where I experienced a certain cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I took courses in constitutional law and civil liberties, which taught me a deeper appreciation for both the importance and the fragility of our rights. At the same time, I learned that the Illinois state legislature had passed a law forbidding Communists from speaking on the campus.

I was also here when a biology professor named Leo Koch wrote a letter to the Daily Illini advocating looser sexual norms for consenting students. A right-wing anti-communist former missionary to China, whose daughter was a student at the university, campaigned in the state legislature and among other parents to pressure the university to fire Koch. The missionary claimed that ProfessorKoch was part of a communist conspiracy to destroy the morals of our youth. The president of the university did just what the good former missionary demanded – hefired Koch. Further, one of my professors of constitutional law assisted the ACLU in Koch’s unsuccessful defense. As a consequence my law professor, who was untenured, was called in by the department chairand informed that in light of his actions he really had no future in the department. My own very first political protest was here in Urbana, protesting the firing of Koch.

Neither cold wars nor hot wars are very good for civil and human rights. Nor, it appears, are ‘wars’ on terrorism. They may be even less conducive to respect for and protection of civil liberties than the ‘wars’ directed against crime and drugs in the last two decades of the twentieth century. At the very least, this new ‘war’ on terrorism in the 21st century seems to be having a much more immediate effect in our universities. Before even a month had passed following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, academics were being punished for saying unpopular things about the course of events, or simply for being Middle Eastern.

An instance of the latter took place in Tampa on the campus of the University of South Florida. There, a Middle Eastern professor who had appeared on Fox New Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” was placed on indefinite paid leave, ostensibly for his own safety and that of the campus, after the university administration received angry calls and a death threat against the professor. At least one political science instructor at a California community college was also placed on indefinite paid leave following a heated discussion in his class with some Muslim students. And a UCLA library assistant was suspended for five days without pay after he criticized US support for Israel on a university computer. This was in response to co-workers who had written messages, using the same medium, praising the US government’s policies. The library assistant contends that he was the only one to be punished.

Uncomfortably closer to home, Larry Faulkner, our own former provost who is now President of the University of Texas, publicly demeaned one of the university’s faculty members because of his political views. A journalism professor suggested in a column in the Houston Chronicle that, while the terrorist attacks in the US were certainly reprehensible, some officials in the US government “have engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic.” After the university administration received calls to fire the professor and threats by alumni to withhold donations, our former provost wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle in which he referred to the professor as “a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy.” While the professor has not (to date, anyway) been fired or otherwise disciplined, such a public reproach by the president of the university can only have a chilling effect onacademic freedom and the right of free speech.

So far, I have not heard of any similar incidents here at the University of Illinois. But the longer the ‘war’ on terrorism goes on, the greater will be the pressures to either conform one’s speech to official policy or remain silent. And unfortunately, our political leaders are promising us a very protracted war.

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