Jon Wiener: How the Media Framed the Columbia University Story--And How It Should Have

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jon Wiener, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (5-9-05):

[Jon Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (The New Press, 2005).]

The media storm around Columbia's Middle Eastern-studies department provides one of the few cases in which students' complaints about professors' classroom conduct have made it into the news. It brings to mind a case at Harvard, more than a decade ago, that offers illuminating contrasts. Together they raise the question of how the news media frame stories about such complaints.

The Columbia story by now is familiar: After students objected to what they saw as anti-Israel bias among professors in the Middle Eastern-studies department, the university was widely criticized as a place where students were intimidated, faculty members were prejudiced, and scholarly standards were in decline. And when a faculty committee appointed by the administration concluded that there had been no serious misconduct, most of the news media rejected that conclusion and demanded additional action by the university.

The Harvard story, in contrast, has been largely forgotten, except among some conservative writers. When a few students complained in 1988 about "racial insensitivity" in a lecture by the history professor Stephan Thernstrom, news organizations rose to his defense by describing him as a victim of "political correctness." Thernstrom's high-profile outrage made him a hero in neoconservative circles, and in 2002 he was appointed a member of the National Council on the Humanities by President Bush.

Pundits on the right often complain that the left dominates American universities. Both of these stories were framed to advance that interpretation. At Harvard, the story was that the professor was a victim of left-wing students; at Columbia, the students were victims of left-wing professors. In each case, news reports said that the threats to the university were coming from the left. In each case, the story told to the public was inaccurate....

The story told in the news media was that three black students had accused Thernstrom, a distinguished historian, of racial insensitivity in an introductory history course, "The Peopling of America." Instead of coming to him with their complaints, Thernstrom said, they went to the administration and to the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. The greatest damage to Thernstrom, D'Souza said, was done not by the black students, but by the Harvard administration: "Far from coming to his defense," D'Souza wrote, the administration "appeared to give full administrative sanction to the charges against Thernstrom."

Thernstrom said he was so discouraged by the students' attack and the administration's failure to defend his academic freedom that he decided not to teach the course again. Thus the case was framed by the news media as an example of a distinguished professor's being hounded out of teaching his course by an alliance of militant black students, the campus newspaper, and the administrators who supported them. Thernstrom called it "McCarthyism of the left."

In fact almost every element of the story Thernstrom told the news media was erroneous. The incident in question consisted of three black students' complaining about the absence of a black perspective in a lecture on slavery. Thernstrom's response focused primarily on the administration.

Because he received so little support from the administration, he told D'Souza, "I felt like a rape victim." But, in fact, the administration backed up Thernstrom. When the students' took their complaint to Harvard's Committee on Race Relations, they were told that it had no jurisdiction over professors' teaching, and that they should take their complaint to Thernstrom -- which they did. "They felt the university didn't do anything to back up their concerns," the former dean, Fred Jewett, told me in a 1991 interview for The Nation.

Nevertheless the Thernstrom version of the story lives on....

The news media, for their part, like stories that can be framed as controversies, especially when the stakes seem to be so high: nothing less than freedom in the university. Still, these controversies could have been described differently.

At Columbia the issue could have been defined, in the words of Joan W. Scott of the American Association of University Professors, as "the threat to the integrity of the university by the intervention of organized outside agitators who are disrupting classes and programs for ideological purposes." Instead the issue became professors' "anti-Israel bias."

At Harvard the issue could have been a professor's overreacting to students' disagreement with one of his lectures. But it came to be defined as the victimization of the professor by the forces of "left-wing McCarthyism." The key was not the nature or seriousness of the complaints, but rather the political forces outside the university that defined the issues at stake.

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