Blogs > Cliopatria > Obama and the Khalidi/Ayers Attacks

Nov 11, 2010 10:35 am

Obama and the Khalidi/Ayers Attacks

A few years ago, I testified before the Senate Education Committee about the diminution of the academy’s intellectual diversity. I spoke as a registered Democrat, and contended that the issue should concern Democrats as much as Republicans, since neither party has an interest in an academy dominated by race/class/gender groupthink.

Indeed, it seemed to me both then and now that the Democrats have much to lose from the current state of affairs in higher education. First of all, Democrats no more than Republicans should want a generation of students trained in ignorance of U.S. political structures and culture. Second, as Mark Bauerlein most persuasively has argued, “when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.” A campus environment overwhelmingly dominated by people who occupy one side on issues of race, class, and gender has allowed extremist voices to become an increasingly public face of the academic “left,” thereby providing Republicans with an opportunity to discredit mainstream Democratic liberalism.

Few, if any, prominent Democrats have expressed concern with the academy’s ideological one-sidedness. From the standpoint of a political realist, I suppose this disinclination shouldn’t surprise: race, class, and gender correspond politically to civil rights activists, unions, and feminists—three pillars of the Democratic Party’s base. But, as recent attacks on Barack Obama have revealed, the Democrats might have profited from addressing academic extremism before now.

On Saturday, Sarah Palin brought to the surface the largely surreptitious GOP effort to link Obama with former Weathermen terrorist and current UIC education professor William Ayres. (It was ironic to see a patriotism guilt-by-association attack coming from someone whose husband belonged to a political party advocating secession from the Union.)

Yesterday, Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported McCain campaign officials planned “to highlight Obama's alleged contacts with individuals who they say have been linked to terrorist organizations, including controversial Columbia Prof. Rashid Khalidi . . . and Ali Abunimah, . . .who received a grant . . . approved by Wm. Ayers, Obama and Khalidi. Khalidi and his wife held a fundraiser for Obama in 2000. One strategist said: ‘Obama needs to understand he will own his friendships with individuals that are in some cases anti-American, anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist. The American people can decide whether Obama's buddies reflect their values.’”

For the GOP attack to work, Ayers and Khalidi have to be viewed as exceptional figures. Obama’s judgment can hardly be questioned if his “buddies” were not marginal characters but instead people who are like lots of other academics, especially since Obama lived in an academic neighborhood (Hyde Park) and spent several years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.

Yet the truth of the matter is that the basic approaches of Ayers and Khalidi fit well within the academic mainstream. Ayers is, after all, a prestigious professor of education (hardly a field known for its intellectual diversity, of course). Khalidi was of such standing that Columbia hired him away from the U of C, and named him to chair its Middle East Studies Department. From that perch, he informed readers of New York that students of Arab descent—and only such students—knew the “truth” about Middle Eastern affairs

I agree with Palin that there’s a scandal here—but it’s not that Obama, among his hundreds of other associations with academic figures, was acquainted with, and received support from, Ayers and Khalidi. The scandal is that the evolution of a groupthink academic environment has allowed figures such as Ayers and Khalidi to flourish. The academy doesn’t offer carte blanche tolerance to unrepentant domestic terrorists or to figures who suggest that politically incorrect ethnic groups know the “truth.” Imagine the chances of someone who had bombed abortion clinics in the 1980s becoming a prominent education professor. Or consider the likelihood of a man who claimed that Jewish and only Jewish students knew the “truth” about Middle Eastern matters becoming chairman of a major Middle East Studies Department.

In this respect, the GOP attacks against Obama are fundamentally dishonest. Unfortunately, the Democrats aren’t in a position to expose this dishonesty--and Obama is in a position to be harmed by his party's poor record in promoting diversity of thought and pedagogical approach on the nation's college campuses.

Conflict of interest notes: I am an Obama supporter and donor; have acquaintances working for the Obama campaign; and served as an outside advisor to the Columbia student group that criticized Khalidi’s leadership of Columbia’s MEALAC Department.

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Robert KC Johnson - 10/6/2008

No, I didn't mean to so imply. If I wasn't clear, I apologize: I intended to say that Ayers' ideas on Education issues are well within the academic mainstream. I stand by that statement.

Robert KC Johnson - 10/6/2008

As to Ralph's question: "Do you really want interference by our political parties in the staffing of American faculties -- public or private?": we already have such interference (not by the political parties, which I don't recommend, but by both the state and federal governments, through programs such as affirmative action, or, on many state levels, requirements that state or U.S. history be taught in some manner).

I also support initiatives (most notably seen in Judd Gregg's recent efforts in the Senate) to increase federal funding for academic programs that enrich intellectual or pedagogical diversity related to the study of the American state and culture.

Politicians could also address the issue through oversight (hearings) or speeches.

That said, my preference is that the issue be handled through existing processes--most notably through a more active oversight role by trustees. So my chief policy recommendation would be for political figures to appoint trustees who are aware of the problem and committed to doing something about it.

In short, there are lots of ways for political figures to address the issue without the kind of political micromanagement that would be counterproductive.

Jonathan Rees - 10/6/2008


Did you actually mean to imply that blowing up buildings makes someone "like lots of other academics" or that this strategy fits "well within the academic mainstream?" If you did, I think a large portion of the readership of this blog deserves an apology.

Ayers isn't an issue because of what he's done in his career as an academic. He's an issue because of what he did before that. As far as I can tell, not even Sarah Palin is trying to conflate the two.

Michael Pitkowsky - 10/6/2008

Ralph wrote,

"but it's just as unlikely that an Arab scholar would be named to chair a Jewish Studies program"

Speaking as a scholar of Jewish studies, if an Arab scholar would be qualified, I don't see why not. There are a number of non-Jews who hold prominent positions in the field of Jewish Studies in America. Two names that come to mind are Peter Schafer, a German who teaches at Princeton, and Christine Hayes, who teaches at Yale. A few years ago there was an unfortunate incident in which a non-Jew withdraw their appointment to be the head of the Jewish Studies program at Queens College in NYC, and thankfully a number of prominent scholars in Jewish Studies spoke out very forcefully against his resignation. It is unlikely to happen because there are very few Arab who are scholar of Jewish Studies. I am happy to say that both in Israel and America there are a number of respected Jewish scholars of Islam.

Maarja Krusten - 10/6/2008

Some of what you describe may relate to a lack of awareness of public perceptions or perhaps not caring about how outsiders view a group. You know the academic world better than I (my career has been in government). Yet it seems to me that there are instances when it is important for scholars from the left, center, and the right to join together to speak out on issues in an effective manner. To do this, they must have credibility in the eyes of the public.

For reasons which you may understand better than I, the release of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records by a university library provided an opportunity for outreach which scholars almost completely ignored in their blogs. In its recent story on Ayers and the educational reform efforts in Chicago, the New York Times apparently drew on records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) held in the Special Collections library at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). See
for the finding aid for the documents in question.

It's not clear to me the extent to which academics consider how much the political world depends on framing. With the CAC issue, UIC seemed slow to use all available outreach mechanisms. And stakeholders familiar with archival research methods and procedures remained silent.

The story initially broke on a blog which does not have a comment function. The first entry appeared on August 18
with a follow up on August 23
An op ed which referred to UIC being bullied into opening the records appeared in the News-Gazette on August 29, 2008. UIC posted a response on that site September 2 -- see

In the political world, that is a *long* period of time. Look at what happened during that time. Google the terms tampering Chicago Annenberg challenge cover up and you’ll see how UIC and some of its employees were placed in the cross fire in the interim.

The scholar and National Review blogger who originally requested access to the CAC records wrote at the Corner on August 23, "I don't know if UIC simply determined that it had legal authority to open the materials, without further agreement from the donor, or whether UIC is making this material available only after having restricted some material, at the donor's request. Obviously, I will be on the lookout when I view the records for evidence of tampering, or of, say, names in critical places being blacked out."

Tampering with records is anathema to members of the archival profession. The Archivists' Code of Ethics states that "Archivists may not alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence." To suggest that archivists might "tamper" with records is a serious charge.

Had I been UIC, I would have addressed this early on, forcefully and directly, up front. Later reports suggest that the institution did largely handle archival issues as it should have. Much of the speculation that filled the political blogosphere might have been avoided, in my view.

Had I been UIC, I immediately would have strongly rebutted the assertion of tampering, pointed to what such an assertion means in the archival world, and mentioned the Code of Ethics. An institution in this position needs to frame the issues and take all opportunities to educate the public and provide strong assurances to outsiders that address all questions raised.

Instead, information trickled out, which placed UIC library staff in a position of receiving irate phone calls which might have been avoided. (See,0,1053585.story ) for one of the later stories.

Someone describing himself as an employee of the UIC library noted in a comment under a blog post on Daily Kos of the opening of the records in August that "it was rough." He added, "Even though there's no smoking gun in the files, this wasn't the point." The self-identified UIC librarian asserted also that "(we didn't shred anything. We did however, redact bank account numbers on donation checks and social security numbers)."

Another UIC archivist referred in another forum to “thousands of violent and threatening calls the Library (including the circulation desk and the reference department) received . . . it was truly frightening.”

Where were the scholars? Academics of all political persuasions should have been able to unite on this story. Yet I saw no scholars writing in their blogs early on that “UIC needs to open these records and to do it properly. Let’s hear more about this collection, why UIC closed it down, and what it proposes to do.” And then following up with observations on the re-opening of the collection, the seriousness of the tampering charge, the importance of good communications with the public, and so forth. Academics from the right and from the left both were missing in action here. Google hits suggest that the story appeared to be the province of political bloggers, not scholars.

An academic library or archives cannot control how outsiders portray it. The wisest course is to craft and follow policies based on best practices and legal requirements, which all employees feel comfortable following. And it isn't just what an institution does internally. Dealing with researchers who are interested in politically charged topics requires the formulation of good communications strategies and extra attention to detail. Perceptions as well as actions mean a great deal. Here, too, unfortunately, there is a poor record.

Alan Allport - 10/6/2008

"A campus environment overwhelmingly dominated by people who occupy one side on issues of race, class, and gender has allowed extremist voices to become an increasingly public face of the academic “left.""

I'm not sure which side I'm supposed to be on. I don't even understand what the sides are. Could you clarify please?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/6/2008

KC, I agree with you that expertise is not genetically determined, but it's just as unlikely that an Arab scholar would be named to chair a Jewish Studies program.
I'm curious about your conclusion: Specifically, how would you want the Democratic Party (or the Republican Party, for that matter) to promote "diversity of thought and pedagogical approach on the nation's college campuses"? Do you really want interference by our political parties in the staffing of American faculties -- public or private?