Ellen Schrecker: On a McCarthyite Crusade, claims Horowitz website

Historians in the News

Among the odder charges advanced by bien pensant defenders of the political homogeneity in American higher education is the claim that advocates of greater intellectual pluralism are really revivalists of Cold-War era "McCarthyism." Its leading academic exponent is Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University. But Schrecker goes further. In the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, she asserts that the campaign to promote academic freedom--and particularly the Academic Bill of Rights--is actually "worse than McCarthyism."

According to Schrecker, this campaign intends "to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods," and warns that this "not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity of American higher education." McCarthyism, she is convinced, is on the march.

Schrecker’s indictment is fantasy. "Political controls" have not been proposed nor is there a credible threat to "faculty autonomy" And far from assailing the integrity of university faculties, the campaign for academic freedom aspires to restore it, not only by reviving the unfashionable ideal of a marketplace of ideas, but also by curbing the abuses of professor-activists who see in-class political speechifying, rather than education, as their primary mission.

Why Schrecker would tendentiously equate such efforts with McCarthyism is no mystery, however. A self-described radical, Schrecker has long labored to keep the American university as a preserve of "progressive" values. That this has meant the near-total exclusion of perspectives at variance with regnant left-wing orthodoxy is a price that Schrecker, along with many of her likeminded colleagues, was all too happy to pay. Now she is determined to depict a formidable challenge to the institutional status quo as the second coming of what she regards as the single greatest injustice in American history: the political persecution of American Communists during the Cold War.

Yet Schrecker’s account of what she broadly terms "McCarthyism" has never been convincing. Her academic work is less a serious survey of the political tensions of the Cold War than an accretion of apologetics for the American Communist Party, liberally salted with denunciations of anti-Communists, who Schrecker indiscriminately labels McCarthyites. Yet what makes Senator McCarthy a symbol of evil for Schrecker is not his demagogic excess but his opposition to Communism, a point she forthrightly puts forth in her 1986 book No Ivory Tower : McCarthyism and the Universities, in which she writes that "what made McCarthy a McCarthyite was not his bluster but his anti-Communist mission…"

Full of passionate intensity against Communism’s foes--Schrecker’s 1994 work The Age of McCarthyism is devoted principally to raging against what she repeatedly calls the "anti-Communist crusade"--Schrecker has been conspicuously more reluctant to grapple with the crimes committed in the name of Communism at the behest of its Soviet sponsors. Executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, far from traitors to their country, were possessed of a "non-traditional patriotism," according to Schrecker, and had a "grotesquely disproportionate punishment inflicted on them." The same applies to other Communist spies, who "were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national borders." About the worst Schrecker can bring herself to say about the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss--with respect to whose confirmed guilt she affects a dismissive agnosticism--is that they "reinforced the image of Communists as Russian spies."

By contrast, Schrecker is unsparing in her attacks on anti-Communists. Reading The Age of McCarthyism one might conclude that the ultimate tragedy of the Cold War was the defeat of the American Communist Party as a viable political force. "With their demise," Schrecker laments, "the nation lost the institutional network that had created a public space where serious alternatives to the status quo could be presented." Indeed, as she sees it, it was anti-Communism, whether espoused by political opportunists like McCarthy or anti-Communist liberals like Sidney Hook, that was "undermining" American democracy, not the Communist true-believers who eagerly betrayed their country to serve the interests of their Soviet impresarios. In keeping with that analysis, Schrecker regards the Cold War as the "most extensive episode of political repression in American history."

But while the Cold War is over, Schrecker has not revised her thesis that political repression remains a mainstay of American academic life. Professors are still being tyrannized for their politics, Schrecker insists in her latest Chronicle of Higher Education article, only today the targets of the witch-hunt are not Communists but academics who are perceived to be "radical, one-sided, and hostile to Israel and the United States." Schrecker’s proof: the 2003 dismissal of Sami Al-Arian from the University of Southern Florida.

Schrecker could have hardly picked a more telling illustration. Al-Arian, after all, is the onetime North American head of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad; he has explicitly called for the deaths of Americans and Israelis; he raised funds for terrorist organizations; and he attempted to secure a terrorist leader, Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a spot on USF’s faculty. He is, in short, a living refutation of Schrecker’s claim that the critics of American universities are inventing biases and spotting extremism where none exist.

Such contradictions, however, have not prevented Schrecker from portraying al-Arian as a victim of political persecution, not unlike the Communist idealists who populate her books. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, Schrecker contended that al-Arian’s firing confirmed that "universities are going back to political correctness…It’s really political repression."

Significantly, Schrecker harbors no illusions about al-Arian’s terrorist past. She nonetheless maintains that, in dismissing him, the USF administration had committed the more execrable crime--a crime that, according to Schrecker, evidenced a larger campaign to crush political dissent on American university campuses. "Whatever the extent of al-Arian’s involvement with Palestinian jihadists, his travails, though they may ultimately lead to an American Association of University Professors censure of USF, could have been predicted," she wrote in the fall 2005 edition of the National Education Association ’s Higher Education Journal. In the same issue, Schrecker wrote disapprovingly of the Bush administration’s prohibition of funding to persons "who commit, threaten to commit or support terrorism" and complained that "[t]he government’s heightened security concerns are affecting research."

More recently, Schrecker has sought to avoid the subject of al-Arian’s terrorist activities. In her latest brief on behalf al-Arian, in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schrecker disingenuously describes him as a "Palestinian nationalist" and reprises her claim that his dismissal from USF was "a classic violation of academic freedom: It involved his off-campus political activities." Schrecker notably declines to elaborate on the nature of those "political activities." Rather, and with characteristic mendacity, Schrecker likens al-Arian to the academics whose supposedly benign "communist sympathies" made them the targets of unforgiving McCarthyites in the 1950s. Sami al-Arian, it would seem, is the latest prophet of the "non-traditional patriotism" Schrecker so admires.

To be sure, Schrecker’s vigorous defense of academic freedom has its limits. While Schrecker has long championed the free speech rights of academics whose views roughly accord with her own professed radical politics, she has not seen it fit to extend the courtesy to other professors. As a member of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), formerly as the editor of its magazine, Academe, and presently as a member of the AAUP National Council, Schrecker stayed silent when DePaul University dispensed altogether with due-process proceedings and suspended adjunct professor Thomas Klocek for engaging a Palestinian student group in an argument. Schrecker and the AAUP similarly declined to take an interest in the case of University Colorado professor and evangelical Christian Phil Mitchell, who was fired for assigning a book on 19th century Protestantism.

Nor could Schrecker muster any sympathy for the troubles of Kansas State University professor Ron Johnson, who was fired from his post as an advisor to the school’s newspaper after administrators capitulated to campus protestors upset at the paper’s supposed inattention to "diversity issues." And while Schrecker and the AAUP ignored several prominent instances of misconduct by radical faculty at the City University of New York, the AAUP did not hesitate to pass a resolution expressing "grave concern" at the state of academic freedom when sociology professor Timothy Shortell voluntarily withdrew his bid to become the department chairman after his attack on religious believers, whom he derided as "moral retards," prompted public outrage.

In these cases and many others besides, Schrecker’s oft-voiced commitment to academic freedom was nowhere in evidence. That’s not particularly surprising. If her career is any indication, Schrecker’s notion of academic freedom mainly entails excusing the extremism of academic radicals while condemning their critics as "right-wing" censors bent on suppressing political dissent. A cynic might call that McCarthyism.

Read entire article at Jacob Laksin at Frontpagemag.com

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Roger Sandilands - 2/18/2006

Jacob Laksin condemns Ellen Schrecker for resisting external political intrusions on university freedom, citing in particular her support for a Palestinian nationalist, a professor of computing, fired by the University of Southern Florida after he was charged by the federal government with supporting terrorism.

But surely the point is that he had not been found guilty in a court of law, and indeed was acquitted. If he was or is indeed as guilty of such crimes that Laksin alleges, then that is a matter for the courts, not the university. Meanwhile, Schrecker is quite right to support academics like Sami Al-Arian, whose political views she may or may not detest, for all I know -- but that would be irrelevant to the issues she raises.

As for the other (apparently "right-wing"?) academic freedom cases that Laksin says Schrecker has not supported, they look to me to involve internal university matters, not ones involving the outside political interference that Laksin and David Horowitz seem to support.

But I do of course agree that academic bodies such as the AAUP (controlled by academe's own members) should adjudicate even-handedly on internal academic freedom disputes. Nothing in Schrecker's article suggests she disagrees with this.

- Roger Sandilands