OAH Committee on Academic Freedom
At its March 2004 convention, the OAH established an ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom. The mandate of the committee was to “investigate reports of repressive measures having an impact on historians’ teaching, research, employment, and freedom of expression.” Its mission was not to adjudicate disputes but make its findings known to the membership of the OAH and to report periodically to the Executive Board. President James Horton appointed four members to the committee: Raymond Arsenault of the University of South Florida, Sara Evans of the University of Minnesota, Gloria Miranda of El Camino Community College, and David Montgomery of Yale University (chair).
The committee is grateful to the American Historical Association and to Alfred A. Young for making available to us the survey conducted by the AHA Committee on the Rights of Historians in 1971 and the groundbreaking Statement of Professional Standards proposed by that committee and adopted by the AHA Council in 1975 (1).
Five major areas of concern have emerged in reports that have been brought to the committee’s attention to date. The first involves government surveillance of faculty members, students, visiting scholars, and libraries. The USA Patriot Act has aroused ardent opposition from librarians, faculty senates, and city councils around the country. Its business records section empowers federal agents to gather information from libraries and bookstores about books used by individuals, while it also prohibits any person served with a warrant for such information from revealing that fact. The American Library Association has been outspoken in its opposition to this law. It publishes a very useful Intellectual Freedom Manual and an informative web page. The American Association of University Professors recommends that all faculties maintain regular communication with their institutions’ administrations in order to learn what information the latter are handing over to government agencies and how they are enforcing their own policies regarding academic freedom.
The value of cooperation between faculty and administrators was seen in November 2003, when the U.S. Attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, subpoenaed Drake University to submit to a grand jury information on the background and activities of everyone who had participated in an antiwar conference there. The National Lawyers Guild, which had organized the conference, quickly mobilized a public protest, while faculty members and the university’s officials refused to hand over the records demanded. The attorney promptly dropped the grand jury proceedings and the subpoenas (2).
Government surveillance of students has become especially ominous in community colleges. When community college faculty members have encountered repression from administrations, the teachers benefit from the assistance of their unions (where they are unionized). But government agents investigating individual students routinely visit student service offices. The Patriot Act requires each college to install a computer program called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) through which the enrollment status of international students must be reported to the federal government. Those who are not enrolled full time are subject to arrest and deportation. In California at least, some of those students have simply disappeared. Privacy rules block any attempts by their teachers or friends to investigate what happened to them.
Second, foreign historians, students, and researchers are now subject to interminable review if they apply for entry to the U.S. or for renewal of green cards. The resulting delays have often been enough to deter scholars from taking up or seeking to retain positions in American institutions. In the last year alone, foreign students (especially from China) have overwhelmingly applied to other countries, rather than to the U.S. (with especially severe consequences for the sciences). The State Department’s recent action revoking the visa of the eminent Muslim scholar from Switzerland, Tariq Ramadan, and preventing him from taking up teaching duties at Notre Dame University, has attracted especially widespread attention (3).
Third, the last two presidential administrations have made historians’ access to government documents increasingly difficult. A report released by <http://OpenTheGovernment.org> in August 2004, revealed that federal agencies classified fourteen million new documents in 2003, while they declassified old documents at only one-fifth the level of 1997, and shifted the costs of declassifying under the Freedom of Information Act increasingly onto the applicant, despite a growing public demand to use the Freedom of Information Act. In all, they spent $120 to secure classified information for every $1 spent on declassification.
The fourth area of concern involves direct efforts by the federal administration and by foundations and web sites that support it to shape the content of teaching and research in directions favorable to its policies. The most prominent targets have been area studies programs. The Higher Education Act before Congress this year contains provisions to subject any such program receiving government money to oversight by a government advisory board. Moreover, it authorizes support for “faculty and academic programs that teach traditional American history.” So many controversies arose around this bill&emdash;which also contains reauthorization of funding for the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities&emdash;that the majority leadership decided to withdraw the entire measure from consideration during the current Congressional session. Despite this respite, however, the campaign of Campus Watch, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and other organizations for what they call “adult supervision” of the academy remains very vigorous (4).
The same organizations mount systematic and often vituperative campaigns calling upon administrative officers of colleges and universities to censure or dismiss historians and other faculty members who have expressed public opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Such campaigns commonly include messages of denunciation sent to the faculty members and to campus newspapers by “eBrigades,” as well as harassing telephone calls late into the night. Recently the governor of Georgia responded to such a campaign by calling upon the university’s president to take action against Professor John H. Morrow, Jr., for his comments on the military record of President Bush and an ensuing dispute with a student at the opening session of a class on the history of the two world wars. In Colorado the legislature has enacted a so-called Academic Bill of Rights, which quickly involved the state government in patrolling the public statements of faculty members (5).
The staff of the academic freedom committee of the American Association of University Professors (Committee A) has volunteered to offer advice to any historian subjected to such attacks. They have been assisting individuals under siege for many years. The person to contact at the AAUP office is Jonathan Knight < >.
Fifth, many K-12 teachers have been condemned by school boards, organized groups, and individual parents for the content of courses they teach, books they have assigned or recommended to students, and artwork or notices they have permitted students to post. These condemnations are not solely about current foreign policy by any means. Parents roundly criticized a highly experienced teacher in Texas for teaching that slavery was a root cause of the Civil War, and school principals tend to be extremely sensitive to angry parents. Two public school teachers in Albuquerque were disciplined for allowing students to post antiwar material, though their union subsequently got them reinstated. At a New Jersey high school the school administration devoted the entire week of teacher preparation for the coming term to celebration of the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Moreover, the standardized tests teachers are now required to give often serve as a vehicle for shaping the content of the history they teach to their students. As the article by Sara Evans and Lisa Norling of the University of Minnesota found elsewhere in this issue of the OAH Newsletter describes, the struggle that developed in their state when an alliance of extreme conservative and fundamentalist Christian activists was empowered by Minnesota’s acting Commissioner of Education to reshape the state’s social studies curriculum. A highly active group of K-12 teachers allied with many parents and members of the university’s history department and defeated this attempt to impose a single ideological pattern on every schoolroom in the state where history was taught. As in the case of Drake University, the outcome showed the importance of public defense of academic freedom.
The OAH ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom intends to report regularly to the membership and to the OAH Executive Board. To make its reports thorough and accurate, it needs the assistance of OAH members from all parts of the profession. The committee urges any OAH members who have matters to report or suggestions of other topics to be addressed to send such information to <>, to <>, or to any other member of the committee, as the person submitting the information prefers. Although the committee will not accept anonymous submissions, it will not release the names of the senders or of individuals involved in particular incidents without their explicit permission.
1. That statement is available in the Archives of the AHA web page: <http://www.historians.org/pubs/archives/RightsofHistorians/edp.htm/>
4. Amber Hussung, “Academic Freedom Under Fire,” OAH Newsletter, 32 (May 2003) <http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2003may/hussung.html>
5. On Morrow, see “UGA Professor Investigated for Classroom Diatribe,” <http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org>; Morrow, “I Don’t Punish Students Who Disagree with Me,” History News Network, September 27, 2004. On Colorado, see “Victory in Colorado” <http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/archive/ September2004/VictoryinColoradoDhstory091304.htm>; “Academic Bill’s Effect Worries Educators,” <http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org>
David Montgomery, former OAH president, is the Farnham Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University.