Universities and everyone else

By Tim Miller

Yesterday a University of South Florida professor was arrested on charges of aiding Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government. Sami Al-Arian had already been forcibly suspended from his post for suspected dealings with terrorist groups. With all of the talk about various universities’ responses to the orange alert and student involvement in the protests against a possible war in Iraq, institutions of higher learning have come into the spotlight. Even though Al-Arian was not active as a teacher, his arrest will undoubtedly raise questions from some sectors about whether the higher education system harbored a suspected terrorist sympathizer. It is not my intention to judge the merits of the case against Al-Arian–that’s a job for the courts–but it seems that all too often scholars and students forget about the non-academic community when expressing their opinions on current events.

It’s been an old saw in certain conservative circles that American colleges and universities indoctrinate their students in a particular sort of left-wing agenda. This view is perhaps best espoused in Roger Kimball’s book Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. In the months since September 11, this perception has most likely grown stronger due to campus opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan and to the prospect of war in Iraq. Most people here will realize that there is more to the university political environment than unquestioning acceptance of leftist political doctrines, but there doesn’t seem to be any great groundswell from the academic community to challenge this commonly held misconception.

There is a fundamental tension at work here that deals with the tradeoff between academic freedom and the responsibility of institutions of higher learning as part of a larger community. Al-Arian unquestionably gave support to the radical Palestinian cause, and the Washington Post reported back on July 26 that he stated in a videotaped speech, “Victory to Islam. Death to Israel.” This and other such statements got him suspended, but not fired. This crosses the line for most people in American society, particularly in the aftermath of September 11. But the question remains of where exactly the line is. This is particularly true for professors whose field is study is the history and politics of the Middle East. These professors must be allowed to examine critically the subject and make value judgements about the region.

With campus protest, the situation becomes even murkier. Certainly students and teachers have the same rights as all other members of our society to make their voices heard. The issue is that faculty in particular ought to be careful not to abuse their positions of intellectual authority by using the force of their institutions to promote whatever agenda they as individuals have. Students must likewise be careful not to make any unjustified appeals to a larger youth protest movement that does not actually exist. Certainly, they can claim statistics about how many students participate in a particular protest, but there must be a realization that different students at the same protest may have different agendas.

I am not suggesting that Al-Arian’s alleged terrorist sympathies were in any way brought about or coddled by an academia corrupted by radical tendencies. What I am suggesting is that other Americans, who are more removed from the academic scene, might see it that way. The fundamental ideal of higher education must always be freedom of thought and expression. But at the same time, academics and students must realize that they are part of a national community that does not always view events in the same way that they do. This holds true for both politically conservative and liberal professors. Scholars who study politically sensitive issues must be careful to draw a line between learning and activism and show that they respect the community in which they work.