November 15, 2002

Faculty politicize the classroom

I'd like to respond to the allegations made by 97 faculty members against a number of University of Chicago students and their faculty supporters. ("Accusations on Campus Watch," 11/7/02) But first I'd like to express my concern about the threats and the spamming which Professor Khalidi has received. These acts do violence not only to Professor Khalidi, but to our academic community.

The faculty letter refers to actions taken by a group of students this summer to bring public attention to problems faced by Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. The letter makes extremely strong claims: that students have made "reckless" and "irresponsible" allegations of "anti-Semitism and of abuse of power" against faculty of the University. Unfortunately, these faculty claims are demonstrably false. Anyone who reads the student comments about classroom incidents will see that they do not mention the word "anti-Semitism." The reports actually point out other problems which are just as harmful in effect as anti-Semitism. The real problem as I see it is the politicizing of the classroom coupled with faculty intolerance of dissent and dissenters. Some professors use the classroom as a chance to preach half-truths about Israel, to justify violence against Israeli citizens, and thus to spread hate. They omit crucial bits of historical context that would help students come to their own best conclusion about whether violent resistance is justified in this case. They are symbolically obliterating Israel from the map of the Middle East, clearly implying that Israel is really "Palestine," and that Israel should not exist. In some cases professors are disrespectful to Judaism. Moreover, in the current climate, professors who warp the facts, dehumanize Israelis, and leave out key aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict are inciting violence.

These are not examples of faculty, during teaching, mentioning their political views in passing, with an openness to other points of view. Faculty are deliberately politicizing the classroom while discouraging dissent. Students who dissent vigorously from professors' opinions can be penalized by lower grades, insults, or other brutal harassment and uncivil treatment. Of course professors should always be free to dissent from the views of the greater U.S. political hegemony. They should just understand that students would similarly like to be free to dissent from professors' own views. Faculty who make the choice to politicize their teaching and stifle dissent cannot then hide behind the banner of free speech and academic freedom when they are criticized.

The faculty letter focuses exclusively on student complaints about the classroom, thus failing to mention the demonstrable "climate of hostility" that existed for Jewish and pro-Israel students here last year. A Jewish student (and friend of mine) was accosted last spring on a street adjacent to the quads by a group in a car, one of whom shouted, "Death to Jews! Hitler should have finished you all off when he had the chance!" This student believes that those in the car were U of C students. Another student had a flier defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti near her dorm room ("Fuck the Israeli pigs, Jewish star = Nazi swastika"). Some students who supported Israel were labeled "fascists," "racists," or "baby-killers." After September 11, nasty rumors were presented to Jewish students by other students, including rumors that Israelis and U.S. Jews had been involved in a secret conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center. These incidents only point to a larger problem: that by publicly supporting Israel, students have felt they cut themselves off from the University community. During these tense times it is incumbent on faculty to recognize that the attitudes and information disseminated in the classroom can have real effects on the lives of students sitting in their classrooms and across campus.

I was surprised to read the faculty claim that: "Â…allegations found to be utterly without merit continue to appear on the [Campus Watch] websiteÂ…" To the best of my knowledge, no formal faculty inquiry has been conducted into reported incidents, and the administration is the only body on campus to have initiated an investigation. I assume, then, that the 97 faculty members heard their reports from administrators. However, the administration conveyed a much different message in letters to students and alumni and in a meeting with students last month. Their general conclusion in this meeting was not that the classroom complaints made by students were "utterly without merit," but rather that the administration felt it was nearly impossible to draw a certain conclusion about or act on most of them. Student perspectives differed about whether professors were biased. One student did misreport an incident, which was correctly dismissed by administrators. But all other incidents that were reported have now been verified, corrected, and certified by students.

The inaccurate and decontextualized allegations of the faculty letter leave me concerned about the quality of faculty-administration communication on these issues. While administrators started to take student complaints seriously this summer and fall, last year they frequently tried to dismiss or discredit them. Public attention would never have been necessary had administrators responded to complaints promptly and sensitively in the past. We are grateful for the steps they have recently taken, for their increased concern, and for their commitment to future progress. But more administrative and faculty help is required to create a really civil and tolerant atmosphere. The flourishing of the academic community requires that the those associated with the University know how the faculty see their responsibilities. We shouldn't settle for a superficial patina of harmony created for the sake of alumni and donors. The goal is a climate where ideas can flourish on their own merits without intimidation, injury, or discrimination against any member of ourcommunity whether faculty or student.