American Association of University Professors
University of Delaware Chapter

301 McDowell Hall, University of Delaware, Newark, DE  19716
Phone: 302-831-2292; Fax: 302-831-4119; E-mail:

Home Membership People Resources News CBA Constitution & Bylaws Student Award

November 2001 aaUPBEAT

Sept. 11 & Its Aftermath
The Role of the Faculty

Introductory Note

The terrorist attacks of September 11 were deeply felt on campus. Members of the University of Delaware community have family, friends, and neighbors who were killed, injured or harmed by the attacks. Our campus community also includes Muslims, Middle Easterners, Pakistanis and Indians - groups that in different parts of the country have been subjected to harassment and sometimes violence as part of the Sept. 11 backlash. The University community has responded to the post-Sept. 11 world with various attempts to comprehend what happened, mourn for the dead and their loved ones, and increase understanding between the different religious and ethnic constituencies that make up our campus population . We must continue in this same vein.

Sept. 11 & Higher Education Free Speech Rights

After Shirley M. Tilghman was inducted as Princeton University's 19th president on Sept. 28, 2001, she informed the ceremony's attendees that higher education had a special role to play in the post-Sept. 11 world we now inhabited.

"With generosity of spirit and mutual respect," she said, "we must listen carefully to one another, and speak with our minds and our hearts, guided by the principles we hold dear. By conducting difficult discussions without prejudice or anger, by standing together for tolerance, civil liberties and the right to dissent, by holding firm to core principles of justice and freedom and human dignity, this university will serve our country well. By so doing, we will be true patriots."

This view , although tailored for the environment of alarm following the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, is not an untraditional view. Higher education administrations and faculties are pretty much unanimous in their description of the academy as an environment in which free thought and free expression are hallowed rights, whereas censorship is an unAmerican behavior practiced by Soviet or Islamic style dictatorships. The message of such thinking is clear: we have transcended the free speech failures of other societies.

But have we?

Gary Michael Tartakov, professor of Design at Iowa State University, doesn't think so. Following an Association of Asian Studies conference held this month in Baltimore, Tartakov sounded a pessimistic note with regard to free speech on U.S. campuses. His concerns didn't focus as much on administration attempts to curtail such speech as on the cumulative effect of what he believes to be years of disconnect between the professoriate and the very idea of its potential role as a questioner of insufficiently examined government policies. "In reality," Tartakov said, "academics do almost nothing to make the free speech issue a vital one anymore. For the most part, they speak within the confines of what's acceptable."

Tartakov's view is not an isolated one. Even friendly faculty members from neighboring countries wonder about the status of free speech on U.S. campuses, once known globally for promoting public discussion of critical issues.

John Thompson, a professor at the University of New Brunswick and a former chair of the Canadian Association of University Teachers' Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, views U.S. campuses' relative intellectual quiet not as a new phenomenon, but as a legacy of the McCarthy period.

"The McCarthy era has had long-term consequences for American society, to this day. One consequence, particularly in the academic sphere, has been a noticeable lack of fundamental criticism of much of American government policy, foreign or domestic."

Although Thompson's analysis doesn't account for the upsurge of U.S. campus free-speech activism during the 1960s, it does place that activism in perspective as a temporary phenomenon uncharacteristic of the general post-WWII trend. Even the 1960s, however, often have been romanticized as freer than they were. As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reminded its readership, "During the Vietnam war, tenured professors were dismissed and even jailed for espousing views many considered anti-American."

As the Chronicle also points out, however, at the beginning of the new millennium some of the pressures brought to bear on faculty outspokenness are different, at least on the surface, from previous eras. One example provided by the magazine is that two days following the Sept. 11 attacks, two students at Saint Olaf's College in Minnesota filed a complaint with the dean of students. They alleged that any faculty criticisms of the government in the wake of the attacks, and before a methodical military response to terrorism could be worked out, ran the risk of damaging students' ability to cope with the New York and Washington D. C. tragedies. Summing up their position, the students stated, "For professors to make negative judgments on our government before any action has taken place only fosters a cynical attitude in the classroom."

Greg Kneser, Saint Olaf's dean of students, sympathized with the students. Maintaining that Sept. 11's events had created a difficult psychological situation for students, Kneser insisted that consequently the post-Sept. 11 period wasn't a good time to increase student unease with too much "intellectual" debate. "There were students who were just scared," Kneser said, "and an intellectual discussion of the political ramifications of this (i.e., the terroristic attacks) was not helpful for them."

Susan Sontag, the cultural critic, would not be surprised at such a response to Sept. 11. In recent articles and commentary to the non-print media, Sontag says that criticism and alternative analysis have been eliminated from the list of possible responses and been replaced by a variety of counseling strategies. Rather than promoting thought, she maintains, the intellectual community by and large has accepted the government's lead in taking care of a public perceived to be too child-like or too emotionally fragile to handle the strain of open dialogue.

Writing in Le Monde and also The New Yorker, Sontag stated, "Leading American figures, and those who would like to be, have let us know that their duty is only one of manipulation: to impart confidence and manage the pain. Politics, the politics of democracy - which involve disagreements and encourage sincerity - have been replaced by psychotherapy."

One professor, who tried to make Sontag's "politics of democracy" work in more than a psychotherapeutic way, found out that such an effort could be rough going. On Sept. 13, Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor, published an op-ed piece, "Stop the Insanity Here," in the Houston Chronicle. The article, which attempted to analyze the terrorist attacks in the context of U.S. foreign policy, was met with a firestorm of negative responses, including letters and phone calls to University of Texas President Larry Faulkner, demanding that tenured professor Jensen's job be terminated. Jensen's offending language included the assertion that, although any attempt to defend what the terrorists did would be "to abandon one's humanity," it was nonetheless true that the attacks on New York and Washington were "no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism - the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes - that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime. For more than five decades throughout the Third World, the United States has deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in violence so indiscriminate that there is no other way to understand it except as terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of terrorism by client states."

In an unprecedented move, University of Texas President Faulkner responded to the uproar surrounding Jensen's article by publicly denouncing him in a letter to the Houston Chronicle. Although acknowledging Jensen's First Amendment rights, Faulkner announced his solidarity with the op-ed piece's critics by writing, "I, too, was disgusted by Jensen's article." Faulkner also insisted that "Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy."

The collision between the professor and the president sparked a dispute that soon became national, receiving coverage in a variety of media outlets and sparking internet debate on the status of campus free-speech rights in this time of crisis. Meanwhile, the University of Texas newspaper, The Daily Texan, editorialized that Faulkner's attack on Jensen was a campus embarrassment that "made the University look like a place hostile to unpopular ideas." On the other hand, Front Page, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture's online magazine, insisted that President Faulkner should force Jensen to "put students and the subject matter he is supposed to teach ahead of his own personal biases. If he refuses, Jensen should be fired." The magazine made this recommendation, believing that tenure should not stand in the way of ousting Jensen for continued "violation" of his teaching responsibilities.

Such incidents hint at the scope of current tensions regarding higher education's role during the post-Sept. 11 period. Although early September's traumatic events are receding, the evolving situation in Afghanistan and the White House's commitment to pursue its war on terrorism will force the professoriate to continue grappling with the implications of its role as the nation's largest collection of professional thinkers. What are we supposed to do during a time of crisis? What is the best way for us to contribute?

Obviously, faculty members across the nation are a disparate group with a wide range of informed opinions on many topics both within and outside their specific fields. Consequently, it's impossible for the AAUP to talk about academe's "role" as if such a role can be boiled down to a specific ideological stance on, for instance, how to fight terrorism. Rather, as faculty members, we must define our group role in a broader way. We must see ourselves not as the advocate of a single world-view, but as the advocate of everyone's First Amendment right to express their own world-view. We must value ourselves not merely as the defender of popular opinion, but as the enemy of the repression of unpopular opinions. We must stand for clarity, even when clarity raises questions that might force policy-makers to rethink their policies. Often such clarity must be of the long-range kind, touching upon issues that are apparently only at the fringes of U.S. interests but that nonetheless could have a significant impact on U.S. interests.

Take the issue of Pakistan-India tensions as an example.

As part of the current U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan, the U.S. has befriended Pakistan in order to have a base geographically close to Afghanistan so that we can pursue the war on terrorism with greater efficiency. India, however, claims that the U.S.'s support of Pakistan is contradictory since, according to India's leaders, Pakistan supports anti-Hindu terrorism in Kashmir. Simultaneously with this U.S.-India rift, the new closeness of the Pakistani government of General Pervez Musharraf to the United States also has fomented civil discord and anti-government sentiment within Pakistan. This turbulence has been created by sections of the Pakistani population that, either for Islamic or foreign policy reasons, don't approve of greater closeness between the U.S. and Pakistan. Such tensions at the so-called periphery of our war on terrorism gain added significance when we remember that both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.

When considering these India-Pakistan problems, particularly India's charge that Pakistan supports anti-Hindu terrorists in Kashmir, it's also important to recall that some of the leaders in India's current government, which has been labeled "Hindu Nationalist" by its critics, have played a discomfiting role over the last fifteen years in promoting anti-Muslim sentiment within India, a sentiment that on occasion turned tragically violent. Once we recognize such facts, the phrase "let's build a global alliance against terrorism" becomes more complicated to implement than the rhetoric makes it seem. In fact, we are forced to confront the possibility that an impulsively built global anti-terrorist alliance could light dangerous fuses in other parts of the world.

No group in the U.S. is better equipped to contribute to public discussion on such issues than higher education faculty. Indeed, it is part of our mission to do precisely that. We can't predict what such discussions' outcomes will be, but we certainly can use our collective strength to guarantee that they do occur - in an open, First Amendment-protected, multi-perspective way.

In times like these, such discussions aren't a luxury, they're a necessity.

As Michael Berube, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote:

"I reminded my students: Public ignorance is at once a luxury and a tragedy. We can no longer afford to leave such matters to our elected officials and a small handful of foreign-policy 'experts,' whose capacities for moral judgment and historical reflection may, in fact, be no greater than our own. For if democracies are going to respond to terrorists as democracies, then we all have the right - and the obligation - to determine what form that response should take."

The academy is the obvious place for such a discussion to begin. In a time of national crisis, we as faculty must reflect on the special role we play as teachers, scholars and intellectuals. This role cannot be played through silence or the encouragement of shortsighted analyses, but only through the molding of academic freedom into a tool for guaranteeing that national policies aren't decided without first being subjected to the rigors of critical thinking, even when such thinking includes unpopular ideas.