[OPE-L] Saree Makdisi, "Witch Hunt at UCLA"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sun Jan 22 2006 - 16:31:55 EST


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Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2006
Witch Hunt at UCLA
by Saree Makdisi

"UCLA STUDENTS: Do you have a professor who just can't stop talking about
President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any
other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject
matter? It doesn't matter whether this is a past class, or your class from
this coming winter quarter. If you help expose the professor, we'll pay you
for your work."

This grotesque offer appeared last week on a new website taking aim at
members of the UCLA faculty. The site, created by the Bruin Alumni Assn., a
group founded by 2003 UCLA graduate Andrew Jones, offers differing bounties
for class notes, handouts and illicit recordings of lectures ($100 for all
three).

A glance at the profiles of the "targeted professors," however, reveals
that they have been singled out, in most cases, not for what goes on in
their courses, but for the positions they have taken outside the classroom
 and outside the university.

I earned my own inaccurate and defamatory "profile," for example, not for
what I have said in my classes on English poets such as Wordsworth and
Blake  my academic specialty, which the website pointedly avoids
mentioning  but rather for what I have written in newspapers about Middle
Eastern politics.

My colleagues and I are being targeted for speaking out on the kinds of
urgent social matters and universal principles that it has always  in
every society and every age  been the task of intellectuals to address.

The website assumes that any professor who speaks out in a public forum
must at the same time be indulging in ideological abuse of his or her
students  proselytizing them, indoctrinating them. And it's actually not
just any professor; it's only the supposedly "liberal" ones, since
"conservative" faculty are not targeted on the website.

Naturally, a professor who speaks out in public expects to receive
criticism in public. Criticism is one thing; a farrago of misquotations,
misrepresentations and utter falsehoods, dragging in one's family and
stretching back to one's high school days, is something else entirely. This
is no way to assess someone's classroom conduct.

Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with me or my colleagues, or
our teaching. A method for assessing how professors treat their students is
already built into how universities work. Every course at UCLA gives
students the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors, and
those evaluations are used in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions;
abusive professors don't get very far in their careers.

So the point of the website is not really to produce genuine "evaluations"
of classroom dynamics  a cause that would hardly be well-served by a tiny
group of politically motivated zealots accountable to no one and trying to
use the cash nexus to break the sacrosanct bond between teacher and
student. The point, rather, is to silence voices that go against the
zealots' right-wing orthodoxy, and to subject the classroom to outside
political surveillance, not simply by vigilante groups like this one, but
ultimately by the state itself.

Jones, who created the website, is a former leader of UCLA's campus
Republican organization. He explicitly aligns himself with the "student
academic freedom movement" begun by conservative activist David Horowitz
(although Horowitz last week criticized Jones, whom he said he'd once fired
for pressuring students to file false reports about their professors).

The two distinguishing features of the academic freedom movement are the
total absence of any significant student involvement and its use of
Orwellian language  in which slogans such as "academic freedom" actually
mean their opposite.

One member of the website's advisory board is state Sen. Bill Morrow
(R-Oceanside), who has introduced a bill creating a "student bill of
rights"  written not by students but by their paternalistic "friends" who
assume they aren't up to the task of thinking critically for themselves.

Morrow's bill, which failed to pass last year but will be reconsidered this
year, would wreak havoc. It could impose unprecedented state monitoring of
classrooms and compel professors to teach discredited materials. It
asserts, for example, that "curricula and reading lists in the humanities
and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character
of all human knowledge in these areas, and provide students with dissenting
sources and viewpoints."

The intention is presumably to force "liberal" faculty to teach
"conservative" materials, as though a university education functions
according to the same degraded logic as the Bill O'Reilly show. But the
bill could also force a professor teaching the Holocaust to teach the views
of Holocaust deniers ("dissenting sources").

Such subtleties don't keep the conservative crusaders up at night.
Irrespective of the damage their campaign inflicts, members of the hard
right  who currently control all three branches of government and yet seem
irrationally convinced of their own disempowerment  are seeking to impose
their worldview on our university system through crude intimidation and
"big government" intervention that reactionaries normally grumble about
when it's taking care of the poor, the ill or the elderly.

Their success would almost certainly guarantee that what gets taught would
be determined not according to scholarly criteria but according to
political pressure. I'd hate to be mistaken for a "conservative," but the
barbarians really are at the gates.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA.


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