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‘Free speech’ or chilling effect?

CUNY profs react to Trump’s order on colleges

Gunja SenGupta, the chair of Brooklyn College’s history department, fears Trump’s order could acutely target public colleges.
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In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order defending what he called “free speech” on college and university campuses – the “order requires that schools ensure they allow students to express themselves in order to receive funds from 12 federal agencies that help fund universities and colleges,” according to Reuters.

What does this mean, specifically? No one, including the president himself, can really say. “The president’s [signing] remarks didn’t offer more clarity about how the program would work,” reported USA Today, which said, “the order doesn’t make clear…what criteria would bar a university from getting federal money – and how many colleges risk violating those criteria,” and that “the order doesn’t make clear how it differs from the protections already demanded of public universities by the First Amendment.”

The New York Times noted that it “was unclear what mechanisms would be used to enforce the order” and that an administration “official could not answer questions about how the order might relate to some of the more contentious areas of discussion on college campuses in recent years, such as the movement to boycott or divest from Israel.”

TARGETING THE LEFT

The order still raised eyebrows within American academia. Its vagueness caused alarm, because it could be invoked in a discriminatory fashion. Vita Rabinowitz, CUNY’s executive vice chancellor, said in her role as interim chancellor through the end of April that “CUNY is concerned…with the partisan rhetoric used by the president of the United States when issuing this executive order. At the signing, the president railed against ‘ideological intolerance on campus,’ which he characterized as ‘rigid’ and ‘far left.’”

And for many academics at CUNY, the order is a direct affront to institutions that serve the working class. Brooklyn College political scientist Immanuel Ness feared that the order could lead to “self-censorship” among academics with controversial ideas, saying, “Those who are at risk are faculty challenging the narrative that the United States is the font of global democracy and human rights. CUNY faculty are particularly at risk as we rely on public funds, determined by opportunistic government officials reacting to politically powerful corporations as well as organizations advocating national chauvinism.”

Likewise, Gunja SenGupta, the chair of the history department at Brooklyn College, told Clarion, “The threat of losing federal research dollars is likely to weigh more heavily on public institutions without hefty endowments, which rely on public funding to create knowledge and promote civic education through research and intellectual debate.”

And Julie Schmid, the executive director of the American Association of University Professors, speaking more generally, said in a statement, “Like the president’s attacks on other perceived enemies, whether they be journalists, scientists or academic institutions…the order seems largely designed to undermine the public trust. It is also troubling that in his remarks the president sought to drive a wedge between students and faculty, casting his executive order as a ‘clear message to the professors’ that their funding was now at risk while also raising the specters of ‘political indoctrination’ and ‘coercion.’”

The US Constitution already grants university students free speech. By issuing the order, the president implies to the public that somehow American universities are already in violation of this hallmark American right. The claim that free speech is being violated on campuses is making the rounds from the fringe right in places like Alex Jones’s Infowars to more reputable venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Reece Peck, an assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island, who studies American right-wing media, noted that Trump’s order serves as a perfect piece of public relations for a conservative president trying to rile his base.

“Educated elites have been a class enemy since William F. Buckley – the conservative movement has centered their campaign against academics,” Peck said, invoking the National Review founder’s book God and Man at Yale, in which Buckley accused Yale professors of forcing secularism onto religious students.

Buckley’s narrative about the Ivy League school, Peck explained, greatly influenced the Cold War- era conservative movement, which characterized academia in general as a sort of fifth column against traditional American society.

“Joe McCarthy’s conspiracies focused on intellectuals, George Wallace talked about ‘pseudo-intellectuals,’” said Peck, whose book, Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class, was published by Cambridge University Press this year. “Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio centered the populist narrative on educated elites. Academics are a recurrent villain in Fox News. Even today with Tucker Carlson, he has a segment called ‘Campus Craziness’ where he debates academics and paints them as irrational and unpatriotic. Trump is a creature of media, and his view of politics is formed by the media he watches – with Fox and Breitbart – so this doesn’t surprise me.”

HITTING HOME

The effects of this kind of populist rabble-rousing against academics, supported by the commander-in-chief through an executive order, can have perilous consequences for academia. For example, Jessie Daniels, a Hunter College professor of sociology, has faced a barrage of right-wing harassment and intimidation because she has published commentary and scholarship on racist movements in the United States. She said that the president’s order was like throwing a bone to the fringe white nationalists and so-called “alt-right” communities that have supported the administration.

“President Trump’s executive order does nothing to protect academic freedom, but will embolden far-right activists,” she said. “These bad actors on the far right are not interested in the exchange of ideas, debating philosophies or delving into social science data. Rather, they are committed to spreading a hateful ideology about the superiority of the white race by demanding access on college campuses under the guise of academic freedom. The president’s executive order will provide more cover for those on the far right and their destructive beliefs.”

Daniels isn’t alone among CUNY faculty who have faced harassment for voicing political opinions. This academic year, Anthony Alessandrini, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, reported getting threatening messages after right-wing groups and websites like the Canary Mission and the Daily Caller started highlighting his views on the Middle East – the former group, as Clarion reported in November of 2017, also harassed and targeted two professors at Brooklyn College, Samir Chopra of the philosophy department and Corey Robin of political science.

And Brooklyn College in particular has received a fair amount of this kind of meddling in its academic freedom. Kristofer Petersen-Overton, at the time a graduate student, had his appointment as an instructor in the Brooklyn College political science department revoked after pressure from State Assembly member Dov Hikind in the Spring of 2011 – the college reversed that decision after pressure from the union and faculty members. In 2013 City Council members threatened CUNY funding after the college played host to a conference about the BDS movement (the campaign to boycott, divest from and put sanctions on Israel), although then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to CUNY’s defense on grounds of academic freedom. “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” Bloomberg said at the time.

Bloomberg may not have been considered the most progressive mayor, but his words on the subject of government interference in campus freedom resonated with those who believe academic activity should be separated from the government and political parties.

Peter Bratsis, a political theorist at Borough of Manhattan Community College, noted that the Trump administration order rings hollow when, in actual fact, outside of CUNY it has been left-wing professors – he cited the cases of George Ciccariello-Maher, formerly of Drexel University, and other academics who have voiced strong views against white supremacy and were thus forced out of their academic positions by pressure from alt-right activists on their respective administrations – who need more academic freedom protections, not academics or students on the political right.

But he also painted a more harrowing picture for academia, where academic freedom is constrained not by government forces, but by a system where more concern is placed on job training and selling the “employability” of graduates than teaching how to discuss controversial topics.

“I think the real danger of the Trump order is not the hysteria over an imaginary threat to free speech but the continuation and intensification of anti-intellectual metrics for higher education and the concurrent devaluation of intellectual life,” Bratsis said.

ATTACKING THE RESISTANCE

Karen Miller, a professor of history at LaGuardia Community College, explained the Orwellian features of a government order mandating free speech on college campuses inherent to Trump’s recent executive order.

“It is intended to weaken struggles against racism and fascism,” she said. “But Trump and his right-wing cronies rightfully see that universities can foster the kind of critical thinking, intellectual production and activism that service alternate visions and possibilities. Universities can help us imagine and describe different worlds – where equality and mutuality are priorities, where exploitation, discrimination and capitalism are called into question for their moral and material failings, and where the voices of people of color, women, genderqueers, young people, the disabled and non-elites generally are valued.”

Miller, a PSC delegate, added, “The federal government should ensure that public universities are well-funded, that faculty, students and staff are fairly compensated and supported, and that everyone is safe on campus. This executive order moves us in the wrong direction.”