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February 14, 2005

Academic Freedom; Hiring Anti-Americans; Herman Muller

Much to my consternation, I've been coming across people who should know better who don't seem to understand the value of academic freedom. I'd like to explain why a university might want to hire someone who is anti-American and offensive. I won't say "someone like Ward Churchill at Colorado," because that is a case with special features, such as his already having a job, and with tenure, and the strong likelihood of academic fraud on his part. Instead, I would like to make the case that a university should be willing to hire (not just refrain from firing) a professor who repeatedly attacks America in print, and cheers the death of American soldiers in combat. . . .

. . . I am opposing the position of those who might argue,

"Freedom of speech is fine, but you shouldn't be anti-American if you are on the state payroll. Any state employee who says anti-American things should be fired."

We must clear up one possible misunderstanding before proceeding. Remember that we are talking about speech, not criminal acts. If a professor kills someone, that is different from his saying that he hopes someone else commits the murder. So let's stipulate that the professor has done nothing that if proved beyond a reasonable doubt would put him in jail. It is legal to advocate violent revolution; it is not legal to actually blow up a building.

(1) That cleared away, let's start with the easiest case: a professor whose scholarship is unconnected to his politics. Suppose Indiana University is considering hiring, for a $140,000 salary, a Nobel-prize winning doctor whose research shows promise of curing thousands of diabetics. He is, however, a Trotyskite, who writes about his advocacy of violent revolution in left-wing magazines and is openly happy when bad things happen to America.

This doctor would be the most prominent scholar at Indiana University, at an amazingly low salary ($140,000 is low for such a doctor, much less a Nobel laureate), and would clearly improve its teaching and research, as well as helping sick people. We should hire him.

Indiana University has already had a case something like this-- in the 1940's, with Herman Muller. Professor Muller was not a Trotskyite, but he was a Stalinist:

In the 1920s, Muller performed his Nobel prize-winning research showing that X- rays could induce mutations and he became instantly famous. Muller used his fame to caution against the indiscriminate use of X-rays in medicine, but despite his warnings, some physicians even prescribed X-rays to stimulate ovulation in sterile women. His warnings angered many doctors and were largely ignored.

Muller's outspoken views on socialism also got him in trouble with the Texas administration. He helped publish a Communist newspaper at the school, and the FBI tracked his activities. Feeling that U.S. society was regressing during the Depression, Muller left for Europe in 1932.

A move to the Soviet Union in 1934 seemed to have cured Muller of his Communist sympathies, although he always remained a socialist. Initially happy with the progressive society, he wrote popular articles praising the friendly people and the initiative of collective farm workers. But he grew unhappy as Stalin's police state attacked genetics by pushing Lamarkian ideas of evolution. The state dictated who could work in his lab and questioned him for referring to the work of Germans or Russian emigrés. By the time he left in 1937, several of his students and colleagues had "disappeared" or been shipped to Siberia.

Muller spent eight weeks in Spain helping the International Brigade develop a way to get blood for transfusions from recently killed soldiers, and then worked at the University of Edinburgh where he continued to work on X-rays and other mutagens like UV and mustard gas.

World War II forced Muller to leave Scotland in 1940 and he eventually found a permanent position at Indiana University in 1945. A year later, Muller won the Nobel Prize for his work on mutation-inducing X-rays and he used the opportunity to continue pressing for more public knowledge about the hazards of X-ray radiation.

Cases like Muller's are one reason I think loyalty oath requirements such as the University of California had back in the 1950's are a bad idea. We're hiring professors, not soldiers.

(2) My doctor in case (1) had research and teaching unrelated to his political views. What if politics and employment mix? Suppose Indiana University is considering hiring a historian of the Arab World who is an outspoken supporter of Al Qaeda and admits that he hopes the United States becomes an Islamic state and that its Jews will be expelled. Yet this historian is, everybody agrees, a very good scholar, and presents Al Qaeda's side as well as anyone possibly good. Everyone also agrees that although both his writing and his teaching clearly display his Islamist views, he is scrupulously fair, and accurate, in presenting other points of view, including the Zionist one. In his classes, in fact, he often will present the argument for Zionism in a way that is utterly persuasive-- but then follow that with a critique which is also so persuasive that his students are left not knowing what to think.

The standard arguments for academic freedom-- that it promoted free inquiry, and advances knowledge-- say that we should hire this scholar, and I agree. He is a good scholar and teacher, even though his logical talents will result in some students abandoning their preconceived ideas and believing something that I think is wrong. I trust, however, that in the marketplace of ideas his effect will be on net good rather than bad, and I will be much happier having him at my university than many of my present colleagues, who, though less talented, hold in my opinion equally erroneous. I would welcome the diversity such a person would add, and the fact that currently his views are so far out of Indiana University's mainstream is good, not bad. For one thing, it adds intellectual diversity, and will force us to examine our prejudices. For another, since his views are so rare, I don't worry that they will have a bad effect. It would be worse, in my opinion, to hire a conventional liberal of the kind that would not add diversity and instead would reinforce our prejudices and who would add to a group that already has significant and bad influence. (I would actually hire a liberal too, if he was a good scholar, but the case is less strong.)

I thought this was the conventional wisdom at universities, but let me relate an incident that suggests it is not. I was on Indiana's faculty senate last year, and the issue of federal oversight of Title VI area studies centers came up. Congressmen have noticed that these federally-funded centers, designed to help American diplomacy, often end up actually hurting, because the people funded are opposed to American foreign policy. I was speaking in agreement with Congress, and referred, I think, to anti-American professors. The head of one area studies center (I forget which one), responded by denying strongly that any professors were anti-American, with the implication that no area studies center would hire such a person. I was so surprised, I forget how I responded. I took it for granted that any politically neutral scholarly center for area studies would end up hiring some professors who were anti-American--- it would be implausible that all of the best scholars were pro-American. In fact, I thought the only question was whether it was okay for a majority of a center's scholars to be anti-American, or okay for them to discriminate against someone who wasn't anti-American. But this center's head wasn't about to argue that anti-Americans can be good scholars too.

Do recall my initial caveat that we should not let professors get away with illegal activity. I would be quite comfortable with jailing the Islamist professor if he blows up a building. I would even be comfortable with having the FBI tapping his phone and monitoring his classes. If he is just talking, then having the FBI watch him is no great burden for him; if he is conspiring, the FBI catching him would be a good thing. But I wouldn't punish him until he acts.

To conclude, I will grant one strong argument against hiring good scholars with bad beliefs: that they corrupt students. There is a tradeoff between having advances in knowledge and a better education for the students who are not taken in by the bad beliefs, and a worse education for those who end up being persuaded by the bad beliefs. Indiana University is a research university, so I think it should definitely make the tradeoff in favor of good scholarship. It isn't clear our students would be corrupted anyway; few or no undergraduates will take a class with our hypothetical evil professors. But if I were answering the question for a small liberal arts college, my answer would be different. Indeed, I think there is a place for religious colleges that do not even hire professors who are outside of a particular Christian denomination. Even so, however, when thinking about where I might send my own children to college, Islamists, Nazis, and Communists are the least of my worries. I am much more worried about the influence of hedonists and atheists than of professors with false politics. I expect all research universities have more bad than good influence on students' moral characters already, and that consideration would swamp the presence of a few oddballs on the faculty.

Posted by erasmuse at February 14, 2005 10:38 AM

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Pretty good analysis--and very funny too in a dead-pan kind of way, especially that last sentence.

Posted by: Chris Atwood at February 18, 2005 12:01 PM

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