Monday, May 9

When Students Complain About Professors, Who Gets to Define the Controversy?

The media storm around Columbia's Middle Eastern-studies department provides one of the few cases in which students' complaints about professors' classroom conduct have made it into the news. It brings to mind a case at Harvard, more than a decade ago, that offers illuminating contrasts. Together they raise the question of how the news media frame stories about such complaints.

The Columbia story by now is familiar: After students objected to what they saw as anti-Israel bias among professors in the Middle Eastern-studies department, the university was widely criticized as a place where students were intimidated, faculty members were prejudiced, and scholarly standards were in decline. And when a faculty committee appointed by the administration concluded that there had been no serious misconduct, most of the news media rejected that conclusion and demanded additional action by the university.

The Harvard story, in contrast, has been largely forgotten, except among some conservative writers. When a few students complained in 1988 about "racial insensitivity" in a lecture by the history professor Stephan Thernstrom, news organizations rose to his defense by describing him as a victim of "political correctness." Thernstrom's high-profile outrage made him a hero in neoconservative circles, and in 2002 he was appointed a member of the National Council on the Humanities by President Bush.

Pundits on the right often complain that the left dominates American universities. Both of these stories were framed to advance that interpretation. At Harvard, the story was that the professor was a victim of left-wing students; at Columbia, the students were victims of left-wing professors. In each case, news reports said that the threats to the university were coming from the left. In each case, the story told to the public was inaccurate.

In the Columbia case, The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and The New York Sun (a conservative-minded daily newspaper) each published several articles reporting that pro-Israel students had complained they were treated abusively by some faculty members in class discussions as well as outside of class.

A Barnard College student said that in a class discussion she had asked Joseph A. Massad, a professor of Arab politics, whether Israel gave advance warning before bombing a Palestinian building, and that he had replied angrily, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!" He later denied ever telling any student to leave his class, but the faculty committee found the complaint "credible." Massad in turn complained that his classes had been infiltrated by hecklers and "monitors," and that he had received hate mail and death threats.

In the Harvard case, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and New York magazine featured Thernstrom's story as told in one of the key neocon books of the decade, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (Free Press, 1991). In The New Republic, the historian Eugene D. Genovese wrote that Thernstrom had been "savaged for political incorrectness in the classroom." A cover story in New York magazine featured Thernstrom as a victim of "demagogic and fanatical" black students. In the New York Review, the Yale historian C. Vann Woodward cited the case as an example of "the attack on freedom ... led by minorities."

The story told in the news media was that three black students had accused Thernstrom, a distinguished historian, of racial insensitivity in an introductory history course, "The Peopling of America." Instead of coming to him with their complaints, Thernstrom said, they went to the administration and to the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. The greatest damage to Thernstrom, D'Souza said, was done not by the black students, but by the Harvard administration: "Far from coming to his defense," D'Souza wrote, the administration "appeared to give full administrative sanction to the charges against Thernstrom."

Thernstrom said he was so discouraged by the students' attack and the administration's failure to defend his academic freedom that he decided not to teach the course again. Thus the case was framed by the news media as an example of a distinguished professor's being hounded out of teaching his course by an alliance of militant black students, the campus newspaper, and the administrators who supported them. Thernstrom called it "McCarthyism of the left."

In fact almost every element of the story Thernstrom told the news media was erroneous. The incident in question consisted of three black students' complaining about the absence of a black perspective in a lecture on slavery. Thernstrom's response focused primarily on the administration.

Because he received so little support from the administration, he told D'Souza, "I felt like a rape victim." But, in fact, the administration backed up Thernstrom. When the students' took their complaint to Harvard's Committee on Race Relations, they were told that it had no jurisdiction over professors' teaching, and that they should take their complaint to Thernstrom -- which they did. "They felt the university didn't do anything to back up their concerns," the former dean, Fred Jewett, told me in a 1991 interview for The Nation.

Nevertheless the Thernstrom version of the story lives on. As recently as February 2005, Michael A. Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote that "'freedom of speech' on most major university campuses nowadays is a fraud. When America's greatest living historian of the antebellum South, Stephan Thernstrom [of Harvard], is prevented from teaching that course ["The Peopling of America"] because black students protest against a white man teaching it, you know that free speech is over."

The students' complaints in both cases share the same problem: As Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia, wrote in a letter last month to The New York Times, professors who do not treat students fairly should be reprimanded; but when students encounter ideas they disagree with, that does not constitute grounds for a complaint to the university.

The faculty responses in the two cases also had similarities: At Harvard, Thernstrom declared that he would give up teaching the course because the university had failed to stand up for him. At Columbia, Massad declared that he would no longer teach the course because the university would not "ensure my rights and protect me against intimidation." Both thus claimed that they were being silenced as the result of the administration's failures in the face of students' complaints.

Why, then, did the news media frame the two cases so differently? At Columbia, the complaining students had the backing of a well-financed pro-Israel organization, the David Project, which organized a sophisticated media campaign. With other pro-Israel groups, such as Campus Watch, they used the Internet to solicit student complaints in an organized national effort aimed at not just Massad but the entire department of Middle Eastern-studies at Columbia, as well as other Middle Eastern-studies programs across the United States.

The groups sent "monitors" into classrooms to report on what professors were saying. The David Project financed a video documentary on the student charges, "Columbia Unbecoming," and ran a public-relations effort to publicize it, screening the video for selected journalists. In contrast, the three students at Harvard who complained had no support from outside groups or the media: no documentary, no Web site, no national support network. They were on their own.

Thus political forces outside the two universities played key roles in shaping what the public was told about the cases. The media campaign charging "anti-Israel bias" at Columbia gained political traction, I believe, because the university has been hoping to expand its campus, which requires city approval. A mayoral race was beginning, and one of the candidates made Columbia his issue, promising to "do something" about it. Meanwhile, a new, right-wing daily newspaper had begun publication, and it fanned the flames by running dozens of stories about the "crisis" at Columbia. Columbia's president failed for months to speak out in defense of academic freedom, perhaps because he feared that the expansion project would be blocked by elected officials.

A decade earlier, in Cambridge, only a few people came to the defense of the three black students who wanted more of the slaves' perspective in a lecture on slavery. On the contrary, a sophisticated and well-financed media campaign distorted the incident mercilessly to advance the neoconservative cause. The key activist here was D'Souza, the finest flower of a vast neocon talent search supported by foundations and think tanks. After 10 years of cultivating young ideologues, the John M. Olin Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute finally got everything they could have hoped for in D'Souza and his book: a best seller attacking the campus left, and, best of all, a right-wing book written by a young person of color.

The news media, for their part, like stories that can be framed as controversies, especially when the stakes seem to be so high: nothing less than freedom in the university. Still, these controversies could have been described differently.

At Columbia the issue could have been defined, in the words of Joan W. Scott of the American Association of University Professors, as "the threat to the integrity of the university by the intervention of organized outside agitators who are disrupting classes and programs for ideological purposes." Instead the issue became professors' "anti-Israel bias."

At Harvard the issue could have been a professor's overreacting to students' disagreement with one of his lectures. But it came to be defined as the victimization of the professor by the forces of "left-wing McCarthyism." The key was not the nature or seriousness of the complaints, but rather the political forces outside the university that defined the issues at stake.

Jon Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (The New Press, 2005).