Defending the University

Government interference. Watchdog groups. Ingrained orthodoxies. Jonathan R. Cole says they’re putting one of America’s greatest resources at risk.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Spring 2010
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Columbia: Could you talk about area studies and Title VI programs?

Cole: These programs were crafted after the Second World War to help the nation improve its expertise about foreign cultures. They included language and culture studies. The great universities have dominated the receipt of grants of those kinds. There was an enormous outpouring of anger at these centers in the last eight years because there was a perception that they had a strong liberal bias — that they were, in some ways, promulgating anti-American values within the universities in the United States. And the government began to explore — at the instigation of certain private organizations like Campus Watch and others — monitoring these programs and their curricula from the inside. The Bush administration was supportive of this. Members of Congress were supportive of this. They wanted to have committees to look into the curricula, which is normally the prerogative of the faculty at these universities. That is a huge intrusion into the academic freedom of universities and the ability of the faculty and its leaders to choose what is taught and what is not taught. Again, there is the issue of trust. The final piece of legislation, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, contained language that still allowed, to some extent, government oversight of these programs for ideological reasons. This has a very chilling effect on what goes on at universities.

Columbia: Was there any legitimacy to the complaints from outside that some departments had become politicized?

Cole: I don’t believe so. You hear continually that the faculties of these universities are biased, and that they are trying to persuade students to think in certain ways. First of all, I think that there’s much more diversity in faculty opinion than we think. There are many people who hold diverse views about the Middle East in Columbia’s faculty, for example. People tend to see the focus on a few members of the faculty who hold critical views of Israeli government policies. But there are people at Columbia and elsewhere who certainly can join in that conversation, and can question whether or not these faculty members are espousing ideas that are false.

Columbia: Still, I don’t think you are suggesting that faculty are immune from external criticism. If we assume that some nonfaculty critics — alumni, the press, or anyone else — are well informed and act in good faith, should their voices be heard?

Cole: Obviously, people outside the university have as much right to criticize anything that goes on as people inside the university. I don’t want to in any way restrict the freedom of speech and expression of those outside to what people may be doing inside.

However, it’s extremely important that the leaders of universities both defend their faculties’ right to express ideas and also reinforce the idea that the criticism can come from within and should come from within — among peers, students, even among other people in the university community. But the ultimate judge of the quality of the work and whether or not a person should be hired or promoted has to be left up to experts in those fields.

Columbia: That brings us back to your point that academic freedom sets the rules of engagement in a classroom or laboratory: “Great universities are designed to be unsettling. They challenge orthodoxies, and dogmas, as well as social values, and public policies.”

Cole: It’s almost a precondition for greatness. To the extent that you stifle academic freedom, you undermine the university’s values and its potential for contributing to the nation and to the world, because you stifle the growth of knowledge. You are also going to stifle the extent to which students are challenged in their own biases and presuppositions. That, after all, is what a university ought to be about.

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