By Alan Levy
April 2, 2006
Mr. Levy is a Professor of History at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He gave the following testimony at a hearing in Millersville, PA held on March 22, 2006 by the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Academic Freedom.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Alan Levy. I have been a professor in the Pa. State System of Higher Education (SSHE) at Slippery Rock University for 21 years. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. I have also taught at the University of Louisville and at the Phillips Exeter Academy. I teach in the history department at Slippery Rock. I have served, as well, as the Director of the University’s Honors’ Program. I have also written books and articles in the areas of American cultural and social history. Throughout my years in the Pa.-SSHE I have observed many events and developments which lie at the heart of issues about which many commentators, of both the political left and right, have written in regard to problems which continue to occur in higher education. I am most grateful to each of the members of this State Assembly Committee for giving me the opportunity to come before you. I would like, today, to minimize any general philosophizing in which I or any number of educators could engage, although, being an academic, I will probably lapse into it. Please rein me in if I do, for I would like, instead, to focus my attention on some specific examples of problems that I have observed, problems which get at the heart of the threats to academic freedom and quality that exist on Pa. campuses, and from there let you draw your own conclusions.
One general development that has occurred on many campuses involves a politicization of areas of the curriculum. One example of this at Slippery Rock University concerns its Women’s Studies Program. For years, Women’s Studies activists have held the raison d’etre for their programs to lie in the fact that the traditional disciplines and institutions have allegedly ignored topics and events pertinent to women. There was some legitimacy in that claim 30 to 35 years ago, but today that argument has little tenability. Perusals of every major textbook in any field and of the topics at every major academic convention all yield the obvious conclusion -- that gender matters are anything but ignored. Many feminists have been unwilling to recognize this, and there is an intolerance that grows with the resistance. Many students thus report that a professor on my campus openly commences her classes with the unashamed statement that she teaches from a feminist perspective and that no other outlooks are welcome before her. In history, one old professor, long retired, once (over 20 years ago) made the silly statement that women generally did not do well in one of his classes. Even though that professor has not taught in years, administrators and feminists have repeatedly referred to his gaffe as though it was indicative of sensibilities still alive in the university. If the sensibilities are so perniciously alive, why is a statement of a long-retired professor a singular, mantra-like point of evidence? Beyond, if such a gaffe is to be remonstrated, what about the words of someone who openly proclaims that no perspectives but feminist ones will be tolerated? Somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about that. It is the height of disingenuousness here for professors to posture about the need for “openness and civility” in the classroom, and then when their classroom doors are shut, dispense with civility, open-mindedness, and, often and not coincidentally, intellectual rigor as well. The only thing more disingenuous is when administrators manipulatively hail these posturings as proof that we have no problems with politicization in the classroom.
One of the “courses” in the W.S. Program is currently entitled “Feminist Perspectives in the Disciplines.” In one semester, the course has purported to give insights into virtually all major fields of the curriculum. In a 15-week term, students are allegedly given “understandings” of economics, biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, art, music, and more. It’s a mile wide and an inch deep. But, more importantly, the course simply (and “simply” is indeed the best word here) boils down to discussions about barely-understood academic fields each of which is robotically accused of downgrading and ignoring women. Opinions that women are not victims in a given academic field are not to be considered. Anyone who criticizes any points about “oppression” or “patriarchy” is attacked with McCarthyistic certainty. When the course first came before a faculty committee for approval in 1996, for example, I personally raised questions both about the “party-line” atmosphere apt to be present in the course and about the content of any course that claimed to offer insights into an array of fields more vast than anyone could possibly master. The course sponsor responded at a purely ad hominem level, attacking me on personal grounds and claiming she had been harassed. Ignoring the silly personal attacks, I raised the question as to whether the professor’s angry, vituperative responses were indicative of how the course would be taught and how students who raised honest but uncomfortable questions would be treated. No response came. Nonetheless, the course proposal passed, with few committee members willing to consider the “teaching versus preaching” elements obviously inherent in the course as well as in the reactions to my questions.
It is this combination of very narrow, ideologically-driven truculence and fear- or apathy-driven acquiescence that lies at the heart of the proliferation of what has been labeled “political correctness” on so many American campuses, including those of the Pa. SSHE. Several professors quietly spoke to me about such issues as those posed by the Women’s Studies course. In the discussions, the general tone was one which said “I agree with you, but why bother to make waves?” Another opined about the proliferation of political correctness: “Just let it run its course.” This go along/get along attitude, combined with comfortable faculty salaries is an enormous enabler, in my judgment, of politicization’s growth on my and other campuses. This laziness continues to permit academic quality to deteriorate, as often highly personal politics cloud academic standards.
At Slippery Rock, for example, a faculty member who claims to be one of the campus’s leading advocates of women’s issues attained the rank of full professor with a scholarly record that claimed two published books. One book, she said, was “published” by the University of Michigan Microfilm Service. This service involves the microfilming of virtually every doctoral thesis in the country and thus hardly qualifies as a publication. Moreover, the professor claimed the completion of her doctoral thesis as a separate scholarly accomplishment. The second “book” was “published” by “Desk Top Publishing of Slippery Rock, Pa.,” an absurdity that requires no explanation. The fact that a professor’s pretending of scholarly achievements could be done in such a brazen manner speaks volumes as to the importance that “political correctness” has come to hold in some administrative and academic circles in the Pa. SSHE. Someone without p.c. feminist credentials could not attain the rank and salary of a full professor with such dishonesties in his/her record. Worst of all, those who point out such academic falsehoods are themselves subject to political pressures. There is a form of institutional dysfunction here, akin to what psychologists describe in problem families where things like alcoholism are not addressed, and where rage ensues when someone dares to bring up its existence. The Slippery Rock administration once tried to hold back my application for promotion for explicitly political reasons. One former dean was frank about it with me: “They’re just slappin’ your wrist,” he said, “because you’ve p_____ some people off.” When I challenged the administration on their actions and brought up such admissions from my dean, the then president grew furious with the dean -- another example of dysfunctional rage at someone who dares to tell a truth that some do not want to let out in the open.
In 2003, a faculty member who had clearly faked her academic credentials and gotten away with it when applying for promotion to full professor was apparently angry at those who had pointed out her academic fraud. She went on-line to a private teacher-rating service called “RateMyProfessor.com”. Falsely posing as a student of the professor who pointed out the fraud in her record, she wrote: “he is a misogynist.” No clearer example of p.c.-driven McCarthyism could possibly be found. I was the professor who was the victim of the lying here. She and other professors have also attempted to get me fired. To this end, they openly bragged to one another and to some students that they were going to see to it that in 2003 I would not be able to return from a sabbatical. The fact that they did not succeed is hardly a source of comfort. I am less important here than is the matter of the self-entitled anti-freedom mentality that sits in many parts of the school.
In 2001, one Dean at Slippery Rock formed a faculty committee to look into matters of what he called “faculty morale and scholarship.” When someone raised the issue of how morale and desires for scholarly achievement are damaged when people get away with faking their credentials on promotions, defensive reactions grew among the uncomfortable faculty. The defensiveness grew to the point that the Dean was persuaded eventually to disband the committee. Then the Dean tried to claim that the phrase “scholarship and faculty morale” had been misinterpreted. He said it meant “how to raise money for student scholarships.” The ham-handed, dishonest manner of side-stepping here only added to the lesson that many drew -- that the problems of legitimate academic quality and academic freedom, of which scholarship is a significant part, are indeed imperiled by the indulgence of those who perform minimally and fraudulently in their professional work and indulge themselves in petty campus politics by playing politically correct cards.
Like most campuses, Slippery Rock University has committees that oversee important matters of curriculum. One such committee at Slippery Rock is called the “Liberal Studies Committee.” This committee screens most initiatives on curriculum changes, and it looks at proposals for new courses. When professors propose courses, they normally furnish all necessary details including a bibliography. Members of the Liberal Studies Committee at Slippery Rock now have a custom of looking at the bibliography and asking only one major question -- is there a 50% representation of women among the authors in the bibliography? Course proposals have been turned down simply on that basis. The administration of the university can claim that the 50%-women rule is not their official policy, but the fact is that they have never taken issue with this custom or overturned such decisions of the committee. Thus, by any pragmatic standard, the 50%-women rule is operative and, to say the least, absurd. (Is it not the very opposite of what early women’s rights people always sought -- that gender should not be an issue?)
Another example of the ways in which indulged political correctness at Slippery Rock has a direct and negative impact on academic freedom and quality: On several occasions, the university’s feminists have led, and been funded for, a staging of a play called The Vagina Monologues. At each of the play’s presentations, several professors have actually required students not only to attend but to pay for tickets out of their own pockets. This marks a clear point of politicization of the classroom. Yet no campus official has ever challenged the practice.
At one point during a VM staging in 2001, three professors wrote a letter in the campus newspaper, not advocating that the performance be stopped, but simply presenting the idea that the play entails, as much as anything else, the misandrist, carping pseudo-victimology of a group of people who claim to be oppressed while actually being more wealthy and privileged than 99%+ of all the people who have ever lived on this planet. Rather than acknowledging the free-speech rights of all (let alone actually considering the points being raised), the campus feminists chose react in several unconscionable ways. One angrily called one of the critics “a cheap Jew.” (‘So much for the politically correct posturing themselves as upholders of tolerance and civility!) On the night of the Monologues performance, some of the participants also went to the home of one of the critics, dumped a load of trash on his lawn, and hurled a stone through one of his car windows. No one made any acknowledgment of regret. Further, in their university (tax)-funded Women Studies Newsletter, the feminists subsequently printed pages of criticism (“Vagina Friendly Responses”) in response to those who wrote the letter in the student newspaper. The student newspaper, of course, had given the feminists equal time in response to the original letter. The feminists, however, refused to allow any rebuttal to be printed in their newsletter. Even though his office funded their program and newsletter, the campus provost, now university president, did not, although directly asked, explicitly demand and require the granting “equal time.” Many asked the obvious question here: how many nano-seconds would have elapsed were the roles reversed and it was the campus feminists who (in addition to being called vicious names and having their windows broken) were being denied some form of equal time in a campus-funded publication? A union official, now the campus provost, was asked this very question, and he responded smilingly: “That number is too infinitesimal to be calculated.” The smile of the provost hardly indicates any commitment to academic freedom. Indeed, it indicates the very worst -- a cynical, cavalier disregard for it.
Since that issue of “equal time” in a campus-funded publication arose, the administration has demanded that the Feminist Newsletter refrain from engaging in political editorializing. The administration never balanced the inequity that remains from their 2001 refusal to grant equal time. Instead they have choked off what could be an effective component of campus life -- free, open debate over important issues. The feminists acquiesced to the demand. One would think they would have fought for their rights to air their views fully, but apparently they prefer to silence their critics, even if it means accepting some silencing themselves. It reveals to me what they really want from students and others -- obedience, not freedom of thought. (Of course with this situation, they can claim to be oppressed.)
In 2006, when a professor at Slippery Rock presented a little parody of The Vagina Monologues called The Penis Papers and Cloaca Confessions, he had advertisement fliers officially stamped by the appropriate Slippery Rock office so those fliers could be posted on bulletin boards about the campus. The presenters of The Vagina Monologues had done the same thing. On their posters the VM producers placed a huge set of vertically-drawn female lips. Many found that distasteful, yet no one took down any VM posters, and it would have led to howls from feminists if anyone had. The Penis Papers posters had but a picture of the Empire State Building as an illustration, yet on several occasions students who were putting up the fliers witnessed female faculty tearing down these fliers claiming they were “disgusting.” If anyone had taken down their arguably more offensive VM posters, these same people would have waxed long and indignant about the First Amendment and the intolerance of their critics. Yet when they think something to be offensive to their political concerns, the feminists’ senses of entitlement narcissistically override all notions of integrity and hypocrisy. So much for the wisdom of Voltaire about disagreeing with some yet defending their right to voice their views.
On another occasion the same campus feminists wrote a letter to all faculty and staff, on the state’s nickel and distributed through official channels by the university, in which they explicitly called upon people who gave to the local United Way to make sure none of their donations go to the Boy Scouts. Their argument here dwelled earnestly on how the Boy Scouts discriminate against homosexuals. From there the feminists’ letter advocated that people earmark their donations to several local shelters for women who are victims of domestic abuse. Rejoinders were asserted to the effect that, even accepting the argument about the Boy Scouts’ views on homosexuality, the majority of the Scouts’ work was laudable, and that the Shelters, while most of their work is also laudable, discriminate themselves -- against male victims of domestic violence, and do so probably to the same proportion in relation to their overall work as do the Boy Scouts in regard to homosexuality. The university did not pay for or circulate any such rejoinder, however.
In 2004 when a department at Slippery Rock was engaged in a job search, one professor was most anxious to see to it that a woman was hired. State and Federal laws require that every effort must be made on behalf of seeking qualified female and minority candidates, but quotas have always been ruled unlawful. The department in question had an exemplary record in seeking female candidates. They hired several women. They offered jobs to several women who took positions elsewhere. During this job search, candidates were each asked, as is normal, to give a demonstration lecture. When a female candidate was to give her lecture, this professor told her students to attend, show interest, and ask questions, all with the inducement that those who complied would receive bonus points toward their final grades. Given the grade issue, some students accepted the inducement and felt terribly manipulated as a result. Subsequently, this professor hid the facts of her inducements and claimed to colleagues that the particular female candidate had clearly shown herself to be the most effective classroom teacher on the basis of student enthusiasm. The candidate was offered the post, but some students informed her of the manipulation afoot and she ended up accepting another university’s offer. More significantly and sadly, when faculty learned of this professor’s manipulations, most preferred not to take her to task. If anyone had tried to stack the deck half so audaciously in favor of a male candidate, all hell would have broken loose.
In another job search, a department was again inviting candidates to campus. Several of the finalists were women. The day before a male finalist was slated to appear, one professor asked several colleagues if they were available to have dinner with the candidate after he’d arrived from the airport and checked into his motel. One female colleague responded to the request to have dinner with a male candidate thus: “I see my role in the search as a cheerleader for the female candidates, so I see no point in spending any extra time with a male candidate.” Were someone to show any such gender prejudice for a male candidate and against a female candidate, the administration of any SSHE campus would react with immense indignation. Yet when someone shows open prejudice in favor of a female, all is silent, except in regard to anyone who seeks to point out and correct the obvious hypocrisies.
It is not just the issue of gender that lies at the root of petty political dynamics that erode academic freedom and quality. At Slippery Rock, students have complained regularly about substandard teaching from faculty who appear to have gained positions via political connections based on irrelevant matters like lifestyle. In first-year College Writing classes, some students complain about the fact that the main things they learn in their classes is that it is best to agree with the political views of their teachers and that it is pointless to disagree. Things like grammar and writing style are secondary at best. Elsewhere, others have complained about professors who have openly stated “I hate white people. I am a victim of institutionalized racism, so my hatreds do not matter.” (This comment has never gotten the same attention from administrators as has the 20-year-old one-time gaffe of “women usually do not do well in this course.”) In such classes, these hatreds do matter, and students gain the clear sense that the way to good grades is simply to parrot back to the professors what they want to hear in regard to political viewpoints. Students also learn that it is useless to challenge the outrages of such professors to administrators. The classic idea of open discussion, with all viewpoints being allowed to be aired, is turned completely on its head. With few willing to put a stop to it, students and their academic freedom are the victims.
Another political dimension in the imperiling of academic quality and freedom has come via the SSHE faculty union. As with political correctness, union activism, independent of classroom and scholarly excellence, can be a major factor in regard to tenure and promotions at Slippery Rock. In 2004, furthermore, when there was a possibility of a faculty strike in SSHE, some faculty used their classrooms as fora for the airing of their views on the issues at stake. While a little of that may be useful in some disciplines, care needs to be taken to allow for a balance of opinions. According to many students, the very opposite was often the case. Some classes were devoted to one-sided discussions. As with the “I hate white people” professor, no student would dare speak to some faculty about the strike issues with any viewpoint besides one friendly to the professors. This cynicism-inducing outrage paled before another matter here: students also reported in significant numbers of professors in the School of Education doing more than just discussing the union/strike issues in a one-sided manner. According to many students, some Education School professors actually told their students that if there was a strike and they (Ed. faculty) found any of their students crossing picket lines, they would do everything they could to see to it that the crossers would never get any jobs at the elementary or secondary schools to which they were applying to teach. Such “black-balling” threats are hardly what educational quality and academic freedom are supposed to entail.
I’m in the faculty union, and I am going to get heat for saying these things -- not because anyone will say my facts are wrong, but because I am saying what many think ought to be kept quiet. Dysfunction never “runs its course.” Indeed in 1999, when I wrote a lengthy statement airing many wrongs that were occurring within areas of the university, some union leaders actually bragged that they were going to get me fired. In a meeting with the university’s administration they also made noises how the speech of those “who bash the university” should be silenced. (Apparently the power to limit free speech and to determine what constitutes “bashing” as opposed to cogent analysis is held solely by some union bureaucrats?) The union’s general membership reacted by voting to uphold the First Amendment. Still, such bureaucracy-led anti-intellectual, small-town bigotry is not what academic freedom is supposed to entail, and at Slippery Rock it grows among many in mutually-promoting positions of union and management leadership.
The campuses of SSHE have seen the steady erosion of academic quality and academic freedom because of the cowardly and apathetic indulgence of professionally inadequate, sometimes openly dishonest, politically-correct schemers. The prevalent pattern of administration on SSHE campuses has involved handling the problems they create mainly with an eye toward avoiding embarrassments and cynically placating political constituencies. Consequently, it is now quite useful that such outrages are being aired before a wider audience. As a Republican respected on both sides of the political aisle said years ago, it is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.