Purdue’s idea of academic freedom

November 24, 2009

IF YOU were to wander around campus asking students at Purdue about the distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois in Chicago who was invited to speak at Purdue, or about the Cummings-Perrucci Annual Lecture on Class, Race and Gender Inequality's inaugural presentation on the challenges facing urban schools, you would probably receive little more than a blank stare in almost every case.

If, on the other hand, you were to ask about the university inviting a "domestic terrorist" or an "ex-radical" onto its campus, virtually every student would immediately identify William Ayers as the dangerous terrorist in question.

The university is believed to be a vibrant center of free thought and democratic ideals. Today's administrators supposedly recognize the value of academic freedom, and do their best to ensure that the faculty and students are free to debate and exchange ideas. Meanwhile, professional journalists trained by these same universities are ostensibly given the freedom to make sure that the debates and ideas are presented accurately to the entire community, and the powerful media corporations who own the papers claim to leave all editorial decisions up to the newsroom.

If we go beyond the rhetoric, however, we find that reality doesn't always conform to this ideal.

On the one hand, faculty certainly have a bit more autonomy than they did just over 80 years ago, when Upton Sinclair published a damning critique of the nation's university administrators in the aptly titled novel The Goose-step. On the other hand, the advances won in the name of academic freedom continue to be contested, and the ongoing corporatization of the academy continues to undermine the liberal arts and commodify the sciences.

A careful examination of the way that both the university and the media handled visits by two nationally recognized guest speakers offers us some insight into the operational definition of academic freedom at Purdue.

WHEN NEWS of Bill Ayers' pending lecture emerged, Jared Fagan, director of the local right-wing group, immediately launched a campaign to shut down any discussion of Ayers' thoughts on education. Afraid that Fagan's mobilization would include disruptions of the presentation itself, Irwin Weiser, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts, responded by changing the presentation from a public event to an "invitation-only" affair.

This decision to restrict access to the event prevented many students and faculty who were interested in what Ayers had to say from attending--something that critics of the presentation, such as the student chair of the University's College Republicans, were quick to point out.

At 5 p.m. on the day of the presentation, which was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., police shut down Lawson Hall, which houses the University's Computer Sciences Department, and forced all faculty, staff and students out of the building. The police then secured the building with 15 officers, a K-9 unit, fire department employees and county bomb squad employees, citing "perceived threats" on the Lafayette Journal and Courier's discussion forum as the reason for this show of force.

The cost of this security mobilization was charged to the endowment, a practice that will likely discourage the faculty from inviting prominent controversial speakers in the future. Meanwhile, the university's public relations department decided that no recording or re-broadcasting of the presentation would be permitted.

Despite the restrictions on attendance, the university took care to make sure that the "freedom of speech" of the protesters was protected. The protesters reserved space for their demonstration through a student organization in advance, and the crowd was granted permission to gather with flags, drums, and megaphones directly in front of Lawson Hall--which forced invited attendees to pass directly through the crowd to reach the entrance.

The final estimate of the number of protesters was approximately 200 people, while 85 people were granted access to Ayers' presentation. It is unknown how many of the 15 invitees who didn't attend were turned back by the crowd, which would turn and "boo" in unison whenever someone attempted to enter the building.

Exactly one week after Ayers visited Purdue's campus, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao came and spoke in the Purdue Memorial Union at the behest of the Business College, as part of its Krannert Leadership Speaker Series. Jared Fagan of Citizens in Action apparently had no objection to her visit. In fact, virtually no one even took note of Chao's scheduled visit, and no demonstrations were scheduled around the Union.

On the night of her presentation, a group of five students representing the Purdue Organization for Labor Equality did express their concerns about the Department of Labor's record under Chao's leadership. These students had no drums, flags or megaphones, and expressed their reservations about Chao by distributing a flyer that pointed out that her policies were detrimental to labor and that she was stridently opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.

Although these students carefully adhered to university policies, a university employee at the Union contacted police and had them escorted off campus. Such was the concern shown for these protesters' "freedom of speech."

THE MEDIA didn't fare much better than the university in its handling these two speakers and the demonstrations that ensued.

When Ayers' presentation was announced, the Lafayette Journal and Courier, the local Gannett chain newspaper, published an article under the headline "Ex-radical to attend forum at Purdue." Of the article's sixteen paragraphs, six were devoted to Fagan's plans to organize a protest, four to Ayers' involvement in the Weather Underground, one to his association with President Obama, three to a Purdue professor's arguments against politicizing Ayers' appearance, one to a disclaimer regarding Scott's inability to contact Ayers or the Sociology Department, and one to the actual topic of Ayers' presentation.

The announcement that the Business College was bringing Elaine Chao to speak appeared to be little more than a condensed version of the College's press release. The nine-paragraph article, which appeared under the headline "Former labor secretary to give Krannert address," devoted six paragraphs to logistics such as ticket sales and timing, two paragraphs to praise for Chao's work as the Labor Secretary under the Bush administration, and one paragraph to background information about the series that Chao was invited to speak in.

Perhaps even more revealing than what the Journal and Courier chose to print is the information the paper left out. The article announcing Ayers' presentation neglected to mention his visit was not being funded by Purdue itself, but by the Cummings-Perrucci Annual Lecture Series. It also neglected to mention that Ayers, who openly admits to his participation in the Weather Underground, was targeted by the FBI's illegal COINTELPRO operation, which included surveillance, break-ins and searches, and incitement to criminal activities.

The article on Chao, on the other hand, neglected to mention that her staff reductions in the Wage and Hour Supervisory Division cost labor an estimated $19 billion in unpaid overtime annually, and that the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration's failure to implement an expected safety equipment rule cost 50 workers their lives.

This article also failed to mention any of the legal controversy surrounding Chao's tenure, including a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office that concluded the Department of Labor had been deliberately misleading Congress about the expenses it was incurring by contracting out its responsibilities to private firms. Even after the Purdue Organization for Labor Equality brought these issues to the attention of the Journal and Courier, none of them appeared in print.

In short, the media openly attacked William Ayers and helped to build protests against him, while it ignored any criticism of Elaine Chao. Likewise, university staff carefully protected the rights of Ayers' opponents to protest, while no such protections were offered to Chao's opponents.

The logical conclusion to this is that Professor Ayers, who more than 40 years ago had the temerity to disobey the state and call out corporations for their role in U.S. imperialism, is fair game as far as the university and media establishment is concerned, while Elaine Chao, a member of Washington's elite inner circle, who remained a loyal friend to business and consistent opponent of the working class, was entirely off limits.

Apparently, freedom of thought and expression at Purdue is welcome only insofar as it refrains from challenging the basic principles of the class hierarchy. This is academic freedom in practice.

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