There are about 2,700 faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin, the largest campus in the United States. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd here.
But this fall, UT President Larry Faulkner made me feel special.
In September Faulkner took time from a president’s busy schedule to comment on my writing in the pages of the state’s largest newspaper. True, he called me “misguided” and described my work as “a fountain of undiluted foolishness.” But at least he cared enough to write.
Faulkner’s insults were hardly the nastiest comments I received this fall after writing and speaking against the United States’ so-called war on terrorism. Beginning with the reaction to an op-ed that was published in the Houston Chronicle on Sept. 14, (“U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” Outlook) I received more than 4,000 messages and phone calls over the next three months, many from folks who thought I should be fired and/or run out of the country for my critique of U.S. policy. Several men left me messages suggesting they would like to take a swing at me, though I doubted that anyone would really take the time to drive all the way from Houston just to bloody my nose. Some had a sense of humor; my favorite was a song written to the tune of Camp Grenada that began, ” Robert Jensen, scum professor … ”
Friends and colleagues expressed concern about my well-being during those months, which I appreciated but found somewhat puzzling. I write and speak in public because I want to put forward political ideas I strongly believe in. When people respond, shouldn’t I be grateful? When I know I am putting forward a minority point of view with which many will disagree, shouldn’t I expect some of the responses to be critical, even hostile?
I was fortunate that the hostility toward me stayed within reasonably civil boundaries, which hasn’t been the case for all faculty members, most notably the Palestinian computer science professor at the University of South Florida who was fired last month for his political views. It’s likely that not only my tenured status — I can’t be fired without cause, protection that few people in this economy have — but my white skin helped protect me.
What I did find disturbing about the public dialogue after Sept. 11 was not the way in which members of the public sometimes attacked me, but the way in which members of my intellectual community mostly refused to engage these crucial issues about terrorism, the war and U.S. foreign policy.
Let’s start with Faulkner’s response. I didn’t take it personally that my boss didn’t like my ideas. My concern about his broadside was the possible chilling effect it would have on others, especially untenured professors and students. I also regretted that he didn’t move beyond an ad hominem attack to explain what substantive disagreements he had with my position. As far as I know, he has yet to do that in a public forum, though I know of one case in which he apparently turned down the chance to engage me directly.
In early October a producer at National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation show called to book me on a program about antiwar dissent. When she called back to ask if I would be willing to go on at the same time as Faulkner, I quickly agreed. She called back a third time to report that the UT president was going to appear on the show but had declined to go on the air with me live.
It turns out that Faulkner’s reticence was not idiosyncratic. Later in the fall a student organizing a debate on civil liberties issues related to the war enlisted me to be a speaker. About a week before the scheduled event, the student told me she was going to cancel the forum, explaining that she couldn’t find a professor to speak in favor of the Bush administration’s civil liberties policies or the anti-terrorism legislation.
I was incredulous, saying I could think of several professors on campus whom I was fairly certain were supportive. She told me that, indeed, she had identified such professors and talked to them, but none would participate in a public debate on the issues.
Another person planning a community forum told me that a well-known professor who was invited to speak at the event had said that he would not sit on a platform with me or anyone who held positions like mine. A producer who booked me for a Canadian Broadcasting Co. radio program reported that several American professors she approached to debate the history of the United States’ use of violence against civilians turned her down; she was ready to cancel the segment when at the last minute she found a “scholar” from a right-wing think tank to appear.
The producer’s difficulty was not due to a shortage of conservative or pro-administration professors in the United States. The idea that campuses are dominated by left-wing radicals is laughable; the country’s major universities are predominantly centrist to right-leaning institutions, and UT is no different.
Given that many professors routinely speak in public and on mass media — indeed, many actively seek the exposure for their views, myself included — why in these situations would so many turn down the opportunity?
A majority of the American public supported a military response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and that support continued after President Bush took us to war. But there also were many people like me who raised questions about the history of U.S. aggression, argued for the exploration of solutions to the problem of terrorism that would avoid war and more civilian deaths, and suggested that some of the Bush administration’s war aims had more to do with extending U.S. domination over the Middle East and Central Asia than about ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens.
Though many disagree with these positions, they are perfectly plausible arguments, held widely in the United States and even more widely outside the country. Any serious public discussion about policy options has to engage such questions. When I was able to raise those issues, especially in public talks where I had enough time to offer evidence and explanation, even many supporters of the war conceded that some of the antiwar movement’s critiques were not so easy to answer.
Perhaps it isn’t so difficult to understand why professors who hold a position that has the support of the majority of the people might be reluctant to debate. When such a debate likely would raise difficult questions about that position, why bother when you are already on top? It is easy to speak in public when one is parroting the conventional wisdom without challenge. But I would argue that faculty members at a public university have an obligation to go beyond such safe endeavors.
One of the common complaints about professors is that they so rarely come out of the “ivory tower” to be part of the wider world. One of the common complaints by professors is that the people don’t appreciate their scholarship and expertise.
This fall I found out that some people would prefer that faculty members venture outside that tower only when they offer opinions that don’t challenge the prejudices of the majority. And I learned that some of my colleagues prefer venues in which their opinions are not subject to challenge.
I am no worse for the wear after the events of this fall. Down the road, I hope we can look back and say the same thing for our intellectual and political culture, for the ideals of higher education and democracy.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org