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Matt Streb
Matthew Streb

Graphic of Streb book cover

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

Aug. 21, 2006

Q&A with Matthew Streb

New book co-edited by NIU political scientist explores
impact of terrorism, cultural wars on academic freedom

DeKalb, Ill. — A new book by Northern Illinois University political scientist Matthew Streb is bound to stir debate on campuses across America.

Newly released this month, “Academic Freedom at the Dawn of a New Century” (Stanford University Press) is a collection of original essays exploring the post-9/11 state of academic freedom in the United States and abroad. Leading experts examine the impact of the war on terrorism on free speech, access to information, government funding of the sciences and other cornerstones of freedom of inquiry at American universities.

Streb and co-editor Evan Gerstmann of Loyola Marymount University assembled the essays and also contribute to the collection. What follows is a Q&A with Streb.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book? The terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001, rekindled the debate over academic freedom on college campuses. We wanted to look at the status of academic freedom in the United States and around the world as a result of Sept. 11, as well as the reemergence of the so-called “culture wars.” Would universities suffer through a second McCarthy era? Would there be other, more subtle, yet powerful, threats to free inquiry and expression? What would the impact be upon universities outside the United States? How would the tragedy influence the ability for American professors to collaborate with scholars in other countries? These are the questions that we set out to answer.

Who are some of the contributors to this book? We are fortunate to have some of the leading scholars on issues of academic freedom, including Robert O’Neil, the former president of the University of Virginia and the current director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at UVA; John Akker, the executive director of the Network for Education and Academic Rights, a worldwide watchdog group; and Paul Sniderman, the chair of the Political Science Department at Stanford University. David Rabban, a law professor at the University of Texas and a former general counsel to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote the preface.

Will readers recognize some of the conflicts over academic freedom discussed in the book? Yes. For example, there was a history professor at the University of New Mexico who on the afternoon of Sept. 11 said in class that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.” Another professor at Columbia said during a “teach-in” that he wished for a million Mogadishus. There was also an outcry after the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, assigned a book on the Koran to all first-year students. And, more recently, there was controversy over Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s comparison in an essay of the victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks to Nazi Adolf Eichmann. All of these incidents, and many more, received substantial national news coverage.

Why is academic freedom important? To many academics, the importance of academic freedom is obvious. It is the cornerstone of the university’s mission to educate students and expand the boundaries of knowledge. For education to be most effective, professors and students must be in environments where they are free to learn about and debate complex and controversial issues. Also, as specialists in certain fields, professors should have the freedom to decide the content of their classes. While concerns over indoctrination may be justified, academic freedom is a principle that must be protected for education to flourish.

Do those who argue that some faculty members use their positions to preach their political beliefs have a valid point? Academic freedom is an immensely important concept, but it can be abused. Certainly there are some who use the classroom as their bully pulpit to preach their own views. I don’t think this problem is as widespread as some critics of academic freedom insist, but it is present and problematic. Indoctrination is not education. Professors’ opinions don’t necessarily have to be left out of the classroom as long as students are taught to think critically about a topic from a variety of points of views. That is our job as educators, and if we are simply presenting one side of the issue, then we are not doing our jobs.

How does the state of academic freedom today compare with recent decades? Professors have more academic freedom today than they had during the height of the McCarthy era, where academics were purged because of their political beliefs—or alleged political beliefs. Since 1957, the Supreme Court has recognized academic freedom as a constitutional right. So things are certainly better than they once were. The question is, are they good enough? And that’s what this book set out to discover.

How does academic freedom in the United States compare to that of other nations? This is a major focus of the book, as three chapters are devoted to examining academic freedom around the world. The answer is that academic freedom in the United States, while not perfect, is light years ahead of where it is in many countries. In countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti and Venezuela, some academics have been attacked because of their political positions. In countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, academics have been imprisoned for their beliefs. These situations pale in comparison to Colombia, where hundreds of college professors and students have been killed over a 40-year period. We are dealing with completely different issues in the United States, not unimportant, but drastically different.

What conclusions does the book draw? The overall conclusion of the book can be described as “cautiously optimistic.” While academic freedom in what we might think of as the traditional sense—speech that occurs in the classroom—has been protected since Sept. 11, the real threat to academic freedom today is more covert, less obvious. Issues including self-censorship, corporate and government funding of research projects, barriers to foreign students, mandatory loyalty oaths for faculty and many others all have the potential to limit academic freedom.

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