Guest Commentary: Blacklisted Professors at UCLA: Are We Trying to Go Back to the Future?

    Andrew Jones says he wants a more “fair and balanced” university. What he really needs is a time machine. His newly formed Bruin Alumni Association longs for a past that never was while seeking to create a future for academia based on 1950s nostalgia. The group’s headline-grabbing attempt at blacklisting professors that challenge Jones’ pre-civil-rights sensibilities is the latest stab at rolling back time at universities across the country. From David Horowitz’s Orwellian-dubbed “Students for Academic Freedom” to Internet sites such as Campus Watch to state legislation that would regulate course syllabi, Jones is the player of the week in this revamped version of Pick Up Sticks, in which so-called “liberal,” “unpatriotic” and “biased” professors are carefully singled out and placed into a jar contemptuously labeled “political radicals.”

    Like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future,” the 1985 blockbuster that responded to the pressures of Cold War Reaganomics and suburban malaise by catapulting its protagonist back to 1955 in a souped-up DeLorean, Jones and his crew are searching for a vehicle to transport the university back to an idealized era.

    Departments such as ethnic studies and women’s studies, founded in order to critically engage and challenge the knowledge produced by white, male-dominated institutions, are now ironically under attack for not being mainstream enough. Likewise, Middle Eastern studies programs from Columbia to UC Berkeley have been viciously assailed for being “anti-American” or for being funded by so-called “blood money” — presumably from the pockets of fanatical terrorists. Professors of Chicano studies are “too political.” Anti-war statements that even the majority of Americans would now agree with are grounds for being considered “biased,” while drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam is “heresy.” And taped to that timeless touchstone of free speech — the university professor’s door — political cartoons mocking the president are potential evidence of “disloyalty.”

    Doesn’t this sound all too familiar? Didn’t George Clooney just make a film about this?

    During the 1940s and ’50s, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated, blacklisted and imprisoned labor leaders and union members, writers and intellectuals, as well as actors and directors for being “Reds.” Cultural icons such as Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Orson Welles were persecuted in the biggest national witch hunt since Puritan times. In addition to holding inquisition-like hearings, Senator Joseph McCarthy established the Overseas Library Program that removed 30,000 books considered “un-American” from U.S. library shelves.

    Jones is no McCarthy, but he is a symptom of the new McCarthyism that employs popularized free-market reasoning and consumer choice rhetoric in attempts to discredit independent-minded professors and, ultimately, dismantle programs in the humanities and social sciences that fail to treat their customers as always right. By using alumni funds as leverage to influence curricula and the intellectual climate of UCLA, Jones’ approach — also found at Penn State and Hamilton College in upstate New York — mixes Burger King slogans with neoliberal logic to produce the appearance of irresponsible and subversive scholarship.

    But academia is not a fast food joint where you can have everything your way; rather, it is one of the few remaining sites of critical inquiry and debate in a hypercommercialized society. As Thomas Wortham, UCLA’s English department chair — and registered Republican — commented in response to declining Jones’ invitation to join the Bruin Alumni Association advisory board, “If you don’t question things in a university, where are you supposed to question them? At a university you have independent thinkers.”

    Big Man on Campus wannabes like Jones regress into what Russell Jacoby — one of the blacklisted “dirty 30” — has called conservative crybabies. If they weren’t spoiled by the persistent inequalities of race, class, gender and sexuality that they can easily exploit to their own advantage, university administrators, state legislators and the mainstream media wouldn’t even listen to their cacophonic swan song. But despite their claims to the contrary, middle-class, straight, white males still sit at the top of the social hierarchy — within and outside of the university.

    Jones, Horowitz and their misguided followers want to live in an era that never existed, a whitewashed society devoid of any real social conflict. If there was ever a case that proved the absolute necessity of the departments and scholars under attack by the new McCarthyism, it is Jones’ own myopic vision of the past. He is proof enough that we need more academics like the “dirty 30,” not fewer.

    Scott Boehm is a Ph.D. student in literature at UCSD, and founder and co-organizer of Students and Scholars Mobilizing Against Repressive Times (S.M.A.R.T.).

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