Academic Freedom in Name and Practice at Purdue

If you were to wander about 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.

In this enlightened age, where education is reputedly controlled by the faculty, and several layers of bureaucracy are supposed to insulate the professors from the corporate plutocracy, 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.  This atmosphere of free inquiry is supposed to constantly expose students to new ideas, help them develop more powerful thinking and reasoning skills, and prepare them to emerge as intellectually active members of their communities.  This academic freedom, our rulers tell us, is why the United States has such a strong economy, a vibrant democracy, a healthy and secure workforce, and virtually no class conflict.

If we go beyond the rhetoric, however, we find that reality does not always conform to this ideal.  On the one hand, faculty certainly have a bit more autonomy than they did just over eighty 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 ongoing corporatization of the Academy continues to undermine the liberal arts and commodify the sciences, and the right continues to fight back against every bit of ground gained in the struggle for academic freedom.  As financial concerns continue to hang over the nation’s campuses like storm clouds, the ability of private interests to mobilize large numbers of alumni and donors could significantly increase their influence over the Academy.  At Purdue University, the right has traditionally dominated the struggle over academic freedom.  The faculty and students have won a small degree of autonomy, but economics still trumps education, what freedom does exist is under constant siege by reactionaries, and the corporate media remains at the disposal of the right.  These features are evident in the ways that visits by two nationally-recognized guest speakers were handled by the University and by the press.

When news of Bill Ayers’ pending lecture on 24 September reached him, Jared Fagan, director of Citizens in Action, the local reactionary mobilization, immediately launched a campaign to shut down any discussion of Ayers’ thoughts on education on the Purdue campus.  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, as opposed to ejecting individuals after a disruption, also 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 chairperson of the University’s College Republicans, were quick to point out.  At 5:00 PM on the day of the presentation, which was scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM, 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 rebroadcasting of the presentation would be permitted, nor would they offer any such services themselves.

Despite the restrictions on attendance, the University took care to make sure that the “freedom of speech” of the protesters was protected.  Pablo Malavenda, Purdue’s Associate Dean of Students, was on hand, observing the protesters and attempting to prevent them from disrupting University business any more than necessary.  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 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 did not 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 Professor Ayers visited Purdue’s campus (1 October), 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, the director of Citizens in Action and the primary organizer of the protesters against Ayers, apparently had no objection to her visit, despite the losses suffered by the working class during her tenure at the Department of Labor.  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’s leadership by distributing a flyer that pointed out that Chao’s 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 the police and had them escorted off of the campus.

The media was hardly more neutral than the University in its handling of Ayers and Chao’s visits and the demonstrations that ensued.  In contrast to its self-proclaimed image as an independent and impartial source of public information, the Lafayette Journal and Courier, the community’s local Gannett newspaper, was the primary factor responsible for the protests at Ayers’ presentation and the silence at Chao’s.

Under the headline “Ex-radical to attend forum at Purdue,” journalist Bob Scott announced the Sociology Department’s intentions to bring Professor Ayers to Purdue.  Of the article’s sixteen paragraphs, Scott devoted six paragraphs 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 paragraph to the actual topic of Ayers’ presentation.  The announcement that the Business College was bringing Elaine Chao to speak had no author attributed to it, and 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 praises 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 did choose to print is the information that the paper left out.  Bob Scott’s article announcing Bill Ayers’ presentation neglected to mention that his visit was not being funded by Purdue itself, but by the Cummings-Perrucci Annual Lecture Series.  Scott also neglected to mention that, while he openly admits to his participation in the Weather Underground, the primary reason that Ayers was never charged with a criminal offense was that he, along with the rest of the Weather Underground, had been targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s illegal COINTELPRO, which included illegal surveillance, illegal break-ins and searches, and active incitement to criminal activities.  The Journal and Courier did not print any indication that the event was funded by a private endowment until the day after it took place, and it never printed any information about COINTELPRO or the reasons why Ayers was exonerated.

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 the fact that a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Labor had been deliberately misleading Congress about the expenses it was incurring by contracting out its responsibilities to private firms, or that a report by the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that Chao and several other cabinet members had violated the Hatch Act by using public funds for political campaigns.  Even after the Purdue Organization for Labor Equality brought these issues to the attention of the Journal and Courier (in addition to mentioning its students’ intentions to offer some of these details at Chao’s presentation), none of them appeared in print.

In short, the media openly assaulted William Ayers and helped to build the protests against him, while it ignored any indictments 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 forty 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 consistently opposed relief for the working class, was entirely off limits.  The logical conclusion is that freedom of thought and expression is welcome at Purdue only insofar as it refrains from challenging the basic principles of the class hierarchy.  This is academic freedom in practice at Purdue.

Brian Napoletano is a PhD candidate in Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue and a member of the International Socialist Organization.

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