Two Controversial Professors

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on June 14, 2015. 

The AAUP—the American Association of University Professors—held its annual Conference on the State of Higher Education at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. June 10-14.  A few subway stops away, the Heartland Institute held its tenth International Conference on Climate Change at the Washington Court Hotel, June 11-12.  I suspect that I am the only person to attend both.

Both events dealt with the issues of academic and intellectual freedom.  Both focused on current threats to such freedoms.  Both pictured a world in which politically-motivated foes of free expression are using their wealth and power to silence legitimate dissent.

But, of course, these events were polar opposites.  The AAUP was gearing up to pass a resolution to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for rescinding its offer of an academic appointment to Steven Salaita.  The Heartland Institute was championing the work of Dr. Willie Soon, the solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who came under attack by Greenpeace and the New York Times after he published an important article in Science Bulletin.

Both controversies have received ample coverage, though I think it is quite possible, even likely, that people who know a lot about one may not know a lot about the other.  A primer:

Steven Salaita. He was a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who in October 2013 received an offer for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, contingent on the board of trustees’ approval.  On August 1, 2014, the university’s vice president of academic affairs and its chancellor wrote to Salaita informing him that they were not proceeding with the appointment.  Salaita appealed to the trustees who on September 10, 2014, voted 8 to 1 not to reconsider his appointment.  Salaita soon after filed a lawsuit which is on-going.

The reason that the university gave for withdrawing its offer of an academic appointment was that Salaita’s inflammatory public statements about Israel would hamper his ability to teach and the university’s ability to attract students, faculty and staff.  The president of the University of Illinois Robert Easter summarized this view when he asked the board not to approve Salaita’s appointment:

Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed…I am also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university … to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff.

The decision created a furor and quickly drew the attention of the AAUP.

Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. A plasma physicist, he has served as a non-tenured employee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics since 1991, where he previously did his post-doctoral work.  In 2003 Soon published a paper in Climate Research in which he argued that the 20thcentury was not the warmest in the last millennium.  The paper occasioned much controversy, and in 2011 Greenpeace using documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests attacked Soon for receiving over $1 million in funding from petroleum and coal interests.

In January 2014, Soon was the co-author on another paper, “Why Models Run Hot: Results from an Irreducibly Simple Climate Model,” which takes exception to the “consensus” climate models that predict significant global warming because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.  In February, directly following the publication of this paper, the Guardian and The New York Times making use of material provided by Greenpeace and “an allied group,” Climate Investigations Center, ran attacks on Soon for supposedly failing to disclose his sources of funding and for “conflicts of interest.”

Wishing Settlers Get Lost

The speech that gave rise to the University of Illinois’ action against Salaita consisted of his numerous statements on Twitter in 2014 that were, asInside Higher Education put it, “deeply critical of Israel” to the point of striking some “as crossing the line into uncivil behavior.”  Perhaps the most famous of these was Salaita’s comment on June 19, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped (but before they were found murdered), “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not:  I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”  Salaita’s rants have struck many readers as anti-Semitic, but he stoutly denies this. Salaita’s caustic and often extremely uncivil tone is not limited to his tweets.  Many of his reviews and his other academic writings are in a similar vein.

The scholarly paper that landed Soon on the front page of The New York Times and in many follow-up stories in the liberal media contains nothing rhetorical or demeaning.  It is a straightforward scientific argument. The abstract runs in part:

Between the pre-final and published drafts of the Fifth Assessment Report, IPCC cut its near-term warming projection substantially, substituting “expert assessment” for models’ near-term predictions. Yet its long-range predictions remain unaltered. The model indicates that IPCC’s reduction of the feedback sum from 1.9 to 1.5 W m−2 K−1 mandates a reduction from 3.2 to 2.2 K in its central climate-sensitivity estimate; that, since feedbacks are likely to be net-negative, a better estimate is 1.0 K; that there is no unrealized global warming in the pipeline; that global warming this century will be <1 K; and that combustion of all recoverable fossil fuels will cause <2.2 K global warming to equilibrium.

The text of the article itself continues in this vein.

One might think the effort to drum a senior physicist out of the academy through a campaign of public smears and innuendo would concern the AAUP at least as much as the decision by a university not to proceed with the appointment of an ardent polemicist. But that is not the case.

I was at the AAUP conference for two sessions devoted to the topic of academic freedom. Salaita was a major theme in one of the sessions—on “Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression on Campus”—and a secondary theme as the second session on “Versions of Academic Freedom.” Willie Soon was never mentioned, although at the end of the second session some audience members edged towards the topic.  A professor from Florida State University complained that the Koch Foundation is violating academic freedom by paying for some faculty positions in the economics department there.  And another member of the audience followed up by avowing that the Koch brothers are terrible people whose fossil-fuel riches are used in part to deny climate change!

‘Consensus’ Science

Climate Change conferees likewise had nothing to say about the travails of Steven Salaita, though here the parallel breaks down.  The Climate Change conference was not aimed at an all-embracing view of academic freedom.  It was focused on the specific contentions that a self-interested establishment is impeding the publication of accurate climate data, well-designed scientific research, and scrupulous economic analysis.  It was also focused on the ways in which reasoned debate and criticism of “consensus” science and regulation are being stymied.  Salaita was not relevant.

The Role of Civility

I have tried to strike a non-partisan tone in these descriptions but I don’t mean to imply that I am a neutral party.  I was invited to the AAUP event by my friend John K. Wilson, who has regularly asked me to AAUP events that I might enrich the conversation with some views that would probably otherwise go unvoiced.  This year my NAS colleague, Executive Director Ashley Thorne, also gave a talk in which she defended the ideal of “civility” as part of what we should expect in academic discourse.  Her fellow panelists and the audience were unpersuaded.

Civility to them is one of the masks that the powerful use to suppress free, creative, dissenting, and unorthodox ideas and speech.  For my part, I urged the idea that academic freedom is to be valued as the means by which the university encourages the pursuit of truth, and that the attempt to deploy the rhetoric of academic freedom as a cover for engaging in political advocacy is a misuse of the concept.  My fellow panelists and the audience also found little attraction in that approach. Pursuit of truth, it seems, is another mask that the powerful wear when they set out to suppress dissent.

At the Conference on Climate Change, the National Association of Scholars was the recipient of several enthusiastic endorsements from speakers who drew attention to our report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.  Our table full of handouts was emptied of everything we brought on the first morning.  And the Heartland Institute included a 12-page summary of our 260-page report in the bag of materials that all conferees received. Given that our report takes no stand at all on climate change,” this was a remarkably warm reception. All we did was call for universities to allow open debate that included skeptics of the climate “consensus.”

I find it hard not to be moved by the plight of Willie Soon and other scientists who have become, in effect, “enemies of the people,” for their determination to pursue research that runs against what the climate consensus establishment prefers. The canard that “97 percent” of climate scientists agree with the so-called consensus has been shown up as an artifact of shameless manipulation of the research record.  But no matter: it is repeated endlessly in an effort to make these non-conforming scientists look ignorant, silly, or corrupt.  They are, to the contrary, serious and seriously smart people who have also shown a certain measure of courage.

Science or Politics?

Whether their dissents are accurate will be determined in time to come.  If they are right, the climate consensus is a house of cards built more on political aspirations than on good science.  But, right or wrong, they deserved to be heard and do not deserve to be subject to the sort of ad hominin attack exemplified by what happened to Willie Soon.

So what are academic and intellectual freedom?  They aren’t quite the same thing.  Academic freedom is germane to the university where the disciplined pursuit of truth by rational inquiry and scrupulous examination of the evidence needs to prevail over all orthodoxies of opinion.  Academic freedom can only persist within a community that enforces on itself some degree of compunction about how things are said, including deference to the reality that no matter how strongly we believe in the validity of our own opinions, we may be mistaken and it behooves us to listen with respect to other views.  Intellectual freedom is broader than academic freedom.

It is germane to a free society where every individual ought to enjoy the right to make up his own mind about important questions and where manifestly false opinion or eccentric belief enjoys a wide zone of toleration.  We need not fall silent when confronted with views with which we disagree.  Neither academic freedom nor intellectual freedom entails indulging folly by saying nothing.  But we should never expect to throw someone in jail for an errant opinion or preempt their right to have their say.  If we choose to answer folly, we should do so with our own speech—which just may turn out to involve even greater folly.

The AAUP is celebrating the hundredth year of its founding declaration, its Statement of Principles, which remains one of the great documents in higher education.  Ironically, the AAUP has long since repudiated most of theStatement of Principles, which said all too much about the responsibilities of professors, the need for a scholarly spirit, temperate language, and staying within the guardrails of the professor’s actual expertise.  But no matter, the founding principles of the AAUP are still alive.  In D.C. last week, they were to be found just a few subway stops away.

Image: Chicago Tribune/Mashable

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