Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Radicals Exposing UCLA's "Radicals"

Now here is something vaguely disturbing. A segment of the blogosphere is racing on this story about "UCLA Profs", a website dedicated to "exposing UCLA's radical professors."

There are several things disturbing about the site. The most obvious is their policy of soliciting cash donations from students who provide information about so-called "radicals." UCLA Law Professor Jerry Kang (whom I've previously expressed admiration for) notes that this might be illegal.

But really, the big problem is the disconnect between the stated purpose of the site and what it actually does. As the "About" section makes clear, the site nominally is about preventing Professors from incorporating and proselytizing their "radicalness" in the classroom (at least where it isn't topical):
As a large number of the profiles also demonstrate, these professors are actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic.
Take a minute to skim several profiles. The need for an academic freedom movement that respects both the professor and the student should become clear.

We believe there is hope for depoliticizing the classroom and emphasizing professional behavior - provided we can count on your support.

By itself, this isn't too objectionable. The idea that professor should limit themselves to their topic area, and not be missionizers in the classroom, is at least a reasonable position to take. But yet, it doesn't seem like they are limiting themselves to that. Instead, they are just targeting professors who take positions in their scholarship which they dislike, or who take public political positions that aren't sufficiently conservative (John Cole predicted this without even reading a word on the site).

Take Professor Kang, who (rather surprisingly, to my eye) made their original list. Their justification is really nothing more than he has written defenses of affirmative action, while at the same time disapproves of racial profiling. I understand that conservatives may not like those positions, but in today's political climate they hardly qualify as radical. Worse is the persistent undertone in the piece that Kang is a traitor to his race. They ask
"Why would this Korean-American, who managed stunning educational achievements in spite of 1980's-era racial preferences, favor a system that so manifestly harms his own ethnic group?"

Later, they get on him for his writings on the grave injustice of the Japanese internment--again, implying that he shouldn't care because he's Korean-American:
[Kang] has internalized the historical tragedies of one group as though they were his own. Thus, we find Kang waving the bloody shirt of Japanese internment every chance he gets.
Kang's strange preoccupation with this historical footnote is in defiance of all reasonable history. Kang was born in South Korea, a country that (in its original undivided form) suffered for 50 years under a harsh imperial Japanese occupation. Moreover, South Korea was a country saved from Communist despotry by the United States not less than a decade after our brief use of Japanese internment camps.

Emphasis added. Of course, calling the Japanese internment a "historical footnote" might be the most radical thing I've read today. But more importantly, the implication that a "good" Korean should just laugh at American injustice toward other Americans (of Japanese descent) is both morally appalling, and gives lie to their self-proclaimed support for treating individuals as individuals, and not markers for their specific ethnic group.

In terms of how they deal with Kang's research, their grasp is laughable at best. They understate his findings, distort his positions, and most importantly don't understand the scholarly context in which it operates inside of--points which would answer many of their objections if they bothered to do the research. But really that's besides the point, because again at the end of the day all they're proving is that Kang disagrees with them, not that Kang is some blight on UCLA's campus. In fact, given their surprising admissions of Kang's rhetorical and argumentative skill, it seems most likely that this group simply wanted to tar an able advocate for progressive causes in California and across the country.

I just went through Kang's profile, because he was the scholar I recognized, but he doesn't seem to be the only one attacked solely for his academic or public positions. UCLA Corporate Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge adds another of his colleagues (see below), and Jennifer Mnookin, another UCLA Prawf (albeit one not on the list) claims that:
Also, while claiming that their concern is about bias in the classroom, when I skimmed through the profiles of a few of my colleagues who made the list, what I saw instead was nasty, vitriolic attacks on their scholarship, their political activities, and nary a word about alleged bias within the actual classroom. In both tone and vehemence, it seemed to me like familiar right-wing radio tactics brought home to the ivory tower, not a pretty sight.

I should note that the two conservative professors I know at UCLA, Stephen Bainbridge and Eugene Volokh, take exactly the right line on this. Bainbridge writes:
My major objection to the BAA project is that they're mixing apples and oranges. In some cases, such as my colleague Jonathan Zasloff, they don't offer a single shred of evidence of in-class bias or other abuses of position. Instead, they object to various political activies in which Zasloff has engaged outside the classroom and on his own time. If that's the standard, than people like me and Eugene Volokh should be on the list too, since our work for conservative causes differs but little from that of Zasloff for liberal causes.

If BAA is going to go forward, a question on which I am firmly agnostic, I should think...they also need to draw a distinction between in-class abuse of position and legitimate political expression outside of class. So far, it would seem, they are falling down on [that] score[].

And Professor Volokh similarly notes the shallowness of their critiques in his own post.

Both Volokh and Bainbridge also further note that as a general matter, fair public criticism professors is not something that is bad. It is a constitutional right, and some might say also a positive boon to our collective academic discourse. If public criticism acts as a deterrent to taking controversial views, Volokh asks, then why do professors have their tenure protections at all? And Bainbridge notes that in the internet age, criticism is something that the powerful are just going to have to have to suck up and accept:
Getting feedback from the proletariat is always unsettling for authority figures, even radical left authority figures who have devoted their lives to deconstructing all authority (except their own). The initial and, perhaps natural, reaction is to decry it as McCarthyism and a danger and so on....

Upon mature reflection, however, we have to realize that the world has changed. Those over whom we have authority now have at their disposal technology that gives them a very loud megaphone. Very public criticism has become the lot of all authority figures, including those within the ivory tower.

All of that is well and good. This sort of free debate is neither bad nor, in today's world anyway, possible to stop. Liberal professors should not be ashamed of their political beliefs or of their public revelation. But this particular site claims to be about revealing the "classroom politics" of the "radicals." And it's not. It's simply a poorly informed smear job performed that doesn't even meet it's own professed reason for existence. It conflates the two very separate issues of radical politics in scholarship or in the "public," and discrimination or missionary activity in the classroom. Play the game straight, or don't play it all. That's not too much to ask.

Quick update: I'm stunned that Devon Carbado didn't make their list. He's certainly a lefty, and an extraordinarily talented one to boot. If I were him, I'd be insulted he wasn't put on. But anyway, he also has an interesting post from an insiders-perspective.


Laer said...

I posted about BAA on my blog (Cheat-Seeking Missiles) primarily because I feel the leftist tilt of Universities, and the growing intolerance of opposing views, needs to be contained quickly to protect the integrity of our higher education system. As a conservative parent of college-age kids, my kids and I have discussed this and they agree -- they don't want to go where their views are unwelcomed.

I agree with you that BAA's profiles do not match its position, i.e., they talk about doctrinaire classrooms, but they do not prove it in the bios. I've only scanned a few, but they appear to focus on the politics of the prof, not the classroom antics. I submit that a few should not be hired and paid by a public institution because their views go beyond the pale. I would say the same if they hired a rightwing militia fanatic. Or, more correctly, for every prof who has the Internationale paying on his web site and urges overthrow of the capitalist system in his lectures, there should be a similar but opposite whacko on the right. They both represent equally miniscule elements of the overall population.

However, to criticise BAA for not having this data in their profiles and $100 to a student who helps them collect it places too high a standard on BAA. I submit that there is nothing wrong with paying for the data. It is public information, made so by the university's selling of it to its students. It is not being used for commercial purposes; it is being used to further free speech and the public debate. The university's position that it is illegal is transparent: They wish to stymie this particular debate.

Laer said...

Sorry, the lead sentence of the last paragraph is incorrect. I meant to say to criticize BAA for not having information on leftist professors squelching of other views in their classrooms, and criticize BAA for paying to gather this information places too high a standard on the group.

Kierkegaard Lives said...

... not sure they have the internet in Nebraska ... funny stuff, there.

BTW, you may be surprised to see that we actually have 'lectricity, bathrooms, and paved roads here. On second thought, I'm not so sure about Seward.