The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC

The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC

The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC

The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC

Excerpt

Anticipating a backlash against his controversial “Christmas Bombing” of North Vietnam in 1972, President Richard Nixon subjected his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to yet another rant against all those he was convinced were conspiring against him. After singling out the press and “the establishment,” Nixon also added, “The professors are the enemy…. Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.” In 2007, an outcry arose over Columbia University’s lecture invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man seen by most Americans as dangerous, if not delusional. Clyde Haberman of the New York Times was still angry a year later as he wrote, “For reasons not universally understood, some Columbia Officials have a notion that academic freedom requires them to invite this man to their … campus.” As these incidents indicate, the modern university and the college professor play roles in American society that are often controversial and misunderstood, revealing deeper social, economic, and political tensions. As historian Thomas L. Haskell noted in the early 1980s: “Although we defer to experts frequently … we do not do so happily.” Even as we acknowledge the experts’ expertise, when it comes to trusting the experts with their expertise, Haskell adds, “We always wonder.”

Americans’ suspicions of the modern university and college professor date back at least to the early 1900s. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, American professors defined a new mission of service for their institutions; for themselves, they defined a new identity as truth-seekers whose expertise would bring benefits to society. Establishing the new mission and new identity required the assertion of a new university standard: academic freedom. However, none of this took place without a struggle.

The university-trained intellectual’s new identity likely met with the most anxiety and scrutiny in the South, a region historically resistant . . .

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