The Peace Movement’s Threat to Academic Freedom

The Rev. William J. Rewak is the Jesuit President of the University of Santa Clara. Rev. Rewak is also an activist in the anti-nuclear weapons movement. In the February 16, 1983 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Father Rewak takes a large step down the road toward attacking free speech by advocating a position which poses a direct and dangerous threat to the idea of academic freedom.

It is Father Rewak’s contention that universities, whether public or private, must take a public stand as institutions on the political issues surrounding national defense. He believes that universities are committing an act of immorality if they remain neutral in the debate over nuclear arms. At several points in his lengthy article, he affirms the traditional position that “it is always dangerous for a university to take a position in a controversy. By its very nature, a university must remain free from pressure and external involvement in order to pursue the truth with objectivity.” One should add that universities must avoid internal pressures as well, pressures to conform to any set political creed which would stifle individual expression.

Father Rewak’s professed concern for intellectual freedom is a sham. His argument is not that universities should take just any stand. His argument is that only the position of the antiwar movement is an acceptable stand for a university to take. He is thus not calling for a potentially pluralistic involvement of universities in the great debates of the day, but for a common front of universities in support of a particular political position. This would have an impact on academicians in two direct ways.

First, Father Rewak advocates that universities not allow their faculties or their facilities to engage in defense-related research. This amounts to imposing a political ban on particular intellectual pursuits and obvious restrictions placed on individual researchers. Second, he advocates that universities “devise institutes, conferences, and special courses” to discuss the ramifications of nuclear weapons. It is clear, both from the tone of Rev. Rewak’s remarks and from observations of how such programs have been conducted elsewhere, that these may very well be exercises in the objective pursuit of truth. (As a recent survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute concluded, such special courses are usually “a thinly disguised forum for anti-nuclear, pro-‘Freeze’ propaganda.”) Father Rewak’s demand amounts to a call for schools to abandon open discussion and dedicate themselves to some libido dominandi. This would amount to intellectual suicide. It also means, in a time of tight academic budgets, a diversion of funds from other projects to a political campaign. Father Rewak calls for the allocation of “substantial sums” to his antiwar forums.

The camouflage which Rev. Rewak uses to hide the overt political nature of his proposal is itself dangerous. His appeal is to “morality.” Morality is above politics. Morality is of such importance that it justifies exception to the normal rules of conduct. “We must remember that nuclear war is a new dimension for mankind and the old arguments don’t fit.” Father Rewak writes as if he accepts the assumption that all morality rests with his position so completely that he does not even feel the need to advance arguments in support of his political cause. Must anyone who disagrees with him be thought to be, by definition, acting in an immoral and unjust manner and thus need not be given a hearing?

I remember engaging in a debate on this very subject thirteen years ago, only the immediate issue was Vietnam rather than nuclear arms. Then as now, some tried to arrogate to themselves a monopoly on moral virtue. The Vietnam War was deemed by some to be immoral which made it the duty of all to end it immediately. Not, of course, to end it on just any terms, but to end it with a communist victory. Any other outcome was also judged to be immoral, perhaps more immoral than the war itself. A common slogan was that anyone who was not part of this solution was part of the problem.

The idea was often advanced, and all too often implemented, that universities should come out against the war in a public way. For example, the university was to sever all connections with defense research. ROTC programs were ended in many places, not because of lack of student interest but because of administrative decisions in accord with this policy of political divorcement. The result was the narrowing of the list of opportunities from which the students might freely choose. Some research was lost. I was then an undergraduate at the University of Illinois (Urbana). The U. of I. is a leader in computer technology and was slated to design and construct the most powerful computer of its day, the ILIAC IV, funded by the Air Force. The university and the military were to share its use. However, the project had to be moved to another location due to the threat of riots and bombings to its physical security. There was also a spate of class cancellations in favor of “teach-ins” against the war.

With those in authority taking the lead in converting education to indoctrination, it was not surprising that the peace movement’s more violent wing should go farther and shout down guest speakers, disrupt classes held by “fascist” faculty and block student access to job recruiters from industry.

I am sure that Father Rewak does not want a renewal of campus violence, but his proposals would serve to renew the same environment which made such flagrant violations of student and faculty rights possible. There were those in 1970 who wanted the university to take a public stand against the war. However, one of their spokesmen gave the game away when, at a public forum, someone asked him what would become of those who favored an Allied victory in Vietnam and found his proposal to be a threat to academic freedom. His answer was that anyone who disagreed with the antiwar position should be “exiled to the fever swamps!”

On that occasion, which I witnessed, his statement had a dramatic impact on the audience. A steady stream of faculty members and students rose to take the microphone and denounce his proposal. Many hastened to state that they followed the antiwar banner, but that they also believed in academic freedom and would not surrender it. For the university to adopt one position with which they agreed was no guarantee that the university would take their side the next time. It was too dangerous a precedent to establish.

It was clear to the audience, as it is surely clear to Rev. Rewak, that the practical effect of official intervention by a university into politics is to stifle opposing views. There are already enough cases where questions of tenure, promotion or funding are decided by some committee or dean or chairman or an administrator on the basis of the candidate’s political views. These would only multiply in the atmosphere of a university which had openly politicized itself.

The tragic experiences of the boat-people and other refugees from Indochina, the largest portion of whom are Catholic, stands as testimony to the fact that morality did not rest with the Communists or with their supporters in the antiwar movement. The current peace movement’s claims to moral superiority are just as dubious and their proposals are filled with the same kinds of error. It is incumbent on those with other views to make their case.

At the end of his article, Rev. Rewak cites Dante’s Inferno and its message “that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” He interprets this to mean that institutions are also subject to this moral duty. But again he makes a fundamental error. Moral duties rest with individuals and it was to individuals that Dante addressed his message. Universities are not individuals. Universities are umbrellas under which a wide variety of individuals operate. If individuals are to exercise their moral obligations as they see fit to do so in light of their own conscience, they must be free to act and not be hemmed in by the official pronouncements of their academic employer.

  • William R. Hawkins

    William R. Hawkins is a member of the Economics Department of Radford University, Virginia.

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