Phi Beta Kappa Gag Orders

, Larry Scholer, Leave a comment

Although Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) recently rejected George Mason University’s (GMU) application to establish a chapter of the organization on the Fairfax, VA campus, citing concerns about the school’s commitment to academic freedom, the society’s own record on free speech is suspect at best.

In October 2004, the school reneged on an invitation to Michael Moore, who had planned to speak on campus. George Mason rescinded the invitation to Moore on account of his speaking fee—$35,000 not Moore’s outspoken political views. “When I learned of the invitation to Moore, I had no concerns about the content of his speech,” wrote GMU president Allan Merten [pictured] in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “However, unknown to me, the offer included the agreement to pay Moore $35,000. I did object to paying for the privilege of providing Moore with a forum for his political views.”

PBK has chapters on 102 campuses governed by speech-limiting codes, based on data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The FIRE has lobbied on the behalf of students and faculty on 41 campuses with PBK chapters.

Phi Beta Kappa nevertheless has long professed its devotion to academic freedom. The organization highlights a school’s record on academic freedom during the application process. In the November/December 2001 issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, a former PBK executive secretary described the process by which PBK selects chapters. “One of the first things the committee considers in the chapter application process is the AAUP’s list of censured administrations,” Douglas Foard wrote. “Should an applicant’s name be found there, the review process for that institution comes to an immediate halt.”

George Mason University is not currently among the censured administrations, although the AAUP did criticize the administration for its handling of Moore. But, not all schools with Phi Beta Kappa chapters have unblemished records of academic freedom according to the AAUP. The Catholic University of America has had a chapter since 1941. Today it would not be so fortunate—it has been on the AAUP’s censured administration list since the late Eighties.

The AAUP contended that proponents of academic freedom should not be cowed by political pressure, and PBK agreed and so rejected GMU’s application. PBK, however, is not immune to politics, as the recent history of their journal, The American Scholar, shows.

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Erich Eichmann laments the decline of The American Scholar. A few years back, it was “an island of sanity in a sea of mad journalism.” Now, with a new editor, Robert Wilson, at the helm, it has changed. The magazine, which had avoided tendentious political commentary, is now replete with it. The current issue deals with “Understanding Iraq” —a number of bromide-laced articles are devoted to this theme. As Eichmann puts it, “Since Mr. Wilson has had the misfortune to inherit a great magazine known for cultural seriousness and fine writing, the least he could do is shield it from lame political commentary.”

The great magazine of which Eichmann speaks is The American Scholar that Joseph Epstein edited. Epstein, a professor of English at Northwestern University and a frequent contributor to Commentary and the Weekly Standard, served as editor of The American Scholar for 23 years before he was forced out.

Under Epstein’s leadership, the journal avoided academic topics that had become de rigueur. In his ultimate essay for the journal, he wrote,

We ran nothing about gay and lesbian studies and almost no black history. I did run a critical piece on multiculturalism and a strong denunciation of academic Marxism; occasionally, I ran a piece about some strangely off-center interpretation of an American literary classic.

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest.

Epstein’s neglect of these topics upset the Phi Beta Kappa Senate, academics who had an “investment” in these subjects. It was the Phi Beta Kappa Senate that eventually forced his ouster.

The small clique of people who despised The American Scholar under my editorship were winning the day within the Senate of Phi Beta Kappa, which is, in the final analysis, the publisher of the magazine. Phi Beta Kappa’s Senate, far from being representative of the organization at large, is almost wholly made up of academics, and in academic argument, I have noticed, the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority.

The radicals had never been fond of Epstein and had waited for an opportunity to sack him. That opportunity came when the Gay Community News labeled Epstein as a prominent homophobe in the realm of publishing. In an article appearing in the magazine on the origins of homosexuality, Epstein had changed the word ‘gay’ to ‘homosexual’ in some instances. The author of the article complained to Gay Community News, which then labeled Epstein homophobic, and Phi Beta Kappa began to receive letters complaining of Epstein’s behavior.

Concurrently, a foundation, the benefactor of which was a avid reader of The American Scholar, wished to give it two million dollars. The radicals saw this “as a right-wing plot to save the job of the editor,” according to Epstein, and the money was rejected. After 21 years Epstein knew his time was up and was asked how much longer he wished to edit the journal. Four years, he said—wanting an even quarter century—he was given two.

Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.