Joan Wallach Scott

Joan Wallach Scott

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: B. Sutherton


* Professor Emerita of History
* Former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom
* Former member of Historians Against the War
* Opponent of the Academic Bill of Rights

Born on December 18, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, Professor Joan Wallach Scott holds a tenured chair in history at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. She is also a Professor Emerita of History at Rutgers University, and is a member of such professional organizations as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Historical Association, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and the Society for French Historical Studies. In 2006 she received the Middle East Studies Association‘s Academic Freedom Award.

Scott graduated from Brandeis University in 1962. She then attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received her M.S. in 1964 and her Ph.D. in 1969. Prior to joining the IAS and Rutgers faculties, Scott’s professional career included teaching assignments at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University. From 1999 to 2005, she served as Chairman of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which is responsible for defining the academic freedom guidelines that most colleges and universities follow.

Scott has published books titled The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth Century City (1974); Women, Work and Family (co-authored with Louise Tilly, 1978); Gender and the Politics of History (1988); Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996); Parité: Sexual Difference and the Crisis of French Universalism (2005); and The Politics of the Veil (2007).

A book description of The Politics of the Veil states the following:

“In 2004, the French government instituted a ban on the wearing of ‘conspicuous signs’ of religious affiliation in public schools. Though the ban applies to everyone, it is aimed at Muslim girls wearing headscarves. … [Scott] argues that the law is symptomatic of France’s failure to integrate its former colonial subjects as full citizens. She examines the long history of racism behind the law as well as the ideological barriers thrown up against Muslim assimilation. … She shows how the insistence on homogeneity is no longer feasible for France — or the West in general — and how it creates the very ‘clash of civilizations’ said to be at the root of these tensions.”

Scott’s academic politics are rooted in the traditions of the Communist left. Her father was a member of the Communist-controlled New York Teachers Union, and was fired in the 1950s under the Fineberg Law, which required teachers to disclose whether they were Communists and — in a Catch-22 clause — also made membership in the Party a cause for termination. Scott conceals the fact that her father was actually a Communist. Instead she pretends that her father was persecuted for his ideals. In her telling, these ideals were inspired not by Marx and Stalin, but by Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights:

“My father was a New York City high school teacher, suspended in 1951 … and fired in 1953 for refusing to cooperate first with a congressional committee, and then with the superintendent of schools, on their investigation into Communist activity among teachers. Although formally tenured according to the rules of the board of education, my father lost his job because, in that moment of the early Cold War, his refusal to discuss his political beliefs and affiliations was taken as evidence that he was a Communist and therefore unfit to teach. This despite the fact that he was a devoted fan of Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution …”

Professor Scott claims that her own interest in academic freedom began with her father’s case: “In the tallying of losses he experienced in that period — his job, his pension, his financial security, many colleagues he had once considered friends — none was so painful as the loss of his academic freedom.”

When the facts of Scott’s father’s case are examined, however, it is clear that this was not a matter of academic freedom or the failure to protect the free expression of ideas. It was about her father’s membership in a conspiratorial organization that had unacknowledged ties to a hostile foreign power. Nor was her father the victim of “an arbitrary exercise of political power,” as Professor Scott claims. The law under which he was questioned and fired had been duly enacted by the New York legislature.

In testimony she gave before the Pennsylania Committee on Academic Freedom on November 9, 2005, Professor Scott compared the Center for the Study of Popular Culture’s Academic Bill of Rights (crafted in 2003 in an effort to prevent professors from using their courses “for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination”) to the crimes of Mao, Tojo, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler: “[The Academic Bill of Rights] recalls the kind of government intervention in the academy practiced by totalitarian governments. Historical examples are Japan, China, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the Soviet Union. These governments sought to control thought rather than permit a free marketplace of ideas.”

“We worry about the idea of neutrality promoted by supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights [ABR],” Scott testified that day. “It would prohibit professors from expressing judgment about material they teach as well as about matters not directly relevant to course material.” Actually, there is no prohibition in the ABR on professors expressing judgment about material that is within the area of their expertise or relevant to the courses they teach, nor to the expression of any opinion at all, however offensive it might be, outside the classroom.

Professor Scott, notably, is a member of Historians Against the War, which has condemned the so-called American “occupation” of Iraq and therefore has a vested interest in resisting the idea that academic institutions and professional associations should be neutral in regards to non-academic controversies. That is, Professor Scott is herself a political activist who regards her activism as integral to her academic work. “As feminist and historian,” Scott has written, “my interest is in the operations of power — how it is constructed, what its effects are, how it changes. It follows that activism in the academy is both informed by that work and informs it.”

In her November 9 testimony, Scott also alleged, falsely, that the ABR placed an in-classroom restriction against professors introducing controversial matter unrelated to the course material. But in actuality, that prohibition is the core principle of the 1940 “Statement on the Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” issued by Professor Scott’s own AAUP: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Scott further testified: “I think there are important points to bear in mind. One is whether balance on every issue, as recommended by the Academic Bill of Rights, is really a desirable feature of the university curriculum.” But the ABR makes no such recommendation. In fact, the word “balance” does not appear anywhere in the document, let alone the claim that there should be “balance on every issue.”

Professor Scott continued: “Another is whether all points of view must always be taught in every classroom for students to enjoy a good climate for learning.” Again, the ABR proposes no such thing. What the ABR actually says is that students should be provided “with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate,” and that “[w]hile teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should make their students aware of other viewpoints.”

On the matter of faculty diversity, Professor Scott dismissed — without evidence or argument — all studies that have recently shown an overwhelming preponderance of faculty across the range of American colleges and universities with views that can reasonably be associated with the political left. Conducted using several different scientific methodologies, these studies show ratios of leftwing to rightwing professors in the humanities and social sciences ranging from 5-1 to as high as 30-1. But Scott said that “good social scientific research” would conclude that the scarcity of conservatives on university faculties reflects factors other than political prejudice. She suggested that the likely cause of the current imbalance is “the preference for more economically lucrative work on the part of Republicans.”

Professor Scott is a staunch advocate of the Palestinian cause and its efforts to dismantle the State of Israel. At a rally to protest the Academic Bill of Rights, Scott described the ABR’s supporters as “the pro-[Ariel] Sharon lobby,” a reference to Israel’s conservative prime minister. In her view, the ABR was not really about academic rights but a plot by Zionists to persecute faculty who defend the Palestinian cause.

Under Professor Scott’s leadership from 1999 to 2005, the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom concentrated its concerns quite narrowly on cases that affected Scott’s political allies. These included Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim academic and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was hired by Notre Dame but was denied a visa by the State Department because of his connections with al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other terrorist groups; and Professor Sami al-Arian, the North American head and chief fundraiser for the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

In an interview with the AAUP magazine, Academe, in which she summarized the recent “threats to academic freedom,” Scott called the “persecution” of al-Arian — who had been fired from his professorship following his indictment — the “gravest” concern her academic freedom committee faced. In a lecture at Princeton on September 18, 2005, she defended both al-Arian and Ramadan, and she spoke at length about the academic freedom cases taken up by her committee. A media account of this lecture summarized what she said about AAUP’s defenses of academic freedom this way: “Of the incidents the AAUP has tracked since 9/11, Scott said, all but one have been instigated by the pro-Israel bloc.”

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