Remarks on Red Star Incident and Comment on Prof. Ellen Schrecker’s presentation

Marty Bennett, Social Science


I would like to address three issues in regards to the red star incident. Hopefully, this event will facilitate a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of the red star incident. First, I would like to discuss the response by the SRJC administration to the incident.


An assessment by the college community began with the resolutions passed by Academic Senate in March and May condemning the behavior of the students involved. In July the SRJC Board of Trustees passed a similar resolution. I am particularly grateful for the leadership provided by Academic Senate President Kimberly Messina and Board of Trustees member Marsha Vas Dupre when the Senate and the Board considered these resolutions.


However, the college administration has yet to publicly speak out and defend those who were targeted, and some administrators claim that the faculty over-reacted because we took the incident personally. Quite the contrary, I responded strongly to the actions by members of the Republican Club because I believed the undocumented and anonymous allegations and the attempt to intimidate and silence instructors not only called into question my own professionalism, but also the very foundations of the college.


In the Social and Behavioral Sciences and Humanities, critical thinking and inquiry require the introduction of controversial issues. In history, issues like wars of extermination against native Americans, slavery and the slave trade, exploitation of working people by business, imperial expansion abroad, systemic discrimination against women and minorities and the violation of civil liberties by the government are main themes in American history which must be critically analyzed and assessed.


However, when considering controversial or uncomfortable issues, professionalism demands that instructors create a classroom environment conducive to expression of a wide range of views and that instructors teach students to exercise responsible, and independent judgment. Instructors are further obligated to maintain an understanding of contemporary scholarship in their field that is the basis for developing curriculum and choosing texts. Faculty hiring, evaluation of teaching skills, promotion and tenure are determined by the ability of an instructor to meet these professional standards.


It is the responsibility of the college administration to educate the public about these standards and why academic freedom is essential to the mission of the college. If this is not adequately explained, confusion and doubt can develop amongst the public. Ellen Schecker points out in her book on McCarthyism and higher education in the 1950s, No Invory Tower, that the attacks by the far right on faculty and higher education were encouraged by the failure of college presidents to defend the basic constitutional rights and the professionalism of faculty who refused to sign loyalty oaths or defied legislative investigating committees.


Second, it is likely that only a few students were directly involved in the red star incident last spring. While I have never spoken with any of the students responsible, other members of the Republican Club have told me that they disagreed with the actions, and the club as a whole did not support this type of behavior.


I do think, however, that we should not downplay the significance of the event and the possibility that this could occur again because only a few were involved. The students who participated in the red star incident were undoubtedly inspired by, if not linked to, a national conservative network, the Students for Academic Freedom, that is affiliated with the Center for Study of Contemporary Culture, led by conservative activist David Horowitz. His organization has received $20 million in funding from right wing foundations since the late 1980s and claims that the Students for Academic Freedom have chapters on 150 college campuses. Through its website the SAF distributes the booklet “Unpatriotic University” about the alleged domination of universities by liberals, and the organization encourages students to post names and submit incidents of alleged bias and indoctrination in the classroom.


Horowitz has worked through the American Legislative Exchange Council, a public policy organization whose membership is comprised of 2400 mostly conservative Republican legislators, to develop his so-called ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ and to have this legislation introduced in more than 15 states last year. We as a college community must prepare for the possibility that other attacks on academic freedom and the professionalism of faculty can occur. Not only must administrators and faculty swiftly condemn such behavior, but also we must create a campus culture that discourages this type of incivility and lack of respect for constitutional rights and academic freedom. Students and student leaders must become involved and educate their peers about how actions such as the red star incident will impact the quality of education at our college.


Finally, we have tried to provide historical context so that as a community we can evaluate the causes and consequences of the red star incident. As Ellen Shrecker’s work demonstrates, anticommunism and charges of subversion and disloyalty have historically been a weapon used by rightwing movements and leaders of both political parties to crush dissent and justify the curtailment of civil liberties. After the outbreak of WW I in 1914, at the beginning of the Cold War in the late 40s, and then during the Vietnam War in the 60s and early 70s, those who opposed war and militarism were denounced, harassed, and jailed.


Universities and colleges have historically been a site of opposition to war and American expansionism. The most famous cases of persecution and harassment include economist Scott Nearing during World War I, China expert Owen Lattimore during the McCarthy era, and historian Howard Zinn during the Vietnam era. As the casualties in Iraq near 2000 killed and more than 10,000 wounded, and as the Bush administration has spent more than $250 billion on a war without end, an anti-war movement has spread across the globe as indicated by the nearly 10 million people who demonstrated against the Iraq war in 60 countries in February 2002. Here at home an anti-war movement has evolved comprised of labor unions, African Americans, Latinos, youth, and recently soldiers and military families. College faculty have become harsh critics of the war and provide an alternative source of information for many disillusioned students. Faculty who oppose the war have been labeled disloyal and terrorist sympathizers by the Bush administration. We can expect these accusations by the administration to grow more strident as public support for the war continues to decline.


Moreover, the aftermath of Katrina reveals an increasing awareness about the unprecedented polarization of wealth and incomes in the U.S not seen since the 1920s and rediscovery of poverty in major metropolitan areas like New Orleans. Today the top 5% of the richest households controls 60% of the nations wealth, while one in four families are the working poor and cannot make ends meet. More and more Americans are becoming aware of not only how the government has failed to provide emergency relief to those in need, but it has not provided citizens affordable housing, good jobs, high quality public education or universal health care. Faculty like columnist and economist Paul Krugman have persistently pointed out how the wealth gap is undermining American competitiveness and eroding our democratic institutions.

Other faculty like myself and dozens across California are involved in the living wage and new labor movement. Again, history is instructive. In the late 40s when New Deal liberals and progressive labor leaders pushed for full employment, comprehensive government provided medical care, civil rights for African-Americans, and opposed the nuclear arms race, the charges of communism and disloyalty were used to discredit sympathetic academics who backed these reforms and became involved in political activity such as support for third party candidate and former Vice-President Henry Wallace. The activities of faculty outside the classroom should not be criteria for evaluation of a professor’s teaching and professional competency. However, if the Academic Bill of Rights is implemented, I have no doubt this could occur.