Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Academic Freedom, Free Speech a Myth at the University of Alaska
--- by Susan B. Andrews and John Creed
[John Creed first came to Alaska in 1974 to work in Denali National Park. He has been a village teacher, newspaper editor, and a staff writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. He and his spouse, Susan B. Andrews, are freelance journalists. They distance teach throughout Alaska from Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska in Northwest Alaska. They founded a cultural journalism project called Chukchi News and Information Service, from which they published Authentic Alaska: Voices of Its Native Writers. Creed is a Past President and is current Secretary of the Board of the Alaska Press Club. Andrews has been a TV anchor and news director for KTVF in Fairbanks, and has produced documentaries on Alaska Native issues for the Alaska Department of Education. Both are University of Alaska Fairbanks Professors of Journalism & Humanities]
On Nov. 26, the Alaska Dispatch, an Alaska news and information website, published an article by reporter Maia Nolan on arts censorship on the campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. In the ensuing weeks, Nolan's journalistic integrity has come under fire as she continues to attract criticism for a lack of balance and fairness in her reporting on this story. While opinion journalism such as commentary does not require balance, the Alaska Dispatch presented Nolan's story as a news story, or at best, analysis, not commentary. If a source on one side of an issue is quoted, particularly when quoted extensively, a conscientious reporter must seek out the other side(s) for comment. Nolan failed to do this in at least two, and possibly three, instances in this story, creating gaping holes in her story.
Phil Munger, an acclaimed composer who also teaches music for UAA, launched the first public objection to Nolan's story three days after it appeared on Alaska Dispatch. As Munger wrote on his Progressive Alaska blog, "One of the two most glaring shortcomings of the article . . . was its one-sided and prejudicial coverage of the dispute between a UAA faculty artist and a student who was also an artist, in the (Linda) McCarriston dispute with Diane Benson over what Benson regarded as libelous content in McCarriston's poem, 'Indian Girls'."
For years the media have largely portrayed Benson as an intolerant student in this incident trying to stifle a UAA faculty member's academic freedom. Years later, Nolan has continued to fuel that one-dimensional prejudice, according to Munger, by slamming Benson, an Alaska Native, one more time for a situation far more complicated and nuanced than Nolan acknowledges in her article.
Munger rightfully contends that Nolan should at least have contacted Benson or him or both for a reaction to criticisms of them in her story.
[Philip Munger contacted Prof. Diane Benson about the Alaska Dispatch story. Benson's response was to allow PA to re-print Benson's American Indian Quarterly article about the 2001 dispute.]
Another glaring error in her story: Nolan's mistreatment of UA Professor Rick Steiner.
The McCarriston dispute refers, ironically, to incidents in 2001 that Mark Hamilton, UA's Statewide president, capitalized on so effectively that he drew state and national headlines dubbing him an aficionado of free speech and academic freedom.
Why? Hamilton had issued a memo that year mentioning McCarriston and two other campus disputes that the president used to launch his free speech "reputation."
Unfortunately, an ever-growing number of Alaskans consider Hamilton about as much of a free speech advocate as Michael Jordon was a professional BASEBALL player. Just like Jordon was one of the game's greatest BASKETBALL players ever, Hamilton did reach the top in his military career. But Jordon was hardly even a mediocre professional baseball player. Like Jordon in baseball, Hamilton as an academic, particularly in matters of academic freedom, is way out of his league.
In that light, Hamilton likens himself a hero by "allowing" artistic expression on campus. But that's one of academic freedom's easiest no brainers. But for the "hard part" of academic freedom, Hamilton seems to resort back to his 32 years in the top-down military culture. He can hardly stop himself from muzzling faculty who criticize, say, the oil industry, whose royalties in Alaska fuel state government, including the University of Alaska. That's academic freedom's "hard part" in which Hamilton gets a failing grade, casting him closer to Fidel Castro's Cuba (protection of state interests over free speech) than, say, Alexander Meiklejohn, one of the nation's most prominent advocates of the link between free speech and a vibrant democracy.
Hamilton has indeed shown himself to be intolerant of outspoken faculty who criticize him, his administration, and business, primarily the oil industry. Hamilton and his Statewide administration have received tens of millions of dollars in direct payments to UA from Big Oil since the late 1990s. While the windfall is a result of a negotiated settlement with the state, Hamilton has repeatedly called the oil industry payments "gifts" from Alaska's generous and civic-minded oil patch. Richard Feinberg, a prominent oil industry critic in Alaska, has called the settlement "a bribe."
Nolan allowed Hamilton and the oil industry into her piece through the back door. After focusing for some time on arts censorship, at one point her piece morphs into a lopsided opportunity for Mark Hamilton to pontificate on his decision to censure Professor Rick Steiner, whose academic freedom did not involve the more benign allowance for arts expression on campus but direct criticism of the oil industry. In her article, Nolan not only allows Hamilton extensive opportunities to speak about Steiner but at one point quotes Hamilton actually speaking for Steiner--without ever contacting the professor for a response. (This is the same criticism Munger leveled at the Alaska Dispatch for shoddy reporting.)
Instead of piling on the reporter's lack of balance, however, Steiner responds directly to Hamilton, charging that he at best is forgetting significant facts in the Steiner academic freedom case or is simply being intellectually dishonest.
Unfortunately, Steiner is not Hamilton's only target for disapproval among faculty at the University of Alaska. It never requires many incidents of censure before faculty and staff get the message that the University of Alaska is not one of society's marketplace of ideas where public policy issues are debated vigorously.
Instead, the University of Alaska today, after years with Hamilton at the helm, functions more like a training camp for the state's workforce than a place where students can become independent thinkers. Indeed, faculty and staff have learned it best not to express dissenting views, lest former Gen. Hamilton, armed with his publicly funded deep pockets, turns his guns on them.
[Progressive Alaska is offering Alaska Dispatch reporter Maia Nolan an opportunity to respond here to the following articles:
1. PA Arts Sunday - Part Two - On "Censored on Campus?" November 29, 2009
2. PA Arts Sunday - Part Three - Standing Up Against the Giant - November 29, 2009
3. Prof. Rick Steiner Requests Apology from Gen. Mark Hamilton of UA - December 14, 2009
4. And the article printed above]