Faculty member champions academic freedom
Bérubé gets ‘kick’ out of landing spot on Horowitz’s list of ‘101 most dangerous’
By Angela Haupt
The Lion’s Roar
As a self-described “oddball” growing up in Queens, N.Y., Michael Bérubé was the kind of kid who was a little shy, a little smaller than his classmates and maybe a little geekier, too.
He received more attention than he wanted when, at age 6, his school district decided to skip him ahead a year because he was so advanced. For the skinny Irish-French kid with the shock of dark brown hair, the growing pains hurt.
“I was always younger and smaller than everyone else … and that was tough,” said Bérubé, a hint of an accent giving away his New York roots. “But one of the places where I did well and got approval was in academics.”
All of that was four decades ago. Bérubé, now the Paterno Professor in Literature at Penn State, appears sharp, confident and casually classy in his charcoal blazer paired with jeans and sneakers. Years of playing competitive ice hockey have sculpted his athletic frame. He speaks softly but passionately — and he’s quick with a joke or a wide grin.
But when describing himself, Bérubé still insists he’s a “46-year-old oddball.” Never mind that he’s one of the nation’s foremost defenders of academic freedom — the right of professors to express their opinions without fear of institutional censorship or discipline. Never mind that, just over a year ago, he was declared one of America’s 101 most dangerous professors by conservative author David Horowitz, who argues that anti-Americanism and a left-wing bias are wreaking havoc on universities nationwide.
Today, Bérubé, with his wry humor and tendency toward facetiousness, contends that he’s not too far removed from his innocuous, geeky ways. And today, it is academia that offers him that solace and sense of belonging he discovered as a youngster.
Bérubé has written widely on the perils of conservative education — the belief that students should be protected from the opinions and convictions of their professors, and bias in the classroom. Recent books include “What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education,” “Higher Education Under Fire,” and “Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics.”
He is actively involved with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which works to advance academic freedom and define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education.
“Michael is certainly one of our most visible and eloquent spokespersons,” AAUP Vice President Larry Gerber said. “And on a personal level, I would highlight his sense of humor and great gift for irony. He can make a point in meetings with a biting wit.”
Robert Moore, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the AAUP, said he was particularly impressed by a 2006 lecture Bérubé gave about threats to academic freedom, including those posed by Horowitz.
“As usual, he was articulate and on-point,” said Moore, a professor at St. Joseph’s University. “I think he is widely viewed as one of the most vocal critics of Horowitz-like threats to academic freedom, and we are glad to have his voice among ours.”
Perhaps what Bérubé most strongly advocates is the need for uncensored classroom discussions.
“It’s not a professor’s job to present ‘all sides,’ whatever that means,” he said, voice rising and hands beginning to fly. “And if a professor comes into a classroom with actual convictions … they have every right, and I’d say even an obligation, to say so. The idea that a professor should be neutral on these things is, I think, badly, badly mistaken.
“Now — and here’s the real question — are they so convinced of their convictions that they won’t hear anything else? That’s where the line sometimes gets crossed.”
Even though he is a literature professor, Bérubé said he routinely deals with controversial social issues like abortion, the war in Iraq and homosexuality. He aims to keep the classroom an open forum, giving every argument a chance.
While discussing William Dean Howell’s novel “The Rise of Silas” during a September class, for instance, Bérubé pointed out a passage on anti-Semitism.
“It touches on which of ‘those’ people are moving in and driving down property rates,” he said. “And that’s what literature is about. You can’t teach this without teaching that. Occasionally, however, a student will say something that needs to be juggled somehow.”
During a recent discussion about Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a student asked if the novel could be interpreted as a comment on abortion. Bérubé responded by explaining the ways that such issues had been of concern in historical African-American literature.
“I didn’t even want to go there,” he said. “So instead of getting into an abortion debate that would have taken us away from the novel, I answered the question indirectly.”
During a discussion about Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” meanwhile, a student asked if Cather was attempting to “queer the prairie.” Cather, a cross-dresser who often referred to herself as William, never publicly identified herself as a lesbian.
“I said, what do you mean, ‘queer the prairie?’” Bérubé recalled. “How would you queer a prairie? And it turned into a really lively discussion, but I realized later – anyone who was made uncomfortable by such a discussion was going to think, ‘Uh oh! This is a gay-friendly class!’
“And what am I going to do, apologize for that? Yeah, it’s a gay-friendly classroom. And it’s not because I go in with a sign saying, ‘I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it.’ Sometime I’ll actually do that — say, ‘See, I’m not queer,’ and wave my wedding band around. Why would my identity matter? But if it’s a question of discussion of queer themes and queer literature, yeah, of course it’s a queer-friendly classroom.”
But professors are not, Bérubé said, obligated to treat all opinions equally — or exempt certain positions from criticism.
“If a student really, truly believes that homosexuality is a sin — and that gay and lesbian students, including some in the classroom with them — are going to burn in hell for all their lives, what do you do with a thing like that?” he said. “Everyone has a right to their opinion, even if you are assuming the right to condemn some of your fellow students to hell.
“Well, this is where things get tricky.”
Uninformed opinions, Bérubé said, are not the same as informed opinions. He also stressed that professors cannot discuss issues that do not in some way relate to the course.
“But all informed opinions, and all well-reasoned arguments, should be fair game, regardless of whether a professor agrees or disagrees with them,” he said. “And I really believe that the vast, vast majority of professors behave that way. Most of us can’t even get our students to do all the readings, let alone change their minds about their convictions.”
Bérubé’s first real taste of notoriety arrived in 2006, five years into his tenure at Penn State. In February of that year, Horowitz included the literature professor in his book, “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.”
The book, which also counts Penn State senior lecturer in sociology Sam Richards among the 101, questions Bérubé’s teaching methods. Horowitz wrote: “The idea that a university might be an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, rather than the imposition of left wing fashions, would seem to professors like Michael Bérubé an idea from a galaxy far away.”
“Yes!” Bérubé exlaimed, pumping his fist in the air and breaking into a childlike giggle as he described his reaction to making the list. “It was … very, very funny. It was a big kick, because it was the culmination of nearly a year of mockery.”
He stood, rustled through a bookshelf overlooking his desk, and produced a signed copy of one of Horowtiz’s older books. “To Michael,” it says. “A worthy opponent.”
Bérubé chuckled. “Back when we were on better speaking terms,” he said, dismissing the book by pushing it into a corner of his desk.
In 1998, Bérubé splashed onto Horowtiz’s radar after making critical comments about an article Horowitz had written forSalon, an online magazine. Thus began the sparring and debating, largely via e-mail and Internet blogging.
In 2005, Horowtiz launched a Web site called “Discover The Network: A Guide to the Political Left.” Among those identified in the database: Bruce Springsteen; Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted terrorist; news anchor Katie Couric; Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority; film critic Roger Ebert; and Bérubé.
“People were massively outraged about this, and I thought, ‘This is comedy gold,’” Bérubé said, chuckling. “So I started mocking him on my blog. I knew Horowitz well enough by then to know that criticism gets under his skin and mockery drives him crazy.”
The sparring is archived on Bérubé’s blog, www.michaelberube.com.
At the time, Bérubé wrote: “The latest product of the fertile mind of David Horowitz is finally available for public use! It’s ‘Discover the Network,’ and no, it’s not a cable channel that shows mammals doing the nasty. It’s ‘A Guide to the Political Left’ — that’s right, a comprehensive introduction to some of the world’s leading traitors, terrorists, and useful idiots!!”
Horowitz insisted that he had spent a great deal of time and money on the database and that it did not deserve such mockery, Bérubé said.
“Eventually, he pulled down some of the profiles on the ‘Network’ and made the book ‘The Professors,’” he added. “And that’s how I earned a spot in there. It’s really kind of a boring story.”
Stephen Laskaris, a 2006 Penn State graduate in history who lists Bérubé as one of his favorite authors, said it’s “reasonable” for Horowitz to refer to Bérubé as dangerous: “No one else has argued with such dedication and cogency against Horowitz and the threat he represents,” he said.
And as for why Bérubé engaged in the word-slinging battle with Horowitz in the first place?
“Part of it is a commitment to dialogue, and part of it is a commitment to head-butting,” Bérubé said. “And then part of it is also a conviction that most of the people engaging this guy haven’t been doing it very well.”
That’s not the case with Bérubé.
“Michael is an animal in the world of academia,” said Richards, Penn State’s other “dangerous” professor. “He’s in a space all to his own — the zoo for the ‘beasts of the intellect. These are the people whose minds are so nimble and quick that nobody else can possibly keep up with them. We all try, of course, but secretly we know we can’t ever measure up.
“This is all just a fun way of saying that Michael is truly a brilliant, brilliant thinker — and he’s only dangerous if you try to debate him or if he disagrees with you.”
Blannie Bowen, Penn State’s vice provost for academic affairs, said that though he does not know Bérubé on a personal basis, he finds it hard to believe he warrants the “dangerous” title.
“When most people read a book with this type of wording, and then they see that two Penn State faculty members are included, it gets their attention,” Bowen said. “But once they fully understand the context for the book, the relevant university policies about academic freedom and what Bérubé and Richards teach, they become less concerned.
“We have very explicit policies, and both of these faculty members follow them. Mr. Horowitz disagrees, but that is certainly his right.”
Penn State’s academic-freedom policy states that faculty members may discuss only those controversial subjects that relate to his or her field of study. It continues: “The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.”
In 2005, Bowen led an effort to compile all instances of student complaints of bias in the classroom over the past five years. According to a report released in January 2006, there were 13 complaints, and all were resolved.
Early this fall, Bowen and Rob Pangborn, Penn State’s vice president and dean for undergraduate education, met with Horowtiz to discuss academic freedom.
“Mr. Horowitz said that Penn State has a model policy and process that other universities should follow,” Bowen said.
Bérubé likes to say that much of what has shaped his life “just happened,” a matter of chance and not planning.
He began entertaining the idea of graduate school during his senior year at Columbia University in 1982. On a whim, he submitted five applications and was accepted to Columbia and the University of Virginia, a six-hour drive away in Charlottesville, Va.
Living in Manhattan had become too expensive, so he chose Virginia. He took a year off after graduating from Columbia to work at a New York City law firm, where he word-processed to earn tuition money.
“Remember the ‘Deregulation of the Savings and Loans?’ I did that,” Bérubé said. “I typed that memo. Frankly, I was scared … ‘Wow, we remove all these regulations on banks.’ Who knows what could happen? Couldn’t we open the door to all kinds of shady dealings? Yep, that’s the premise. But it was kind of fascinating stuff, and it paid reasonably well — I was able to save enough for one year of graduate school.
“I spent the rest of my disposable income seeing as much live music as I could,” he added. “I was taping all these things, and finally someone said to me, ‘You know, Michael, they’re going to have music in Charlottesville.’ And I said, ‘You don’t know that.’”
He laughed, pointing and wagging his finger. He went on to say that the live music scene in Virginia turned out to be far better than expected. And within six weeks of moving south, he had met his future wife, Janet Lyon. Two years later, in 1985, they were married. And one year later — during Bérubé’s third year of graduate school — they had their first child.
“That was … that was tough,” he said, voice trailing off. “Our son, Nick, had childhood asthma, which meant I desperately needed to get a job to get health insurance.
“A lot of these things were just that simple. I couldn’t afford to go to Columbia, so I went to Virginia. I had to get health insurance, so I finished my dissertation quickly. It wasn’t really a matter of choice.”
After 12 years at the University of Illinois, where he directed the Humanities Program, Bérubé was recruited by Penn State to take over its newly created Paterno Family Professorship in Literature.
As a Paterno professor, he teaches three courses each year and spends the rest of his time writing and researching.
“It’s a named chair with all the prestige of the Paterno name, which I do not throw around,” he said, intent on proving he does not take the position lightly. “I don’t have cards, I think that would be — I would have no class.”
Inside Bérubé’s office on the third floor of the Burrowes Building, just a few feet from the Pattee and Paterno Libraries, stand five overflowing bookshelves. There’s a plastic Homer Simpson-faced clock on the wall, and a four-foot-tall fan in the corner — sometimes, it gets so hot in there that it’s impossible to work, Bérubé said.
But what stands out most are the photos of family members. Some are framed, some enlarged. As Bérubé pointed to each one, he explained its importance, growing visibly animated and suddenly talking with his hands.
There are photos of Nick, 21, a senior studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. And there’s a shot of Jamie, 16, a student at State College Area High School, skinny arms encased in flotation devices and poised to jump into a swimming pool.
As Bérubé talked about Jamie, who has Down Syndrome, his eyes lit up.
“He’s a very social kid,” he said, voice swelling with pride. “The stereotype about people with Down Syndrome is that they’re sweet and loving, but he’s also got a really mischievous sense of humor. He’s actually taking after me.”
Bérubé said he spends his free time playing sports with Jamie — baseball, basketball, golfing and swimming are family favorites.
Most times, father and son are joined by Bérubé’s wife, Janet, who says watching her husband and Jamie “talk sports” is enough to make her happy.
“They do things like naming every quarterback of every football team in the world,” she said with a laugh. “And sometimes they talk states together, and they’ll name every U.S. senator, or talk Beatles together, including which one wrote which lyrics to which songs.”
Bérubé often takes Jamie with him to out-of-town speaking engagements.
“They’re best friends,” she said.
Lyon, petite with chestnut hair, is also a Penn State professor — with an office two floors below her husband’s. She teaches 20th century British literature, as opposed to Bérubé’s 20th century American and African-American literature.
“It’s so funny — we actually tell colleagues that we have to have meetings to stay in touch with each other,” Bérubé said. “The glib line is it makes car pooling very easy, but she walks, and I drive.
“It’s great intellectually, though. We share so much in common about our work … and we both have interests outside academia that help keep us sane.”
Spurred by their experiences with their son, Jamie, the Bérubés in 2003 launched Penn State’s Disability Studies Program — an interdisciplinary field that merges humanities, social sciences, arts and medicine. In addition to working toward awareness of disability issues and rights, the co-chairs have completed plans for an undergraduate minor. It is expected to open to students within the year.
Greg Eghigian, director of the Science, Technology and Society Program, which houses Disability Studies, said the minor is designed to promote “insightful teaching, research, and awareness about how ideals of normality, ability, and achievement shape our lives.”
Among the issues the minor will address: equal rights, education, accessibility of resources, health care and legal representation of people with disabilities.
“I think Michael is a tremendous asset to Penn State,” said Jonathan Marks, director of the university’s Bioethics and Medical Humanities Program, which works with Disability Studies. “He is a scholar with a well-deserved national and international reputation. The Disabilities Studies Program clearly fills a gap in the Penn State curriculum, and I very much hope that my bioethics students will take the available courses.”
Marks added that Bérubé appears to be a compassionate and assiduous professor. Others agree.
“Bérubé seems to be an exceptionally well-rounded individual,” said Laskaris, the former Penn State student. “He’s a hockey player, a committed father and husband, and a professor who writes equally well in academic and popular settings. And he’s very accessible and grounded — two college friends of mine once watched old ‘Merrie Melodies’ cartoons with him in his house.”
Laskaris paused for a moment, then continued: “I just think he’s a fantastic role-model to anyone trying to work out what it means to be a thoughtful and contributing member of society.”