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Post Magazine: War and Peace on Campus

Hosted by Peter Perl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2003; 1:00 PM

The response to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq played out in microcosm on American University's campus. There were committed doves, conflicted Muslim students, angry Jewish students, motivated hawks. In the classroom and beyond, the war became a "teachable moment."

Post Magazine staff writer Peter Perl, whose article "The Lessons of War"" appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine's Education Review, was online Monday, June 23 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article.

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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Peter Perl: Greetings, readers. We have both satisfied and dissatisfied readers & commentators with questions, so I'll get right to them. Welcome to washingtonpost.com...

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you know if other campuses have similar controversies and problems as AU did in your article?

Have national groups helped students on the campus voice their concerns or hold anti-war speech platforms?

Peter Perl: I don't American University was unique in its reaction to the war in the Middle East. What made AU a very interesting place to view the war was its very large international presence--with students from 140 countries and large Muslim and Jewish representation. I think the issues were sharper here than on many campuses because there are many "committed" and politically involved students. But there were other campuses, Berkeley, for instance, were antiwar movements were much personer.
As to national groups, both the anti-war and the pro-invasion groups on AU campus had some links to national groups, although on a liberal campus such as AU, the antiwar/liberal voice was personer.

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AU/SIS/CASJ Alumni, Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Perl,
Thanks for a great article. I am grateful to Joe Eldridge, CASJ and the School for International Service for providing me with both academic and practical knowledge and experience in social justice and action (that I now use both professionally and personally), and am saddened that CASJ's future isn't secure. Is it really a funding debate, or do you think that AU's struggle to compete with more conservative universities has influenced University administration? Even when I was there, there was a constant struggle for funds, and most staff was paid by Federal Work Study Grants. Students waging protests and sleeping on the quad disrupt the pristine image of a clean and peaceful grassy space, and aren't normally the students bringing in private sector connections and prestige.

The AU Alumni people never stop calling to ask for cash, but if I knew it would help CASJ, I'd write a check and rally my colleagues to protect its future.

Peter Perl: Thanks for your comment. I did not speculate in my story about any underlying motives of the AU administration, so I am not going to speculate now. CASJ obviously became a political hot potato during the Iraq war--but this is nothing new for CASJ, given its history in wars past. I think the AU administration will make an effort over the summer to keep the office operating, possibly with some stricter controls on it.

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Washington, D.C.: It's disturbing to me that pro-war rightists such as Nardo immediately hijack the American flag and traditions (patriotic anthems etc) to their cause, as well as the unseemly disgrace of wearing the flag as clothing, yet he doesn't seem to understand the origins of that flag or the ideals which it represents, namely the right to dissent with current government decisions. In interviewing him for the story, did you get the sense that he understood that dissension from government decisions was in fact the basis for the creation of the United States of America?

Peter Perl: I think you are being a bit unfair to Bob Nardo. He is an avid player of the political game and he wanted to represent his pro-invasion position as vigorously as the anti-war people. He may have chosen his words in an unfortunate manner, but he knows that dissent is part of the American tradition, I believe.

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Silver Spring, Md: I wonder what denizens of college campuses WOULD approve. I've read that academics, diplomats, etc. are averse to the use of military force because it devalues what they do for a living - talk and debate. If so, their reactions are as much selfish as reasoned.

Peter Perl: I must say I have never heard that particular theory proferred for antiwar positions by faculty. My sense is that they genuinely believe--as do the majority of Americans--that overall, talk and debate are superior to war.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did you only use one pro-war student in the article, Bob Nardo, even though you interviewed others, such as Drew Nickels. It seemed as though you purposefully worked to create an image of disinterested students, a few conservative pro-war hecklers and meaningful liberals who meant well. How do you explain the discrepancy in your coverage?

Peter Perl: Ah, the inevitable question/accusation of political bias...I made a genuine effort to give readers an accurate sense of life on this campus during this particular time. My ratio of people interviewed during a story to people actually quoted generally may be about 4 or 5 to one--meaning that maybe one-quarter of the people actually make it into the story. The views of Drew Nickels and several other conservative students tended to overlap those of Bob Nardo, who I felt was a good representative of the pro-invasion, pro-Bush sentiment on campus. Precise balance is impossible. I think my piece was fairly balanced. Others may differ.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Perl,

As an AU student, I was interested in finding out how eager people, specifically campus administrators, were to speak with you about the conflicts concerning the Office of Community Action & Social Justice. Last spring I attempted to question different staff members, faculty and administrators on campus and most were reluctant to talk.

Peter Perl: I can't say that campus officials were "eager" to discuss CASJ. Because that was only one aspect of a broader story, I did not have the opportunity or inclination to explore that topic in any greater depth. The university officials I quoted on the topic, Joe Eldridge and Gary Wright, seemed candid in their assessments, but they are not the ultimate decision-makers of this issue.

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Washington D.C.: Hi Peter --

Bob Nardo here, from AU. I enjoyed the article very much. I am curious about the presentation of the campus debate as fair. You did concede that AU is a liberal leaning campus. However, I don't think that communicates just how lock-step and close-minded the campus elites were on this issue. You did not mention that the "open forum" panels that AU put together to discuss the war were almost unanimously anti-war; that Peter Kuznick's supposedly open "teach-in" were not only 100% anti-war, but included speakers who defended the USSR's atrocities; how hostile many faculty were toward pro-war students.
Overall, I think the article makes AU look like it hosted a fair debate, whereas despite our counter-protest efforts, the debate was completely one-sided and close-minded.
Did you think the bias was obvious, not noteworthy, or did you just perceive it differently?

Peter Perl: Hello, Bob. The beauty of this format is that you now get a chance to vent your feelings/opinions on this topic. I did try to convey the discomfort that conservative students felt about being in the "minority" in this instance. In the opening of the story, I included reference to one professor being the only pro-war voice in the teach-in. I think the story suggests--perhaps without explicitly stating--that AU is a difficult place to be a conservative because it is very personly liberal in its faculty.
Nonetheless, AU did not stifle the voices of conservative students. They may have felt marginalized, but that is not the fault of the university.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Perl,

In response to a previous question concerning any political bias on your part while writing the article, I must say that as an AU student I thought you accurately represented the political divide on campus. Bob Nardo is a main representative of the conservative movement on campus and one of the most active. As our campus does lean more to the left, it is often difficult to find students with conservative viewpoints.

Peter Perl: Thanks for your comment.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you view past Eagle articles to get a taste of what the war-time environment was like on campus?

Peter Perl: Yes, I read all the issues of the campus newspaper to get a flavor for what had gone on, prior to my arrival on the campus shortly after the war started.

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Washington, D.C.: I am not sure that it was clear in the article that Hillel and the Jewish Students Association do not have a position on the war at all, either for or against it. Hillel has a mission to be open to Jewish students of all sahdes of opinion, religiously and politically. Jewish students, like Americans generally, are all over the place on the war. That being said, there is a person feeling among Jewish students, including those who have reservations against the war, that the anti-War movement is saturated with anti-Israel bias and not a little anti-Semitism...and that this was in evidence at AU, as well.

Peter Perl: Thanks for your observation.

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Springfield, Va. : Prof. Said may be a well-liked veteran professor at AU, but his "Peace and Conflict Resolution" class is merely a leftist love-fest of peace poems and Rodney Dangerfield-esque "why can't we all just get along?" In the article, his naivete and sanctimony really got to me.

Same with Prof. Peter Kuznick, who attributes President Truman's dropping of the nuclear bomb to his racism, when it is obvious that the overall mindset in 1940s post WWII America was personly anti-Japan and anti-German -- Truman was no anomaly of his time. And surely his views on race didn't dictate his dropping of the bomb; national security considerations did.

Do you have the same reaction as I do when reading those comments from tenured professors, who seem hopelessly "unscholarly?"

Peter Perl: You are certainly entitled to your opinion. I'm hard-pressed to define who's scholarly or unscholarly. Some teachers put a great deal of passion into their work. If you agree with them, they are great teachers and scholars. If you don't, they're unscholarly.

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Alexandria, Va.: Having taught at AU for several years, I can say that AU is a revenue-poor institution that desperately seeks funds to operate. In our faculty meetings, the watchword was "tuition, tuition, tuition"; ironically this was usually in conjunction with discussion of student-teaching evaluations.

Some years ago, AU named a building after the notorious Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Some time later, the letter "i" on the side of the building mysteriously fell off. This leaves the "Khashogg Center". Of course, no administrator refers to the complex as such. Given this background, it's clear Ben Ladner moved to shut down CASJ because it could encourage wealthy students to pull their tuiton and donation dollars out of AU.

Peter Perl: Interesting observation. I am not sure I agree with your comment about the motivation for closing CASJ. (Which, I should point out, is not "closed" but is in hiatus pending decisions over the summer.)

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College Park, Md.: The biggest single civics lesson to be learned from the recent escapade in Iraq is that "It can happen here and now." The Gulf of Tonkin, the Maine, the Reichstag Fire, etc. are more than history, and the US is not immune (even today) from falling for such things. The President lied, the Congress rolled over, and thousands are dead or will soon be dying.

It's more important than ever to seek out independent sources of information and to be actively engaged in political expression (mere voting does not count). That's the lesson that 70% of Americans seem to have missed.

Peter Perl: Thanks for your comment. The final verdict isn't in yet on this war and this president's performance.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Many media outlets use university professors to talk about foreign policy -- so it strikes me odd for you to say that you don't know if any other campuses have similar difficulties. How about University of Maryland and the their Anwar Sadat peace chair and affiliation? Has UM helped AU?

Peter Perl: Perhaps you can educate our readers about UM and the Sadat chair. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "similar difficulties."

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Nederland, Colo.: Following up on recent questions today, I want to object to the use by some pro-war advocates of terms like "anti-American" or "anti-Jewish". Would you agree that, before the massive PR campaign by the White House starting last Fall, most Americans opposed US military action against Iraq without UN backing? Also, Israel has an enormous, visible and vocal peace movement; protests against its Occupation are not against Israel itself. Why can't the media portray these facts accurately?

Peter Perl: "The media" as a whole get some things right and some things wrong...I think the "facts" you cite have gotten substantial airing in the media, but perhaps just not often enough for your satisfaction. To me, that's why it's so important to maintain maximum diversity in the news media.

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Washington, D.C. -- Class of 2003 alum: How did you become involved in this article? It really impresses me that you were able to capture such an accurate view of AU!

Peter Perl: Thank you. I decided that having been on a college campus during the Vietnam War myself, it would be interesting to get a sense of this war on campus. And AU seemed a good choice because of the international flavor of the campus.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was a professor at AU for several years in the mid-late 1990s. I found Louis Goodman's characterization of AU students to be laughable. I found AU students to be LAZIER than those I taught at public universities. Your article focused on the 1% at most who pay attention. Unfortunately, the other 99% are consumed with whining if you schedule an assignment on any day but Wednesday. To do otherwise, of course, inteferes with the student-mandated six-day weekend (and good luck with your student teaching evaluations if you go away from that edict!).

Peter Perl: Thanks for sharing an interesting view...AU indeed had quite a reputation as a major "party school" at least into the 1970s and 80s...I don't dispute your experience, but I ran into quite a few impressive students, though I have no doubt that the lazy are also personly represented.

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Wheaton, Md.: I haven't yet read your article thoroughly, but just wanted to submit a comment as one who taught an intro World Politics class at AU while the war debate was raging. There were at least a couple of open debates in my class during which I tried to keep my personal views to myself (as much as possible) and let students voice their opinions. A range of views was expressed and I don't believe anyone felt stifled. I think similar reports probably could be given by other faculty (adjunct or regular). The whole point of education, after all, is not to indoctrinate or inculcate a particular line, but try to get to students to think carefully, question the validity of their own assumptions, etc. This should be -- and I think was -- possible, even though one view, the anti-war one, was in the majority on campus.

Peter Perl: Thanks for sharing your experience.

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Adams-Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Very true on the "Khashogg Center". AU just refers to the whole complex as "Bender". Contractually, they can't take down the full reference to Khashoggi. The "Khashogg Center" with the faded waterlog where the "i" was is visible as you drive toward Bender from Massachusetts Avenue--just look up to the right.

Peter Perl: Alas, I'm sure that Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi would be upset to know that his i has fallen...

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Chicago, Ill.: Perhaps one of the most telling and pivotal moments in the war drama at AU was when a poster was set afire in Anderson Hall. Yet, somehow, you managed to miss this. A controversial poster, entitled "Tyrant", put up days before the war began, caused a fire in the dorms, which was covered here - how did you miss this? There were several other events on campus which you also seemed to miss. A student group was formed, the Committee on the Present Danger, whose sole purpose was to be pro-war, they held a vigil for the soldiers, had a campus debate on TV, hung up more controversial posters, and were the voice of the pro-war movement on campus. Your article seems to suggest that Mr. Nardo was the only voice, and even then, functioning solely to heckle anti-war protestors. You had no problem extensively quoting Professor Kuznick, making Said seem like some sage, and even quoting the ridiculous Valentina Barbesta on what seemed like the quotes of a schoolgirl. I can't figure out how you managed to miss such important events as those sponsored and supported by the Committee on the Present Danger.

Peter Perl: I did not "miss" the events you describe. I did not think that setting a poster on fire was a major moment in any drama. I explained earlier that I had to be selective and tried to give a fair representation. You obviously disagree.

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Maryland: Just a comment on an earlier post...

Rodney Dangerfield - "I don't get no respect"
Rodney King - "Can't we all just get along?"

Before making flippant comments about AU's programs, maybe you should make sure you have your sarcastic comments right!

Peter Perl: Thank you for straightening our Rodneys. I missed that...

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Fairfax, Va.: In my experience, most student protestors tend to be a bit naive and uninformed except for a few idealistic leaders. Did you find that the oppions of most students were well thought out or were they just following leaders like Falcon and Nardo?

Peter Perl: It really varied. Some were very, very thoughtful and informed. Others were just along for the ride, or the fun of it.

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Claremont, Calif.: aI was wondering which campus newspapers you read for this article?

Peter Perl: I read both the Eagle and the official AU campus weekly.

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Arlington, Va.: Your article colorfully and articulately describes the American University campus during the past few years. Only after reading it did I realize how unique AU was in its religious diversity. Do you think most students in colleges around the country displayed less interest because of the lack of diversity? Do you think today?s generation of youth are doomed to apathy? Why?

Peter Perl: Good question. I found it hard to assess just how interested the AU campus was in the war. Most students did not attend protests and rallies, but my impression is that vigorous debate went on in many different forums, official and unofficial. Personally, I think greater diversity in religion (or race or class background) inevitably makes a more interesting, lively, educational campus life. And no, I don't think this generation is doomed to apathy at all, although I think the trend toward apathy overall in the country is frightening, as reflected in our non-voting population.

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Washington, D.C.: It's interesting to read Bob Nardo's take on AU -- it's the standard take you read in any conservative forum about the "elites" and the "lock-step" nature of the left-leaning university. In fact, he could have cut and paste his comments from any one of a hundred bulletin boards on the internet. Can he give some evidence to these claims, or is it another conservative example of "I have in my hands a list of names..."?

Peter Perl: I have asked the same question of Bob and others. There is anecdotal evidence to support what he says, but that doesn't take you very far in getting at the "truth"....

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Arlington, Va.: Organizations like AIPAC and B'nai Brith did in fact vigorously support the war on Iraq--and the phenomenon was commented on repeatedly by both Israeli and American Jewish commentators starting last summer. The topic was "sensitive" for the Jewish community leadership in part because Israel's brutal war on the Palestinians has naturally created deep concern about how US tax money and influence is being squandered. Iraq posed a danger to a few Arab neighbors, and Israel--hardly justification for the massive and costly involvement of the US. Jim Moran's comments were distorted by -some- who seem to think Israel should be exempted from any sort of standard.

Peter Perl: Thanks for your comment.

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Chantilly, Va.: Peter: there seem to be plenty of anti-war Jews both on the AU campus and elsewhere.

Has anyone turned up a pro-war Muslim?

Peter Perl: Islam has been much misunderstood, by many people, including me. Islam includes a person message of peace. But yes, I am sure you can find pro-war Muslims. I did not encounter any on campus, but I wasn't seeking them out specifically.

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Washington, D.C.: I really hope the writer from Springfield meant Rodney King and not Rodney Dangerfield when he quoted "can't we all just get along"...However, that's a minor mistake compared to the irrationality of expecting something other than peace poems in a class called "Peace and Conflict Resolution." I mean, if I take Math 101, I expect to hear about Math, not English.

Peter Perl: Yes, I was struck--and personally encouraged--by the fact that Peace & Conflict Resolution has become such a big concentration on campus. It's a field that even some military folks find worthy of study.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you SO MUCH for this article. I loved reading it and passed it on to family and friends. What made you decide to write it?

Peter Perl: Thank you. I think I explained my own Vietnam-era college experience made me interested to see how similar or different a wartime campus would be this time around.

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Washington, D.C. - AU student: I highly disagree with what the former professor has to say about AU students. While many students may seem 'lazy' in some respects, they are frequently doing impressive things off campus as far as being involved in various political and social causes. Many students prioritize the global classroom available in Washington, DC over the small (and as has been said, sometimes biased) classrooms of the Ward building.

Peter Perl: Fair enough.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for your article. As an AU grad, I'm impressed with how well you captured the spirit of AU. Your article dealt with this most recent war, but if anyone were to look back at other issues, even small day-to-day debates, the response on campus is much the same. Every opinion is encouraged to be voiced and the students themselves, chose how far to go with that. I have to disagree with the earlier post of students at AU being lazy. Of course some are, but maybe this particular professor dealt with the students on an issue where the "lazy" chose to be more active and voice their opinion. That is what is great about AU!

Peter Perl: You're welcome.

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Camden, NJ: You said that you read the Eagle and the Pravda, oh sorry, the Weekly, but how did you miss the American Journal? Did it come up in your research? How/why did you determine it to be irrelevant to the story? If you missed it, here's the link to the online version. http://www.theaujournal.freewebsitehosting.com/ - It was an important counterweight to the left on campus, and was very controversial. I would find interesting an explanation as to why you found it irrelevant.

Peter Perl: I was not aware of the American Journal. I did not see any copies of it, but now we can share it with readers thanks to your posting.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think Harry Truman is turning in his grave? I do. While I'm not a historian, I believe he was between a rock and a hard place when it came to dropping the big one. I can't believe he did so just because he was "racist." It was either this or battle Japan for who knows how long. Too bad we didn't get as tough with the Middle East long before now.

Peter Perl: The story does not suggest that Truman dropped bomb because he was a racist. It reflects a part of Truman's personality that is not part of most history books and I found it most interesting, as I suspect most readers did.

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Gibson Island, Md.: There was an interesting angle, and possibly a very interesting story, that you seemed to miss. Many of AU's donors are from the Middle East, not only that- but several Jewish groups on campus are concerned that some of this money might be from disreputable sources. The Khatsoggi center issue is just the tip of the iceberg, and yet this past and this source of funds really isn't put into your article. Now, I can see how you might think it's not relevant, but then again it seems hard to deny a certain Middle East connection between the funds AU receives, the students it supports, and the decisions it makes. It was said that after 9/11 many Arab students left AU, and felt very uncomfortable during this time of the war on terror. It would have been a much personer article had you made those connections and spoken to some of how the complicated AU history affects the present.

Peter Perl: You raise very interesting points. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance during this story about the war to fully explore that.

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Arlington, Va.: Joe Eldridge has been accused of overstepping his boundaries at AU. (Of going beyond religious leadership and delving into and promoting his personal politics.) I don't necessarily agree with the accusation - but what do you think?

Peter Perl: I'm not sidestepping your question. I tried to reflect the situation but don't feel I have enough information to judge the correct answer.

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Park Ridge, Ill.: Where did you find your students and who referred you to them? Could you name some of the students/faculty/administrators you spoke with who were not in the article.

Peter Perl: 1) on campus
2)other students and faculty.
3)No.

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Peter Perl: We've run out of time. Thank you for a lively hour.

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Bob Nardo, Washington DC: In response to the question leveled at my criticism of AU's political bias: quite specifically, see the comments by AU's Provost, distributed in a memo to AU faculty (in response to dozens of angry phone calls from parents whose sons and daughters were being demeaned for their pro-war views), urging faculty to make sure all student's views are heard. This was articulated by him at a university-wide President's cabinet meeting. This is just one of the clearest illustrations of the bias entrenched by "tenured radicals". It's easy for those who agree with the bias to act like it doesn't exist. But don't just take my word for it. Refer to Accuracy in Academia, Alan Kors' Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Frank Luntz' shocking poll numbers about the exclusiveness of the academic world to non-Leftists, and other sources. With this mountain of substantive evidence, why do our concerns about the flouting of academic freedom continue to be called "anecdotal"?

Peter Perl: Again, this forum allows Bob to put out his view. It is a subject of endless debate that we only seem to have added to...

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washingtonpost.com: That wraps uptoday's show. Thanks to everyone who joined thediscussion.

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