Monday, July 30, 2007

Ward Redux

There’s much more being written about Ward Churchill’s firing. David French, who used to be a defender of academic freedom as the head of FIRE, writes in celebration about the “cleansing” of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado. Along the way, he makes several factual errors, such as claiming the Peter Kirstein case was at Xavier University (it was really St. Xavier University) and the absurd statement about Churchill that “much of his academic work was found to be fabricated or plagiarized” (in reality, only a tiny portion of Churchill’s vast writings were accused of errors).

On the liberal side, Aaron Barlow claims, “We, as the academic community, have a certain responsibility towards our students. When one of our colleagues is shown, even belatedly, to be undeserving of his or her place before the chalkboard, we do a disservice to the students when that professor is not removed.” But when the professor is thought to be undeserving primarily because of his political views, does it serve the students to fire political dissenters? If anything, Churchill’s popularity among many students shows that it was a disservice to fire him.

Barlow is also on shaky ground when he says that the correct academic process was not followed in hiring Churchill. Even if this were true, it does not justify firing a tenured professor. However, there’s no real evidence of this being the case for Churchill. Despite all of the accusations, no one has actually proven that Ward Churchill is not a Native American. Even if they did, no one has proven that he knowingly deceived anyone about his race (and it is undeniable that a family legend identified a Native American ancestor). Nor is there any proof that he was hired or promoted because of his race. Nor is it essential to have a Ph.D. (and we should fight against the “mandatory Ph.D.” approach becoming common in academia). The worst “violation” of the process was that, fearing he might be hired away, the University of Colorado promoted and tenured Churchill rather quickly and without much scrutiny.

Ultimately, this is a question about how high the threshold should be for firing a professor who does a bad thing. I think that the standard should be set fairly high, and Churchill’s proven flaws nowhere match the standards typically set for professors (and Barlow’s example of Joseph Ellis’ suspension–not a firing–is a rather unusual penalty).

Barlow argued, “We should be making ourselves less vulnerable to such attacks by policing ourselves more carefully.” Sherman Dorn’s critique of Barlow is correct, despite Barlow’s denials. I would add that back during the McCarthy Era, colleges thought that they could protect themselves from outside intrusion by sacrificing a few radical professors to the witchhunt. Ultimately, they simply fed the bloodlust. It’s not hard to see a parallel to Churchill’s case, and the glee of conservatives who hope this will be the beginning of mass firings and the abolition of entire departments.

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