Campus Scenes

The Limits of “Academic Freedom”

The good Professor Churchill is their leading exponent.

By 4.5.05

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In case you missed it, on March 24 the University of Colorado announced the results of its preliminary investigation into the questions surrounding Ward Churchill's suitability to be teaching undergraduates at Boulder. The University was pushed into this embarrassing situation, you may recall, after it came to light that the esteemed scholar wrote an essay shortly after 9/11 calling the victims in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" (referring to the Nazi architect of the Holocaust). In an attempt to qualify his remarks to those who found them offensive, Mr. Churchill noted that he did not mean that the janitors and children who were killed were little Eichmanns, just the corporate and Wall Street types. And "more 9/11s are necessary." And George W. Bush thinks that all non-whites are "sub-human." These remarks proved ineffective in ending the controversy, and when further questions were raised regarding plagiarism and Mr. Churchill's bogus claim to be a Native American, the University was forced to act.

Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced that the preliminary investigation concluded "the allegations of research misconduct, related to plagiarism, misuse of other's work and fabrication, have sufficient merit to warrant further inquiry." While it is all well and good that the University of Colorado is taking a hard look at these allegations, why isn't it going to touch the 800-pound gorilla -- the question of Mr. Churchill's academic merit? "Appropriately," Chancellor DiStefano claims, "we in academe are held to high standards of integrity, competence, and accuracy" but then goes on to say that the University cannot make any judgment on Mr. Churchill's value to the University based on Mr. Churchill's writings or speeches (i.e. his "scholarship") -- no matter how "egregious" or "as strongly as we may reject the substance of those remarks." That would be a violation of "academic freedom."

Many members of the left, of course, support the substance of Mr. Churchill's rabidly anti-American views, if not all the particulars. Alexander Cockburn, for instance, applauds Churchill's analysis of 9/11 as essentially correct, himself equating the attacks on the World Trade Center with the bombing of a Baghdad air raid shelter -- mistaken for a command and control bunker -- by American planes during the first Gulf War. How any serious person can equate the accidental killing of civilians during time of war with an intentional act of terrorism -- or how a serious person can put al-Qaeda's war on America on the same moral plane as the American led war to drive Saddam's invading army out of Kuwait -- is hard to understand. But Mr. Cockburn, like Mr. Churchill, has the right to think and say what he thinks. But neither he, nor Mr. Churchill, has a right to force students or taxpayers to pay for his thoughts. Mr. Cockburn has enough style and demonstrates sanity just often enough to allow him to enjoy a following and make a living as a commentator. The pretend Indian and plagiarist, Mr. Churchill, appears to lack these qualities so he has instead found refuge in the Ivory Tower.

Now anyone can argue that any short quotations taken from Mr. Churchill are "out of context" and don't fairly reflect his scholarly mind. Fair enough. Read him for yourself. But just how much intellectual firepower can we assume resides in a mind that deliberately writes the "little Eichmanns" line, and then, after reflection, whole-heartedly defends it? We can debate whether or nor Mr. Churchill is an idiot, or a lunatic, or something else -- or at least we should be able to. But the University of Colorado -- and most every other institution of higher learning in the country -- says we can't. The content of Mr. Churchill's (or any other professor's, or at least any other left-wing professor's) writing or speeches is strictly off-limits, protected by "academic freedom." To try to make judgments as to the value of any academician's worthiness to teach at our college campuses based on what he writes and says would be "chilling" to free speech and be "dangerous" and "oppressive." In other words, being a moron is no grounds to be removed from teaching at our institutions of higher education. Indeed, being viewed by 99% of the population as a nut seems to be a highly sought after credential in academe, always in search of a "diversity" of views, as long as they are to the left of Howard Dean's. How else can one explain Colorado hiring, and then giving tenure to Mr. Churchill who does not even hold a Ph.D.?

THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF higher education is to impart knowledge and wisdom. Yet rank stupidity is not only tolerated, it is protected in the professorial class. This is like not being able to fire a bank teller for not knowing how to add and subtract, or a translator for having poor language skills, or a music critic for being tone deaf. And, unfortunately, such sanctification of "academic freedom" is not limited to our public universities.

A few years ago I wrote an article that highlighted the views of professor Asma Barlas at Ithaca College in New York. Ms. Barlas holds views remarkably similar to Mr. Churchill (9/11 was the natural expression of the fact that "people everywhere are sick and tired" of our "political economy based on their systematic abuse, exploitation, and degradation"). Ms. Barlas, though stating that the victims of 9/11 were partly to blame for their fate by being Americans, refrained from calling them "little Eichmanns." Nonetheless, her views were expressed in a stunningly brainless essay published, in of all places, the Ithaca College alumni magazine. This deft bit of marketing by the geniuses at Ithaca College resulted in a bounty of angry letters from alumni, but the president of Ithaca College bravely stood up to defend "academic freedom." In a response to my piece, which was carried, in abridged form, by the local Ithaca newspaper, she sidestepped the fact that Barlas's article was embarrassingly puerile, demonstrating an analytical sophistication one would expect from an average high school student, full of inaccuracies and logical inconsistencies, by stating that professor Barlas's status as a scholar was beyond question, since Barlas had published many articles (mostly in a Pakistani newspaper) and a book. In the modern university, apparently, the quality of your thought and research is not all that important as long as you can find a publisher.

That universities utilize the talents of the likes of Ward Churchill and Asma Barlas to "educate" people is a sign of a cancer. But what makes this cancer malignant is the fact that the guardians of the university -- professors and administrators -- devote themselves to defending the likes of Churchill and Barlas with the shield of "academic freedom" while forsaking their responsibility to promote intelligence and intellectual integrity.

OF COURSE, THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY, cloaked in the magic armor of academic freedom, engendering a free and open search for truth is, at least outside of the physical sciences, a myth. Core curricula have been sacrificed on the altar of the anti-intellectual deity of political correctness, and the promise of a free and open exchange of ideas is too often a hollow one -- especially if you are a political conservative. Indeed, in America, the exchange of ideas is demonstrably more free and open outside of universities than in them. Nonetheless, university professors and administrators continue to find success in peddling the charms of "academic freedom" to the American public.

Are we forever condemned to suffering a system of higher education with an increasingly left-wing, anti-American, and indeed anti-intellectual bent, perpetuated by a culture of academe where to be critical of Western values (except for some strains such as Marxism), and particularly American values, is the key to acceptance and the key to be regarded as intelligent? If Americans continue to buy in to the sanctity of "academic freedom" and to deny themselves any role in shaping university standards and policies, the answer is "yes." Can serious efforts by concerned citizens, alumni, and governments (in the case of state schools) curb some academic excesses? That is yet to be seen.

One thing from the Ward Churchill case, however, should be clear and incontrovertible. The rallying cry of "academic freedom" should not be used to protect idiocy. The protection of intellectual standards should come before "academic freedom." University administrators should have the courage to recognize this, and if they don't, a little prodding by those who pay the bills is well in order.

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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.