Saturday, March 05, 2005

This Ward Churchill Business

I probably shouldn't write on this one yet as I have not had time to study the whole issue in detail, but then the issue is so complex that it would take a very long time to study it sufficiently, and by then the talk would be about something else. So I will just jump in.

Ward Churchill is a University of Colorado professor who compared the 9/11 victims to Nazis in an essay, or specifically:

Churchill's essay, which likened "technocrats" killed in the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann, attracted little attention until January when he was invited to speak at a college in upstate New York. The college and a handful of other schools canceled Churchill's appearances, citing security concerns.

Churchill says he wrote the essay after television networks characterized the attacks as senseless. He contends they were the logical result of repressive U.S. Policies.

Many people want Churchill's head on a platter and if that can't be arranged at least his immediate firing. The University of Colorado president is now saying that Churchill won't be fired if all that he's guilty of is inflammatory comments.

The deeper issues in all this are the meaning of academic freedom of speech and the wingnuts' view of universities as the last bastions of liberalism. Which they want to destroy, of course.

This creates some odd ideological combinations: Imagine extreme conservatives being all for affirmative action in academia. Imagine the kind of people who fight university speech codes now fighting against the freedom of expression. This shows that the words are just words, clad up in whatever way serves the Cause, and the Cause is to get wingnuts in the saddle everywhere.

Here is one example of the wingnut view on academia:

The debate stimulated by the Churchill affair has escalated into a long overdue exploration into the politics and processes of higher education. The sacred cow of tenure is under review, along with the limits of academic freedom and the shameful lack of ideological balance within college faculties. It's like peeling off the outer layers of an artichoke to get to the heart of the issue.

And this is it: 1) Ideology and politics. As Rorty proudly proclaims, the Left has taken over academe. We want it back. 2) Accountability. Self-important academics believe themselves to be beyond reproach, sitting as philosopher-kings, dispensing their wisdom to the ignorant masses. Nonsense. They're ordinary people, government employees dependent on their customers and the taxpayers for their income, and ultimately accountable to their bosses and the citizens who elect the Board of Regents. Academic freedom is not absolute.

There is a valid reason for the academic freedom of speech and the institution of tenure. They were created to guarantee the professors a work environment in which new ideas could be studied independently of societal and political pressures. If a researcher could be easily fired or disciplined based on what she or he writes then all research and teaching would be affected by this fear of consequences.

But of course neither the freedom of speech nor tenure are absolute rights, and they both have their disadvantages. How far we should go in modifying them, if we should modify them at all, is not clear. And the wingnuts' desire to bring what they call "ideological balance" into universities by hiring more wingnut professors is problematic because it would require affirmative action which wingnuts oppose with their very essence, and this affirmative action might have to force some wingnuts to become academics. There is a good reason why the academia is more liberal than the society on average, and why the business world is more conservative: money has a different role in determining the choices of individuals with different values. In any case, I think that universities are not dens of lefty iniquity. The vast majority of professors teach the course material and the students never know exactly how they vote if they do. But of course one can always find a Ward Churchill or someone similar from the other side of the political fence.