The Phantom City

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Ward Churchill, again

I’ll agree we could all use a little more liberty and freedom in this world.

I’ve written on the Churchill case before, and as I’ve said, I believe UC would be well within their rights to remove him as a professor. It’s not a universally held view, and Volokh comes up with some good arguments for greater academic freedom than UC is granting in this case. (I linked to Left2Right, which links to Volokh, partially because the comments are pretty good there, and partially because I’m having trouble with Volokh’s permalinks. Can’t figure out why.)

I recognize the hypocrisy inherent in UC’s “investigation.” They hired a person known for his controversial views and now they want to fire him for it. They probably got some sort of benefit out of hiring him and placing him as the head of a department. I’m not sure academic freedom is necessarily a good argument against correcting mistakes, however.

Like religious freedom, academic freedom has always had de facto limits, but those limits are constantly constructed. A lot of the backlash against UC pushing against those limits on one side serves to push back from the other side, which creates its own balance. However, would Churchill’s firing push us further down the slippery slope towards university-controlled speech? I doubt it. We’ve been moving along that slope for a long time, and it hasn’t proven so slippery. The Churchill case was passed a long time ago on that slope, if it ever would have been behind the line of academic freedom.

BTW, while perusing comments, I ran across one of Paul Campos’ columns on the Churchill case. Interesting that he’s alleged to have said he was either 1/16 or 3/16 Cherokee. Maybe I could get hired in Ethnic Studies at UC. 🙂 (Cheap shot, I know. I don’t know where he grew up, or what culture he was raised in. Oops, never mind. Just took a search on the Rocky Mountain News. I get the feeling that newspaper has been writing a lot of articles about Churchill recently.)

Ward Churchill, Little Eichmann?

Apparently there’s some controversy about University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill speaking at a college in New York because he wrote an essay back in 2001 calling the September 11 victims in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns,” among other insults.

Good. The only reason it didn’t happen earlier is because folks were a bit too shocked at the time to notice one more in a series of ignorant essays, but it looks like, paraphrasing what Mr. Churchill says, that the chickens do come home to roost.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, which means I’m also a big supporter of folks being able to complain about what you say. I mean, after all, wouldn’t one figure approbation might be in order if I were to say that it would have been much better if Ward Churchill had been personally attacked by the 9/11 “combat teams” he mentions, due to his tacit approval of the American system that comes from living here and profiting from it without rising up in armed revolution? (Churchill might be Cherokee, another heritage that deserves payback against their oppressors, but it doesn’t look from his description like he’s really going outside the system, there. Legal defense? Head of Ethnic Studies? Not exactly what he advocated we all do in his essay.)

But, I wouldn’t say that seriously. I know next to nothing about Ward Churchill. Kind of like he knew next to nothing about the victims at the WTC. Would it be right to say his death was justified because of his American collaborator status and all of the bad things America has done to the rest of the world? Of course not, no more than Iraqi children deserve to die to expiate our historical sins.

Churchill’s essay probably doesn’t deserve all of the attention. Aside from the controversial aspects, it really isn’t very good, which Churchill sort-of addresses in an equally bad addendum. (He apparently was disturbed he wasn’t able to mention the “ghosts” of American victims throughout time.)

Churchill’s continued academic employment, department chairmanship, and speaking engagements do deserve the attention. In his essay, he’s taken advantage of the worst interpretation of academic freedom — irresponsibility and academic laziness — and as a result should have his competence and desirability as a teacher of students and speaker to the masses called into question. Academic freedom ideally promotes the free interchange of ideas, and hopefully controversial speaking appearances would promote just that. However, if you read the essay, you’ll note there isn’t much room for discussion, just assertion. Churchill has not written an essay to provoke debate.

Churchill’s wife says he has a really big heart. I hope that is the case. He might wish to consider widening what it encompasses a bit.

Update: Mr. Churchill’s speaking engagement has been called off due to threats of violence. Specifically, at least one caller threatened to “bring a gun” to campus if he spoke. Always interesting how folks can take something bad and rapidly do worse things in response. Yep, threatening to kill someone. Way to trump everyone else in sheer evilness. Since when did doing something even worse become the acceptable response to anything you don’t like? (While I would think, say, 9/11 survivors might feel that angry about Churchill’s speech, apparently the larger part of the threats came after Bill O’Reilly publicized the college’s phone number on his show. Nothing angrier than a couch potato watching Fox News, apparently.)

Update, redux: Looks like Mr. Churchill has resigned his position as head of the Ethnic Studies department at Colorado.

Update, redux, again: A compendium of Colorado Governor Bill Owens’ letter to the College Republicans at CU (because the College Republicans were the most important people to write to, apparently?), Mr. Churchill’s statement from yesterday about his essay, and the infamous essay itself.

And again: The Chronicle of Higher Education carries a good synopsis of the controversy.

Academic Freedom in the Chronicle

Quote from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In the firebrand’s [Ward Churchill] defense, Mr. Sandoval offered the standard-issue rhetoric of academic freedom: Mr. Churchill’s words were hurtful and terrible, yes, but it was nonetheless “appropriate for him to raise the issues” as a university professor. However, with the reporter’s next question, the conversation dropped abruptly from the rhetorical sphere.

Can you think of any circumstances, the reporter asked, where a professor’s speech would constitute a firing offense?

“Yeah,” said Mr. Sandoval, “I would pull professor Dan Forsyth from the classroom in a second.

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Perhaps one of these days we’ll quit writing about controversies about academic freedom as if the professors involved have graduated from being human? It would seem pretty clear that, despite years of education, there are enough professors out there for at least some to have benighted opinions, quash dissent in the classroom, and generally behave like jerks. Is there some kind of surprise that extra years of education and experience don’t necessarily add up to maturity and respect for others?

There is an implied, and sometimes explicit, contract between an university and its professors, in which academic freedom should be respected. Defining what can pass over that threshold has been a matter of debate. However, the professors are not a special class of being, and universities are still social groupings with defined functions. Much like the rest of life, if the professor cannot fulfill his/her part in the defined functions — say, educating students — of his employment, it is likely they will be leaving. Figuring out what behavior can exist without interfering too much with those functions is a matter of debate, but throwing the label “speech” on it doesn’t change the basic question: Can, and does, the professor fulfill his/her duties in a manner that will forward the purpose of the social group?

That’s a huge grey area, but just because something is “grey” doesn’t mean it is necessarily a matter of extraordinary debate. There may be debate over how one would define “abusing students,” for instance, but if behavior is considered to be abusive towards students by the people making the decisions, they aren’t left with a lot of options, and they aren’t likely to ruminate about whether the abuse constituted a right. Perhaps when these debates happen, we should recognize that “You know it when you see it” is the basis for a lot of decisions we make in life. If we start off by saying, “Well, that was wrong, but…” we already know the tone of the debate, because we set it in the first place.

So, does debate over the abstract ideal of academic freedom serve a purpose? Sure, it lays out the basis on which we argue about thousands of decisions. But that doesn’t mean every situation is completely about the abstract ideal. In each of those cases, there are concrete happenings that make each of them different. Can we say that an accusation of being “too animated” in the classroom has a chilling effect? Yep, definitely, since we don’t know what that meant. Personally, I consider it to be a cop-out, but I can also imagine what “too animated” might really mean. Unfortunately, the nature of a lot of these proceedings doesn’t give you much information to go on, so you end up debating the abstract again.

</rant>

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