Friday, February 11, 2005

Professor Nut Job

For the last three and a half years, we've been living in an alternate universe: on a college campus. Our loyal readers (or those who scroll down to the next post) know which university we're talking about -- in fact, we went back to this undisclosed institution of higher learning last night to visit some friends. We make this uncharacteristic personal disclosure as a preface to our comments on the current Ward Churchill controversy.

There's been much discussion as to whether or not Churchill ought to be fired for his reprehensible comments about the victims of 9/11, much of it framed within the context of the First Amendment. That's all well and good, but, to paraphrase another nutty professor, Juan Cole, you pundits out there were not in college six weeks ago. We were. Thus, our opinion supersedes yours. (Okay, okay, we don't really believe that, but we do think that our recent proximity to the world of academia gives us a unique and post-worthy perspective on the Churchill flap.)

What's been lost in the controversy is the fact that there is more than one issue at play. (It should be noted that David Horowitz tried to point this out, but it seems that all anyone heard was his opposition to firing Churchill.) First of all, the First Amendment, as any college graduate should know, does not protect all speech. It prevents Congress from making any laws abridging the freedom of speech. Therefore, the Churchill situation is clearly -- clearly -- not a First Amendment issue. So let's stop discussing it as such.

It is, however, an issue of what our society deems to be appropriate. And that's where things get murkier.

The University of Colorado, Churchill's employer, is partially funded by taxpayers, and it follows that Churchill is thus responsible to those taxpayers (who provide 7% of the university's budget). Many have used that argument to support a Churchill dismissal; aside from the 7% figure, its flaw is that it renders the opinions of all non-residents of Colorado irrelevant in determining Churchill's fate. And most people who have been citing it are non-residents.

That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that Churchill shouldn't be dismissed. In fact, we think that he should. Here's why:

What Churchill says as a professor at an institution of higher learning (yes, we know...try not to snicker) ought to be "protected," in our estimation. He and all of his colleagues in America's colleges and university should be allowed to say things that are controversial -- whether they're from the far left or far right. Neither the university nor the taxpayers should fire people who say something that they disagree with, or which is unpopular. If it happens to Churchill, what's to keep it from happening to a conservative professor who condemns reparations for slavery or says something negative about affirmative action? That's not to equate his comments with those positions, but remember, college campuses are not controlled, generally speaking, by political moderates but by hypersensitive members of the left.

Now, just because Churchill should be allowed to make outrageous claims doesn't mean that others -- his students, fellow professors, interested third parties -- shouldn't be allowed to stand up and say, "Those claims are outrageous!" Academic freedom is a two-way street (something forgotten -- or conveniently ignored -- by most radicals like Churchill), and having a debate about his comments transforms them from mindless vitriol into a worthwhile academic experience. We could segue here into a lengthy discussion on pursuit of the truth and the existence of objective truth and the notion that we all have our own truths, but we won't bore you with that. Just know that, when presented with the facts that disprove his claim, Churchill will likely fall back on the "that's your truth, this is mine" meme which has been such an impediment to the progress of academia.

However, those points aside, Churchill does deserve to be dismissed -- but for a different reason: his shoddy scholarship. In the real world, it's called dismissal with just cause, and Churchill's academic negligence has been duly documented: lying about his military service and falsely claiming to be an American Indian are likely just the tip of the iceberg for a man who trained members of a terrorist group in firing weapons and making bombs in the mid-1980s. The University of Colorado has opened an inquiry into Churchill's past, but, unfortunately, it appears as if it too is conflating the contentiousness of Churchill's comments (which should not be a factor) with the relevant question of their veracity, as well as the accuracy of his curriculum vitae.
At a special University of Colorado Board of Regents meeting Feb. 3, Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced that he and two University deans would launch a ''thorough examination of Professor Churchill's writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works'' to see if he had overstepped the bounds of proper faculty conduct [emphasis added]. DiStefano said the review would provide due process for a decision whether to fire Churchill, a tenured professor.
This is exactly the wrong way to deal with Churchill. Who decides what constitutes "the bounds of proper faculty conduct"? Such a subjective standard is not just inadequate -- it's dangerous. That's why those calling for Churchill's scalp -- er, head -- need to be careful. It's one thing to remove Churchill; it's quite another to do it for the wrong reasons.
Pandora's Boxes don't come labeled as such. Otherwise, no one would ever open one.


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