Prevention 101

February 24, 2005

University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill deserves to be excoriated and shunned. Churchill, as widely reported, likened Americans killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to “little Eichmanns.” At the same time he celebrated the “gallant sacrifice” of those terrorist “combat teams” who had annihilated them. Elsewhere, Churchill declared that the United States should be put “out of existence”; “it may be,” he also stated, “that more 9/11’s are necessary.” Both public officials and private citizens should exercise their right to free expression by scathingly criticizing such odious speech.


But — barring evidence of violations such as academic or resume fraud — boards such as UC’s Regents should not fire Churchill, and not only because punitive action taken by a government appointed body against a public employee, on grounds of even the most vicious and intellectually nugatory speech, would set a dangerous precedent.


No, to fire Churchill would also obscure the larger underlying problem, which is the long overdue need to root out the institutional corruption within higher education. How is it, we must ask, that the tenured and erstwhile department head Churchill, like so many other extremists of his ilk, has risen to the top of the academic pyramid?


Such persons routinely enter and advance in the ranks of the professoriate because of hiring and promotion procedures in the academy, which routinely and unquestioningly advantage those with views at the left of the political spectrum. The likes of Churchill are hired, and elevated within departments and universities, because their professorial peers (who control these processes) share, or at least cannot bring themselves openly to condemn, their fanatical views. Those few remaining faculty members who hold different views have long ago learned that their own career prospects will be yet further damaged, and their social relations with their colleagues poisoned, if they speak out.


This political monopoly has nearly killed the healthy exchange of views, the to-and-fro of forceful academic criticism which spawns strong theorizing and original research, in the major areas of the humanities and the social sciences. Because the likes of Churchill are subject to no serious evaluation or criticism, nothing stands in the way of their spouting ever more extremist venom (all those who work for large corporations are, he says, “little Eichmanns”). This in turn spawns conditions which are intellectually unhealthy not only for Churchill’s hapless students but also for him and the entire academic profession.


John Kekes, a former philosophy professor at the State University of New York-Albany, explains how “the ranking [of prospective faculty recruits] is influenced by…prejudices, preferences…and extra-institutional loyalties of members of the search committee…The ranking [has]…at best only the most tenuous connection with the applicants’ likely teaching and research.” As Kekes and other critics make clear, these entrenched practices subordinate education to mainly politically leftist purposes; instead of being educated, Kekes writes, students are “conscripted as footsoldiers in the army fighting — usually — for left-wing causes.”


As has been well documented, and as every professor of conservative leanings knows, existing procedures for hiring and promotion on campuses have led to a leftist tilt in curricula and research in the humanities and social sciences. The Left’s consolidation of power in university decision-making then carries over to the selection of campus speakers and of recipients of honorary degrees, among many other aspects of daily campus life. As a new survey at 50 top campuses by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni indicates, half of all students — not just conservatives — say their professors interject their political opinions in the classroom, and almost one-third of them feel pressure to agree with those opinions to receive a good grade.


The leftist establishment on campuses actively suppresses the speech of students who disagree with its nostrums. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, repressive speech codes and “re-education” in diversity-sensitivity abound in colleges. Many students have been stigmatized and even expelled. There have been numerous incidents of the theft and destruction of college newspapers by left-leaning groups intent upon banning speech with which they disagree. As David French of FIRE points out, “80 to 85 % of the cases brought before the organization involve censorship by the left.”


Today’s campuses, in other words, respect every kind of diversity but the one most central to the very mission of higher education, namely intellectual diversity. In order to ensure unfettered intellectual exchange, the sine qua non of a true education and of rigorous academic research, university governing boards should reassert the academic principles that prevailed before 60s leftists commandeered and politicized higher education.


The Academic Bill of Rights, which is being promulgated nationwide by Students for Academic Freedom, provides a means for boards to signal their concern that these principles be restored and respected. The SAF, founded in 2003, has already spawned 130 chapters. The bill it proposes admonishes campuses to prevent discrimination against faculty and students on the basis of their political, social, or religious views; to foster a plurality of scholarly perspectives and methodologies in the classroom; and to encourage a selection of speakers and other campus activities that reflect intellectual pluralism. The bill’s provisions are in harmony with those first enshrined in the 1915 Declaration of Principles, and then in the 1940 Statement, of the American Association of University Professors. Legislative movement toward adopting some form of the bill is underway in 19 states, and in Colorado presidents of major universities recently adopted a variation thereof as a compromise with the state legislature.


On January 25, I proposed that the SUNY Board of Trustees, working with faculty, students, and campus administrators across the system’s 64 campuses, explore how the bill’s provisions can be appropriately incorporated into existing policies on academic decision-making and student life throughout the state-university system. Upon adoption of the bill, implementation by campuses would proceed without board micromanagement and, most emphatically, without the substitution of new ideologically based criteria, monopolies, or quotas (for example, litmus tests based on political affiliation in faculty hiring) in place of those that now exist. The only “enforcement mechanism” necessary, to quote National Association of Scholars president Steve Balch, would be “the clear expectation that each campus community will apply its creative imagination to solving the problems identified by the bill, and then report back as to what has been accomplished.”


At the very least, implementation would entail a serious and long-overdue review of faculty hiring and promotion practices, among other academic procedures subject to current abuse. This review would shine light on the byzantine, monopolistic, academically destructive, and often tyrannical control of so many parts of contemporary higher education by the left.


Adoption of the bill by the SUNY board, and other higher-education trustees throughout the country, would bring much-needed openness and accountability to a corrupt process that is all too often better at fostering extremism than it is at educating students.


In the words of cultural critic Roger Kimball, “the silver lining in this sordid affair will be fully revealed when attention shifts from Churchill to the repudiation of liberal learning, academic standards, and moral probity that informs so much of what infects cultural life, especially academic cultural life, today.”


Let the light shine on the dark undergrowth of our nation’s academic institutions from out of which Churchill slithered.

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Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Investigation of Professor for Controversial Essay