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Churchill and AAUP Statements

After fewer than 72 hours of operation, The Torch is already generating significant email feedback—most of it pertaining to Ward Churchill. One of the most thought-provoking notes came from John Bruce, who raised some issues that deserve a careful response. I’ll quote the bulk of his email:

I continue to be puzzled that the discussion of Ward Churchill is consistently ignoring central professional standards that ought to apply to the case. These are freely available on the web and in faculty handbooks. For instance, here is the applicable section from the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure:

c. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

The 1940 Interpretive Comments on this section add:

3. If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions of paragraph (c) of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.

The 1970 Interpretive Comments add:

Paragraph (c) of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 Statement should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 “Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances” (Policy Documents and Reports, 32), which states inter alia: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”

Let’s put these comments in the context of just a small sample of Churchill’s public remarks, for example from this interview:

One of the things I’ve suggested is that it may be that more 9/11s are necessary. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hate to frame it in terms of actual transformation of consciousness. “Hey those brown-skinned folks dying in the millions in order to maintain this way of life, they can wait forever for those who purport to be the opposition here to find some personally comfortable and pure manner of affecting the kind of transformation that brings not just lethal but genocidal processes to a halt.” They have no obligation—moral, ethical, legal or otherwise—to sit on their thumbs while the opposition here dithers about doing anything to change the system. So it’s removing the sense of—and right to—impunity from the American opposition.

It seems to me that these and many similar utterances bear directly on Churchill’s fitness for his position. He is all but advocating and justifying further terrorist acts against the United States. It seems to me that his remarks are frequently inaccurate, they do not show appropriate restraint, they do not show respect for the opinions of others, and they raise considerable confusion about whether Churchill is speaking for his institution. If anyone disagrees with Churchill or the people for whom he claims to speak, according to the above, “these brown-skinned folks..have no obligation to sit on their thumbs...”—they’re presumably entitled to commit more terrorist acts. And who, by the way, are these people “dying in the millions in order to maintain this way of life”? This sounds like pure fantasy to me.

The guidelines I see here would make it appropriate for the University of Colorado to convene review boards to give Churchill due process in determining whether his remarks show his unfitness to serve in his position. Churchill’s printed extramural opinions appear to be wildly incoherent and somewhat detached from reality—what kinds of utterances would demonstrate a faculty member’s unfitness if these didn’t? It appears to me that the overall evidence of fraud or plagiarism in Churchill’s scholarly work would also be appropriate areas for the board to investigate under the guidelines.

So I continue to think that those who automatically feel that Churchill is entitled to some near-absolute “academic freedom” haven’t done basic homework. It may be that pursuing this kind of review board due-process procedure would be more expensive than using some other means to terminate Churchill. On the other hand, as some have suggested, the Churchill situation already poses a danger to academic freedom. If the academy can’t keep its own house in order using the resources at its disposal, it deserves what it will assuredly get.

My response: The short answer is that AAUP guidelines are not constitutional standards. They represent, instead, the AAUP’s own (rather imprecise) formulation of academic freedom. Further, the AAUP itself has not interpreted these guidelines in the manner that Mr. Bruce suggests and has, in fact, issued a statement supportive of Churchill’s academic freedom.

Simply put, Mr. Churchill’s First Amendment rights trump any set of policies, procedures, or guidelines—no matter how influential or authoritative—issued by any public or private entity. While there may be a credible argument that the AAUP academic freedom statements can and should be interpreted in the manner that Mr. Bruce suggests, such an argument would carry little weight in court. And we should be thankful that the AAUP (or any private entity) does not have the final word on free expression. As the voice of America’s (hardly ideologically balanced or intellectually consistent) university faculties, the AAUP cannot and should not be entrusted with defining the parameters of acceptable faculty expression.

The university “failed to keep its house in order” when it recruited, hired, and promoted a man with Churchill’s obvious academic and intellectual deficiencies. But now that it hired him, the university cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination to excise him from the faculty. If he is found guilty of academic or resume fraud (after receiving appropriate due process), then termination may be a viable option. Any such decision must be made, however, without reference to his views on September 11.

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