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February 02, 2005

Prof. Ward Churchill--Academic Freedom at Colorado

I hope the blogosphere and organizations such as the NAS and AAUP pick up on the case of Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado quickly. There are serious calls for firing him from his tenured position there because of his political views as he expresses them outside of his teaching and administrative duties. He is anti-American and blames America and the victims for 9-11. Instapundit has a post on how kooky he is, as does Professor Bainbridge. Prominent people are calling for his firing because of this, saying that he has a right to freedom of speech, but not to employment by the state government. I've heard this on TV from conservatives, and I haven't heard opposition from liberals....


Churchill does, of course, have a clear right not to be fired for his political views. It's part of the normal contract of a tenured professor, and I'm sure any court will back him on that. And that is a good thing. We want professors to be able to vigorously voice unpopular views. If they bring such views into the classroom when they are irrelevant to the course, or punish students for disagreeing, or make political views important to administrative decisions such as whether to tenure a colleague, then a professor should be punished, but I have not seen anybody claim that here.

Professor Churchill has been chairman of the ethnic studies department, and I wouldn't object to relieving him of that position. Being chairman is as often a burden as a privilege, anyway, so this is not really a punishment, just a re-allocation. And, indeed, he has resigned on his own, the proper thing to do, as the Rocky Mountain News of February 1 tells us:

CU officials late Monday acknowledged Churchill's resignation as department chairman. Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano issued a statement endorsing Churchill's decision to step down.

"While Professor Churchill has the constitutional right to express his political views, his essay on 9/11 has outraged and appalled us and the general public," DiStefano said.

The CU Board of Regents has called a special meeting to discuss Churchill on Thursday.

"If they're meeting to talk about what to do in terms of institutional damage control, and to define the institution's position on this, then I have no objection," Churchill said. "They're doing their job."

Chancellor DeStefano should not criticize a member of his faculty for taking an unpopular political stance, however. That, indeed, is the kind of abuse I was talking about earlier.

I've thought about this subject, as those readers who remember my weblog controversy know (I said that homosexuals should not be hired as schoolteachers, and got criticized by my chancellor and editorialized against by the local newspaper) . I was never in serious danger of punishment. My pay raise last year was about 1%, by far the smallest in my dozen years here, but I never investigated it, and that might well be unrelated. But it was curious how although I was overwhelmed by supportive and critical emails from townspeople, students, and low-level university staff (sorry: I didn't answer most before I lost most of them in a computer glitch), there was very little public comment by the faculty, either in support or against me. My sense was that everybody wanted to keep their heads down on a controversial issue, especially since it was all talk rather than official action.

Although the Churchill case seems to be straightforward as a matter of the question of the University of Colorado punishing him for his views, it does have lots of interesting angles.

(1) I looked for supportive statements. The Boulder Faculty Assembly has a moderate but correct statement.

Today, the University of Colorado has been challenged again to defend the principles of academic freedom to a public that may not appreciate fully the essential requirements and benefits of debate and differing views in an institution of higher education. Professor Ward Churchill’s writings contravene accepted thinking and community sentiment. Reasonable people may consider them controversial, offensive, and odious in some of the examples used; indeed, many faculty are themselves offended. The widespread release of these writings through the media has brought calls for censure and punishment of Professor Churchill.

The University, through its Regents and administration, must resist these pressures. If we stand for the dissemination of knowledge, of the freedom to question, and of freedom of expression, then we must protect all, including Professor Churchill and others, expressing the most unpopular sentiments. Anything less than an affirmation of academic freedom for all the University’s faculty is an admission that we are not truly committed to the University’s mission and philosophy.

I couldn't find out if the faculty assembly actually voted on this, or whether its leaders just issued it.

(2) The campus newspaper says that the College Republicans are sharply divided, and may have a schism:
The College Republicans were at the UMC to collect signatures from students for a petition requesting CU President Elizabeth Hoffman fire Churchill outright.

Courtney Bekter, the College Republicans' program director, chimed in: "He shouldn't be spreading rhetoric on taxpayer money."

The College Republicans said an unidentified man stole sheets of signatures the group had collected.

"He ripped it out of my hand, pushed me back and ran," Bekter said. ...

Meanwhile, a smaller group of Republican protesters disagreed with the College Republicans' anti-Churchill stance.

"This is whiny liberal tactics," CU political science student Aron Smith, a self-described conservative. "I don't even want my grandma to see me out here next to these signs."

He pointed to a College Republican supporter who was holding a sign with Churchill's name crossed out.

Smith said he supports Churchill because of the First Amendment - the freedom of speech and expression.

He said he does not agree with Churchill's remarks.

"I think his comments were a little insensitive, maybe a lot insensitive," Smith said.

Smith and a few acquaintances were at the rally to collect signatures for support of a new Republican organization that might someday compete with the College Republicans.

(3) Professor Churchill, who is an Indian, appears to be an ethnic studies academic "operator". He has an agent representing him and advertising him for speaking engagements. Hamilton College invited him to speak, for a hefty fee, and then cravenly disinvited him. A Wall Street Journal op-ed said Hamilton College should not have invited him, which is correct, by my thinking. That is a quite separate question from hiring and retaining him as a member of the faculty, though. My guess is that his scholarship is rubbish, but if I found it was not, and it was good enough, I'd hire him at Indiana University. It would even be fine to invite him to give an unpaid research workshop (paying for his plane ticket and hotel, as is customary). What is different is hiring him to give a public lecture. I wouldn't invite the head of Planned Parenthood either, as Hamilton College is doing. The public lecture is a sign that Hamilton College wanted to hear him give a public platform to express his views to its students, and was willing to pay a lot to do so.

(4) It is interesting, but irrelevant to the question of whether he should be punished, that Professor Churchill favors the general principle of suppressing free speech. Via Professor Bainbridge and the ">Rocky Mountain News we discover that Professor Churchill believes that people have no right to hold Columbus Day parades because they offend his opinions:
Fellow protester and CU-Boulder professor Ward Churchill told the gathering that the First Amendment doesn't protect hate speech, citing a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows states to ban cross burnings. But burning a cross with the intent to intimidate or instill fear is a far cry from Italian-Americans marching and dancing the tarantella to honor an explorer they consider a hero.

We don't allow someone free speech as some kind of reward, as something to make him happy. We allow it because we think it's good for the rest of us to hear diverse views. Those views include the view that America should be destroyed, that conservative views should be punished by imprisonment, that homosexual marriage should be legal, and so forth.

But enough for now. I hope someone picks up on this. I wouldn't have gone on at such length except that Churchill's situation is being neglected by bloggers.

Posted by erasmuse at February 2, 2005 10:57 AM

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