What About the Next Ward Churchill?

[The follwing was written for Free Exchange on Campus about the case of Ward Churchill, who will probably lose his job teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder tomorrow.]

It’s rather too easy, when looking at the Ward Churchill situation, to get caught up in the question of the man himself. I’ve done so, as has just about everyone who has argued the issue—regardless of stance. But it’s not the man that’s important. Instead, it’s how we, as academics and others concerned with our universities, react to accusations against members of the academic community.

There are two issues we should be addressing, neither involving the particulars of the case: First, is the motivation of an investigation into an academic’s professional behavior significant to any community-wide defense of that academic? Second, are academics policing themselves adequately enough to justify their insistence that others keep their hands off of academic freedom?

Arguments over Churchill, whether between a David Horowitz type and an academic or between those within academia who see a witch-hunt and those who see simply a cad brought to rights, have been going on for well more than a year, now. Indeed, though his guilt or innocence should not be the point of the broader discussion (few of us are really in a position to judge), there are those on all sides who try to make Churchill and his presumed guilt or innocence an emblem for their greater argument about academia.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, for example, plasters his picture over the cover of their screed against professors entitled, not surprisingly, “How Many Ward Churchills?” On the first page of the report, one finds this (over the name of Anne Neal, the organization’s president):

Is there really only one Ward Churchill? Or are there many? Do professors in their classrooms ensure a robust exchange of ideas designed to help students to think for themselves? Or do they use their classrooms as platforms for propaganda, sites of sensitivity training, and launching pads for political activism? Do our college and university professors foster intellectual diversity or must students toe the party line?

Suddenly, Ward Churchill is no longer even the professor whose inflammatory statements led to an investigation that found questionable conduct in other areas. Suddenly, he’s the standard to which our universities have fallen, one of propaganda instead of teaching. This is a mis-use of the Churchill controversy for political purposes well beyond the actual case, taking perceptions of the man and generalizing from them.

Suddenly, Ward Churchill is being used as a knife to attack what Neal (like Horowitz) see as a leftist dominated academia that has fallen far away from education.

Naturally enough, those within academia have fought back.

Some have decided that the best way of countering the attacks is to defend Ward Churchill on the grounds that the investigation into his activities was politically motivated. To them, it’s less important that he did something wrong than the fact that he was investigated because of his political activities. In a letter to the University of Colorado Board of Regents last week, Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Executive Director, and Cathryn Hazouri, Executive Director of the Colorado ACLU wrote:

We believe the poisoned atmosphere in which this investigation was launched, and the circumstances under which it was initiated, have irretrievably tainted the process. The investigation of Professor Churchill’s scholarship cannot be separated from the indefensible lynch-mob furor that generated the initial calls for his termination. Firing Professor Churchill in these circumstances does not send a message about academic rigor and standards of professional integrity. On the contrary, it sends a warning to the academic community that politically unpopular dissenters speak out at their peril.

Notable scholars, including Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, and Howard Zinn signed an open letter stating that:

The relentless pursuit of and punitive approach of the University of Colorado at Boulder to Professor Ward Churchill is a revealing instance of the ethos that is currently threatening academic freedom. The voice of the university and intellectual community needs to be heard strongly and unequivocally in defense of dissent and critical thinking. And one concrete expression of such a resolve is to oppose the recommended dismissal of Ward Churchill from his position as a senior tenured faculty member.

What he may or may not have done himself, in their minds, is less important than the nature and provenance of the investigation. Attacks like Neal’s, they believe, justify their defense of Churchill.

Others disagree, seeing the attitude of the ACLU and the signers of the letter as a circling of the leftist wagons that leaves way too many with an impression of liberal academia as more interested in protecting its own than in insuring that professors are both qualified and intellectually honest. They see defense of Churchill as a tactic that ultimately weakens academic freedom for (in their eyes) it demonstrates that academics are unable to police themselves. They see the question “How many Ward Churchills?” arising from the fact that it was not, indeed, anyone inside academia who drew attention to him, though it should have been. Who else with shaky credentials and questionable scholarship, they see outsiders asking, might our universities be hiding? Rather than feeling it necessary to protect Ward Churchill due to the nature of the attack, these people (and I am among them) argue that academia should concentrate first on cleaning its own house. We should be making ourselves less vulnerable to such attacks by policing ourselves more carefully.

Outside of Churchill himself, not many are arguing any longer over things like Churchill’s debunked claim of a Native America heritage or over whether or not he actually engaged in questionable academic behavior. Instead, as I have indicated, those addressing the issue inside of academia are arguing over tactics in anticipation of and in response to his anticipated firing (or confirmation thereof) by the University of Colorado Board of Regents this coming Tuesday, July 24, 2007.

We struggle over the question: Which way is best? Should the fact of a witch-hunt be enough to bring academia to the defense of one of its own? The knee-jerk answer is “Yes.” But what if it turns out that the person in question (the details of the Churchill case aside) really wasn’t qualified for the position, by background or by scholarship? What if it turns out that there certainly was dishonesty going on? Should the defense be continued?

The results of the Churchill case will not answer these questions. But, as we move forward with or without Churchill in our midst, everyone concerned with academic freedom needs to consider how best to react next time. The argument, in other words, will not be over on Tuesday.

If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest? We don’t want people saying that we care more about our “friends” than about the quality of the education we offer and the scholarship we are doing. Are we making sure that will be the case?

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be the man himself, Ward Churchill, that we are arguing about inside academia. His weaknesses seem pretty well established. But the conversation should continue about how best we respond to situations like this until we have developed means of insuring we can be confident of our own academic integrity and are able to mount an unambiguous defense of our academic freedom.

Update: Sherman Dorn writes:

Barlow is right that the symbolic politics are important in some ways. But the critical question in each individual case is academic due process, not public perception. Should we warp academic due process to match what we think should happen, or what those outside academe think should happen? I haven’t seen that in the actions of faculty at Colorado, but Barlow appears more concerned with perception than due process. And that is worrisome.

The question that Dorn elides also has to do with process… in hiring and promotion. It does not appear that proper procedure was followed in the first place. Demanding “due process” after that does not suffice, for the process has already been perverted.

Dorn has it backwards. He doesn’t seem to understand that it really isn’t perception that worries me, but our own responsibilities–from the beginning of the hiring process through promotion and tenure and on to firing, resignation, or retirement.