Which Is More Important: Teaching or Politics?

It’s galling to (1) find oneself quoted positively in a story posted on David Horowitz’s propaganda site (though they now seem to have taken the story down: It can still be found at its original home) and (2) to see oneself criticized by someone as dedicated to the protection of academic freedom as I am. But that’s my situation this morning.

To me, it points out that our continuing problems of both negative perception of academia and our failures to take care of our own house are no nearer solution, thanks to the Ward Churchill affair, than they were before. If anything, they are worse.

The essay that Horowitz briefly hosted (I hope it was taken down because I am mentioned, but I suspect they hadn’t bothered to get permission) is by KC Johnson, a professor of History at Brooklyn College. Titled “Ward Churchill and the Diversity Agenda,” it originally appeared on a website of the conservative Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute called “Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities.” It uses the Churchill firing to continue the case for reform in our universities—something I agree with, though the Manhattan Institute people are not those I would like to see formulating that reform.

I would rather see progressives do it, for their liberal ideas fit better with the underlying concepts of “liberal arts” (see Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?). But progressives, like John K. Wilson (who wrote the other article, titled “Ward Redux”), seem to have fixated on First Amendment rights to the point where they are doing no more than chasing their own tails. Certainly, they aren’t contributing to the needed debate underlying future reform. They refuse to admit, for example, that Churchill was (and is) a problem for academia and continue to try to defend the indefensible. This does not help at all.

Wilson writes, in response to my assertion that Churchill had no business teaching, that “Churchill’s popularity among many students shows that it was a disservice to fire him.” Rapper 50 Cent is popular with students, too, but that wouldn’t earn him a place among the faculty.

Certain competencies are required for college teaching, among them proficiency in research (for the type of teaching Churchill was doing, at least). Even the kindest look at Churchill’s record of publication and research shows that he does not possess these competencies. Therefore, popular or not, he should not be teaching. It is a disservice to our students to claim otherwise—and an opening for legitimate criticism that we in academia are not performing the tasks of self-oversight we have taken on.

Wilson goes on to write, concerning the dubious process of Churchill’s initial hiring, that “Despite all of the accusations, no one has actually proven that Ward Churchill is not a Native American.” Well, no one has proven I am not, either.

Churchill is member of no tribe and can show no ancestry within a Native American group. The burden of proof of his authenticity rests with him, not with those who doubt him. He has yet to show anything that places his background within a Native-American community. Here again, with this spurious and laughable defense of Churchill, Wilson is making us in the progressive movement within education look bad–like we are clutching a straws to defend the indefensible. His defense of Churchill on the grounds that no one has proven a negative only makes it clearer that he cares more about keeping Churchill in his job than about education and honesty.

At the end of his article, Wilson makes the astonishing claim that, in the 1950s, “colleges thought that they could protect themselves from outside intrusion by sacrificing a few radical professors to the witchhunt.” This, as anyone knows who has either studied that time or who lived through it, is nonsense. And Churchill is not being sacrificed. There is no gain from his firing for anyone; no one thinks his going will ease the pressure on academia.

By any rational standard of evaluation of competencies (including by degrees or by proof of competency in their stead), Churchill should not have been teaching, let alone a tenured Full Professor. He got away with what amounts to a scam for almost twenty years. Yes, it is true that the means by which the scam was uncovered were highly questionable (every bit as dishonest, in my mind, as Churchill himself), but that does not mitigate Churchill’s “crimes.”

As a primary goal of an educational institution is education, we cannot go about defending the “right” of unqualified people to teach. No matter what else one might say about the Churchill case, it is unfair to our students for us to ignore this basic truth of our profession.