Ward Churchill, Academic Freedom, and other silliness.

19 Jan
In the weeks following the attacks of 9/11/2001, a Faculty member of the University of Colorado at Bolder, one Ward Churchill wrote an essay comparing the 9/11 dead, in their capacity as financial workers, to Adolph Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust. This naturally offended a great many people, which was almost certainly what Churchill intended. As the ‘controversy’ continued to simmer, various people (for various reasons) began to examine Professor Churchill’s academic conduct. It was found that he had transgressed more or less seriously on a number of occasions, and he was terminated from his position as chair of the Ethnic Studies department. He has, not unnaturally, sued. The courts have gone in several directions on the matter, and there is no reason to expect that a final decision will be reached soon.
Now, the Political Left takes the position that Churchill is being persecuted for exercising his freedom of speech. The Political Right is, conversely, strongly of the opinion that Churchill may have attracted attention by his ill-chosen remarks, but was terminated because he is an academic disgrace.
Both sides are off the mark.
The thing that most people don’t understand about academics like Churchill, is that it is their job to be controversial. That is what they are hired for. Their job descriptions almost certainly say something else, but they were chosen because they could be relied upon to regularly cause some sort of stir, get their University’s name in the news, and please a class of Liberal Intellectual whose opinions have a lot to do with a University’s reputation among Those Who Matter. Professor Peter Singer serves Princeton in this capacity, with his often contrarian pronouncements on Biomedical Ethics. Anyone who follows the more outrageous utterances out of Academia will no doubt be able recall a few more names.
The Right made a certain amount of fuss over Churchill’s credentials; there is some question as to the authenticity of his claimed Indian heritage, and also some issues about his degrees. What they entirely failed to realize is that, for the kind of position Churchill held, paper qualifications pale beside a reputation for outrageousness. It is not unlikely that the committee that hired him in the first place knew that some of his resume was bushwa, and may have felt that was more a point in his favor than not.  As for his alleged academic misconduct, that would not have mattered if he hadn’t tap-danced on a cultural land-mine. Professors of outrageousness are not held to the same standards as ordinary scholars, so long as they keep stirring up the animals and amusing their fellow Intellectuals.
Colleges and Universities have always been handy places for elite groups with some patronage pull to stash people with The Right Ideas, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. In a weird way this is part of what we call ‘academic freedom’; the Groves of Academia have been resistant to the overall cultural tides, frequently because special interests have been using them as safe havens for minority points of view. But by the same token there has seldom been true academic freedom, just a difference between the academic culture and the main culture.
What happened with and to Ward Churchill is interesting. Normally, no amount of outside outrage would have moved the University to fire a pet agitator. Sure, the ‘little Eichmanns” statement was vicious, tacky, and so forth, but that’s what the University was paying Churchill to be. But the degree of public anger was high enough that simply ignoring the problem didn’t make it go away. And people outside the hallowed circle of  Western Intellectualism began digging into Churchill’s past, and turning up embarrassing skeletons.  But there are plenty of Trendy Intellectual fixtures on assorted campuses who are notorious for passing off political opinion as serious research, sloppy research, or worse. Only this time the University was really feeling the heat. And so Churchill got canned for behavior that is, frankly, what he was hired for.
If the Intellectual Left is paying any attention to this, they must be getting the leaping fantods. Whole “ethnic studies” departments could be decimated if this became a trend. No more submitting Rap CDs as ‘publication’. No more repeating fondly held Liberal myths as documented fact. The status quo could get VERY seasick.
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