Ward Churchill is not the problem

[Posted 9:23 AM by Roger Kimball]

The heat generated by the now infamous Ward Churchill episode at Hamilton College has not always been accompanied by a requisite degree of light. I first reported on the event on January 26 here. Since then it’s occupied columns in The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal, The New York Times, The New York Post, InstaPundit (where there are several links and comments), The Belmont Club (where there are also several stories), and many other venues, virtual and printed. (I and my colleagues followed up with pieces here, here, here, and here.) It has also been the subject of at least two segments of "The O’Reilly Factor" on Fox News and has even sparked the hostile interest of the governor of Colorado and the regents of the University of Colorado.

It seems quite clear that Ward Churchill is a nasty piece of work, a mendacious left-wing poseur utterly innocent of scholarly accomplishment. His malevolent "little Eichmanns" essay about the victims of 9/11 has occupied center stage, sending all and sundry into a tizzy of indignation. Much of the controversy has migrated from Hamilton College to the question of whether Churchill should be fired from his position as a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado. (He has already been forced to resign as head of the department.) One group says, "Yes, the chap’s a disgrace. He’s got to go." Another group says, "I hate what he says, but I am a good liberal, so whenever I am confronted with someone from the Left saying something wacky, I quote Voltaire and announce 1) I hate what he says but 2) I will defend to the death his right to say it." (There is also a third group that doesn’t like Churchill but thinks his "little Eichmanns" analogy is not far off, even if his choice of mascot was tasteless. This group--see, e.g., this post--agrees with Churchill about the evils of "corporate America," the CIA, etc., etc., but they recoil -- mostly -- from the comparison of 9/11 victims with Nazis.)

In my view, there are plenty of reasons that the University of Colorado might wish to dismiss Churchill from his tenured position. The guy’s record is a tapestry of fabrications. But I also believe that Ward Churchill is a red herring, a distraction from the real issue, or rather issues. There are two. One issue revolves around the distinction between free speech (the right to peaceful political dissent) and academic freedom (the more limited right to pursue, teach, and publish about the truth). This is a distinction that was often lost in the controversy over Ward Churchill. I have already said something about this here, where I quote Edward Shils on the point that academic freedom does not "extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching."

Let’s see what Shils has to say in a bit more detail. In his essay "Academic Freedom" (reprinted in The Order of Learning: Essays on the Contemporary University), Shils argues that

Academic freedom is the freedom of university teachers to perform their academic obligations of teaching and research. These are obligations to seek and communicate the truth according to "their best lights." Academic freedom is not the freedom of academic individuals to do just anything, to follow any impulse or desire, or to say anything that occurs to them. It is the freedom to do academic things: to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by systematic methodical research and assiduous research.
"That," Shils concludes, "is academic freedom proper." A number of corollaries follow. One is that one assess academic things according to academic or intellectual criteria, "regardless of the person’s political or religious beliefs, his or her sex, ethnic origin, personal qualities, kinship connections, friendship or enmity toward the individual or the work assessed." It also follows (and here what Shils has to say is relevant to the case of Ward Churchill) that academic freedom is limited in certain ways. For example, "An academic is not free to falsify the record of his observations; he is not free to forge or misrepresent the contents of documents and inscriptions." Shils also goes on to argue that although "Academic freedom includes political freedom," it is nonetheless "desirable that teachers should not expound their own political or moral preferences and values in their classes," and, if they do, that "they should take care to distinguish evaluative judgments from their statements of fact."

Shils’s discussion proceeds at a level far beyond what is relevant to someone like Ward Churchill. More pertinent is Shils’s essay "Academic Freedom and Permanent Tenure" (also in The Order of Learning) where he considers, inter alia, the grounds on which academic tenure might be revoked.

In the end, though, the whole issue of free speech and its smaller cousin, academic freedom, is of secondary importance in the controversy sparked by Hamilton College’s invitation to Ward Chruchchill. The central issue, from which Hamilton administrators have managed to deflect attention, is the politicization of higher education. Which is to say that, as regards Hamilton College, the issue is less Ward Churchill than the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture, the left-wing, activist organization that for more than a decade has been a force for transforming a liberal education (I use "liberal" in the old sense) into a form of political indoctrination. Stephen J. Goldberg, a professor of art history at Hamilton, finally touches on this point in "Time to take back Hamilton College," an editorial in today’s Utica Observer-Dispatch.

I understand the abstract principle of "freedom of speech," but there is a concrete context at stake -- this particular incident -- that helps us to understand the application of this principle. Coming on the heels of the Rosenberg Affair last semester, and due to the glaring absence of oversight and total lack of accountability on the part of the dean and the president with respect to the operations of the Kirkland Project, they left themselves and the entire college open, once again, to the predicaments in which we now have found ourselves.

To be very frank, the remnants of Kirkland have destroyed the reputation of Hamilton College, and crippled it financially for the foreseeable future. The Board of Trustees, as in the Enron Affair, sat on their hands, and worse, rationalized and ultimately supported the actions of the president, despite the damage that this was clearly bringing to the institution and its students. What they and the president seemed not to remember is that their primary "fiduciary" responsibilities are to the "shareholders" of Hamilton College: the students and the alumni.

Did we as a college and a faculty have to be maneuvered, once again, by the Kirkland Project and its director into the position of defending the indefensible: the freedom to speak by an extremist with a track record of inflammatory, hateful speech? By offering him an invitation to speak at Hamilton College, we would have thereby granted legitimacy to this hatemonger.

Overlooked in all of this is the desecration of the memory of Kirkland College, for which this Kirkland Project is named. The vast sums of money controlled by the Kirkland Project would be far better used to establish a scholarship fund for fine young women to attend Hamilton College. This would be a most fitting way to honor the legacy of Kirkland College, rather than waste it on the likes of Rosenberg and Churchill.

Quite right. But what Professor Goldberg does not go on to say is that the sorts of politicized garbage advocated by the Kirkland Project at Hamilton College is advocated by similar organizations at many, indeed most, other institutions of higher education in this country. Higher education has long been an important front in the culture war that began in the 1960s, a war whose aim is to remake American society according to a left-wing, antinomian blueprint. As I argued in my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America,
It has been in the life of art and the life of the mind . . . that the counterculture has had its most devastating effects. To an extent that would have been difficult to imagine thirty years ago, art and education have become handmaidens of political radicalism. Standards in both have plummeted. The art world has more and more jettisoned any concern with beauty and has become a playground for bogus "transgressive" gestures. Colleges and universities, aping this exhausted radicalism, have given themselves up to an uneasy mixture of politically correct causes and the rebarbative rhetoric of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and "cultural studies." The story of what has happened to our institutions of high culture since the Sixties is a story of almost uninterrupted degradation and pandering to forces inimical to culture.
The Kirkland Project is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of institutions on college campuses bent on radicalizing American society by betraying the intellectual and moral standards whose general observance they depend upon for their very existence. The silver lining in the sordid affair of Ward Churchill will be fully revealed when attention shifts from Churchill to the Kirkland Project, and from the Kirkland Project to the repudiation of liberal learning, academic standards, and moral probity that informs so much of what infects cultural life, especially academic cultural life, today.