Friday, March 04, 2005
Interesting op-ed that has its origins in the Ward Churchill mess. I think it makes some very good points, but reaches some absurd and, frankly, disturbing conclusions.

First the good points:

The sacred cow of tenure is under review, along with the limits of academic freedom and the shameful lack of ideological balance within college faculties. It's like peeling off the outer layers of an artichoke to get to the heart of the issue.
. . . .

Some of his apologists have resorted to playing the "McCarthyism" card. Nonsense. This implies that Churchill is being unjustly hounded for things he has not done or things that cause no harm.
On the contrary, Churchill's misdeeds appear to be quite tangible, deadly serious and extremely harmful. That's why there's an investigation. Let's see what it concludes.
Professor Charles Braider, director of the Center for Humanities and Arts, says the Churchill investigation has caused a "chilling effect" on curriculum and is "affecting the very life of the university."

I have no problem with academic freedom - so long as it is applied equally (Compare Churchill with Summers at Harvard - if Churchill can call victims of 9/11 nazis, Summers can attempt to provoke discussion by throwing out the possibility that women may lack some abilities as to science. I think both are wrong, but I think they should be allowed to say what they want - they just make themselves look foolish and frankly (absent Summers' hedging language before his remarks which makes it unclear if he believed that proposition or was just throwing it out there for discussion) like complete idiots.

I fully agree that the "Churchill is a victim" argument is complete malarky. He is being investigated for possible fraud and other misdeeds. He is being fully afforded due process, and that investigation hasn't concluded anything. If he committed fraud, he should be fired. If he didn't commit fraud or any other misdeed, then he should be allowed to continue spewing whatever he wants to spew.

As far as this having a "chilling effect" that is equally absurd. For the Summers situation there is a strong argument there is a chilling effect, but for Churchill the only "chilling effect" should be on people thinking of committing fraud by lying on their resume or application. And that obviously is conduct that should be chilled, since it is illegal after all.

But here is where I think this op-ed crosses the line completely:

1) Ideology and politics. As Rorty proudly proclaims, the Left has taken over academe. We want it back. 2) Accountability. Self-important academics believe themselves to be beyond reproach, sitting as philosopher-kings, dispensing their wisdom to the ignorant masses. Nonsense. They're ordinary people, government employees dependent on their customers and the taxpayers for their income, and ultimately accountable to their bosses and the citizens who elect the Board of Regents. Academic freedom is not absolute.
Want what back? There should be a diversity of opinions in the academy - no viewpoint should be allowed to dominate to the point other viewpoints are suppressed (which is what has happened right now perhaps). But it shouldn't be a turf-war between one extreme viewpoint and another - that is just foolish. It would be just as bad to have academy a bastion of radical right viewpoints as it would be (if true) that it is now a bastion of radical left viewpoints. Enough said.

Point #2 suggests firing people who offer viewpoints that differ from what this commentator believes, since they are just "government employees." That is obviously absurd. Perhaps op-ed authors should be fired for writing arguments I disagree with?

And the philosopher-king reference makes no sense to me. I think he mixed up his RNC talking points and that phrase was meant to go in his op-ed about the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons (where it is a good point - that I thought I made on my blog, but apparently I made it in comments on some other blog.) I just don't see where the "king" part of the philosopher-king analogy fits in with a professor. They have no true power over the government - and they are supposed to be philosopher types (even if not actually in the philosophy department). The whole point of the academy is to have a marketplace of ideas, so they should advocate their views as strongly as the facts and logic allows them to. I see nothing wrong with that (and in fact I think it would be bad for them not to do this).

But all that said, I think this commentator sort of foresees the future. The pendulum is swinging strongly to the right, and I fully expect the arch-conservative judicial appointments some of the republicans want to go through, will in fact go through. And I fully expect there will be pretty strong push-back against public universities and colleges. They are publicly funded for the most part after all. If there hasn't been already, I expect states with republican controlled legislatures to start proposing/passing bills that will cut funding to universities if they do not get diversity of viewpoints in their faculty. I don't think this is a good idea, but if that is what it takes to get a truly open marketplace of ideas in our schools, then so be it I guess.
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I am an attorney in Chicago. Politically speaking, I am an indepedent that tends to lean conservative on fiscal issues and progressive on social issues. I try to remain as unbiased and open-minded as possible. Please email or post any comments, and especially criticisms. If something I say is wrong, or you disagree - let me know about it!

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