Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2005 / 6 Adar I, 5765
Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado seems to
be enjoying his 15 minutes of infamy for his childish rants against people
who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Others of course resent his cheap shots
at the dead, and some are trying to get him fired.
The resulting controversy has wider implications for the
understanding and misunderstanding of what is meant by "academic
However symptomatic Professor Churchill may be of what is wrong
with academia today, his situation has nothing to do with academic freedom.
His remarks that provoked so much controversy were not made in a classroom
or even on campus.
There are no real grounds for firing him under current rules and
practices which tells you what is wrong with those rules and practices.
Professor Churchill is protected by tenure rules that are a much bigger
problem than this one man or this one episode.
In this era of dumbed-down education, when rhetoric has replaced
both logic and evidence for many people, some think the issue is "freedom of
speech." Indeed, some critics of Professor Churchill have been shouted down
by his supporters, in the name of freedom of speech.
Too many people some of them judges seem to think that
freedom of speech means freedom from consequences for what you have said. If
you believe that, try insulting your boss when you go to work tomorrow.
Better yet, try insulting your spouse before going to bed tonight.
While this column is protected by freedom of speech, that does
not stop any editor from getting rid of it if he doesn't like what I say.
But, even if every editor across the length and breadth of the country
refused to carry this column, that would be no violation of my freedom of
Freedom of speech does not imply a right to an audience.
Otherwise the audience would have no right to its own freedom. Editors,
movie producers, speakers' bureaus and other intermediaries have every right
to decide what they will and will not present to their audiences.
Unfortunately, many of those who talk the loudest and longest
about "freedom of speech" and "academic freedom" are in fact trying to
justify the imposition of propaganda on a captive audience in our schools
At one college, some gutsy students start chanting "OT" for
"off topic" when one of their professors starts making political comments
that have nothing to do with the subject of his course.
Should a professor of accounting or chemistry be fired for using
up class time to sound off about homelessness or the war in Iraq? Yes!
There is no high moral principle that prevents it. What prevents
it are tenure rules that have saddled so many colleges with so many
self-indulgent prima donnas who seem to think that they are philosopher
kings, when in fact they are often grossly ignorant or misinformed outside
the narrow confines of their particular specialty.
Over the years, the notion of academic freedom has expanded
beyond autonomy within one's academic field to faculty governance of
colleges and universities in general. Thus professors decide whether the
institution's endowment can be invested in companies or countries that are
out of favor among the anointed, or whether students will be allowed to join
fraternities or the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
There is nothing in specialized academic expertise which makes
professors' opinions on issues outside their specialty any better than
anyone else's opinions. In no other institution religious or secular,
military or civilian are people who make decisions that shape the
institution unable to be fired when those decisions lead to bad results.
The combination of tenure and academic self-governance is
unique and explains much of the atmosphere of self-indulgence and
irresponsibility on campus, of which Professor Ward Churchill is just one
extreme example. Re-thinking confused notions of "academic freedom" is far
more important than firing Professor Churchill and thereby turning a jackass
into a martyr.
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