Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Opinionator: A blog at the NY Times By Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill, he of “little Eichmanns” fame, was fired yesterday by the university’s Board of Regents “on the ground that he had committed academic misconduct by plagiarizing and falsifying parts of his scholarly research.”

While the case will now go to the courts, the court of online opinion has already spoken. Churchill has his defenders, like Russell Shaw at Huffington Post:

Why is Ward Churchill’s dismissal so infuriating to me? Two reasons. One, having been to and taught in college, I have used and borne witness to the phenomena of professors that make seemingly outlandish statements to spark debate. The debate can be class-wide, campus-wide, or society-wide, but statements can be an effective tool of the polemicist. Second, I am as close to a believer in academic freedom of speech as you can get. No matter how offensive, I believe it is a central role of academicians to raise the points they choose and then try to prove them. I personally don’t see how Churchill’s objectionable argumentation could ever be proved or validated, but that’s why we have other academicians.

Mike Dunford, the Questionable Authority, feels that “as bad a message as firing Churchill sends — and it is a bad message — it needed to be done.” His explanation:

There is no right to be believed. Trust — credibility — is a privilege that is hard to win and easy to lose … He needed to be fired because he shows absolutely no signs of understanding that he did anything wrong. Ward Churchill seems to believe that it is acceptable to manufacture facts, manufacture “outside” support for his arguments, and do or say anything else that advances the particular perspective that he advocates.

Another academic blogger, Janet D. Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science, agrees that Churchill’s politics played a role in the Regents’ action, but doesn’t find that a convincing defense.

“The feds wanted to prosecute Al Capone for his gangland criminal activities but ended up nailing him for tax evasion,” she notes. “The forces who were most vocal early on in calling for the firing of Ward Churchill went after him for his political views, but the basis for his firing is the academic misconduct. The motivation for the prosecution does not change the fact that the target was caught doing something wrong. If you don’t want your political enemies to have firm basis to call for your firing, it helps not to have committed other firing offenses.”

The last word, for now anyway, comes from the university’s president, Hank Brown, writing at The Wall Street Journal:

His case is about far more than academic misconduct. It is about the accountability that public universities must demonstrate. Mr. Churchill’s difficulties in facing up to his academic responsibilities are in many ways emblematic of higher education’s trouble with accountability. Too often, colleges and universities tend to insulate themselves in ivy-covered buildings and have not been as diligent as necessary to ensure that the academic enterprise is conducted rigorously and honestly. This elitist attitude is simply outdated, and our university has made tenure reforms — precipitated by the Churchill case — that will ensure academic integrity.