The assault on critical thinking on university campuses

by Amaury Nora

Freedom of speech is one of the most basic rights that individuals enjoy and one that is taken granted. It is vital to the existence of democracy and the respect of human dignity. It is also one of the most vulnerable rights, because freedom of expression means the freedom to express one’s discontent with the status quo with the desire to change it. In our post-9/11 world, it is one of the most threatened rights; where the government is relying on fear and demonization to curtail this right and to pacify a nervous, poorly informed, and confused citizenry at home. Academic free speech and the First Amendment once are under intense fire in the midst of a political and mass media witch hunt on Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Last Tuesday, University of Colorado President and former US Senator Hank Brown received a report from a faculty committee regarding its hearing on alleged research misconduct by Professor Churchill. According to University spokeswoman Michele McKinney, Brown has 15 business days to determine how to proceed – whether are no grounds for dismissal or recommend sanctions such as suspension. There are still many more steps in the process if Brown recommends dismissal.

The relentless pursuit of Professor Churchill is a manifestation of this country’s new form of McCarthyism, which has serious implications on academic freedom and free speech in the US. Churchill has been singled out by the ultra-right, with the assistance of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. The controversy erupted shortly after Churchill was invited to participate on a panel at Hamilton College for an essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” he wrote soon after the events of 9/11 came to light.

The passage that has caused the greatest controversy concerned the innocence of some of the victims died in the World Trade Center attacks. Churchill accused some of victims were “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” and “little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.” Whether Churchill’s statement is viewed flawed and reactionary, this does not mean, this grants the ultra-right the right to exploit the controversy in an attempt to advance their ongoing Culture Wars by seeking to demolish free speech rights, liberal and left values, and the academic tenure system, which in their view protects crazed radicals corrupting the minds of youth.

The Right launched a series of attacks on his character and ethnic background, to distort his intention and meaning, and to demand that he be fired from a tenured position designed to protect academics from ideological persecution. Conservative politicians and media pundits demonized Churchill as a “madman” and “cheerleader for terrorists” who spews vile “hate speech” tantamount to treason. Right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, among others urging their listeners to flood Hamilton College, the University of Colorado, and Colorado politicians with letters of complaint demanding that Churchill be fired.

Reaction to Churchill’s views was swift and predictable at the state capitol. Colorado Governor Bill Owens declared, “all decent people … should denounce the views of Ward Churchill” since they “are at odds with simple decency.” He later demanded that he be fired from his tenure. The Colorado House of Representatives released a Joint Resolution in support of the 9/11 victims’ families and vilified Churchill for striking “an evil and inflammatory blow against America’s healing process.”

Within the Colorado university community, reaction was mixed. The reaction from the university’s administration was more controlled. The Chancellor Phil DiStefano, stated that even though Churchill’s statements was “offensive,” and that his the essay had “outraged and appalled us and the general public;” the chancellor held that Churchill had the right to “hold and express his views, no matter how repugnant, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The Colorado administration suddenly decided to begin a 30-day inquiry into “Professor Churchill’s writings, speeches, tape recordings and other works.” The special panel was to look into two issues: whether Churchill’s actions “including his speech, provide any grounds for dismissal for cause” and “if so, is this conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment against University action?”

The report concluded that the First Amendment protected Churchill’s essay and that he could not be dismissed for making such statements. However, the panel determined that there were concerns regarding “standards of professional integrity,” including charges of possible “research misconduct.” The question that should have been asked, if Professor Churchill’s scholarship were an issue, wouldn’t they have discovered all this during his tenure review or during his promotion to Chair of his department, which he later resigned because of the controversy.

Make no mistake, these attacks are politically timed and motivated by the right wing to dismantle the freedom of speech on university campuses nationwide. It is spearheaded in large part by David Horowitz and his David Horowitz Freedom Center (formerly known as Center for the Study of Popular Culture) and, and the Association of College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Horowitz’s is under the impression that the current political make-up on American universities is predominately left leaning. While many may see Horowitz as kook and a windbag, the fact is, that is his modus operandi.

Horowitz works closely with Karl Rove and other top national Republican leaders, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. He has singled out professors for intellectual ridicule and political vilification. Mastering in the art of rhetoric and spin, he has been on a campaign promoting his “Academic Bill of Rights,” – the Orwellian version of valuing intellectual diversity among faculty and protecting students whose political views differ with their professors.

Aiding Horowitz in the attack on critical thinking is ACTA, the Washington-based conservative academic “watch-dog” group which released a report last year titled “How Many Ward Churchills?” attacking “undergraduate liberal arts curriculum as it exists on America’s campuses today.” ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sen Joe Lieberman in 1995.

After 9/11, ACTA established the Defense of Civilization Fund to support the study of American history and civics and of Western civilization. The Funds first project was the notorious report written in 2001 “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America,” which asserted that “colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the attack” and to fight this weakness American history and Western civilization must be reinstituted and expanded in our colleges.

The fact remains that academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response. Indeed, expressions of pervasive moral relativism are a staple of academic life in this country and an apparent symptom of an educational system which has increasingly suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the world’s ills – even though it gave us the ideals of democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance. (page 5)

We believe that the West will fight for its own survival. But only if we know what we are fighting for. … We call upon all colleges and universities to adopt strong core curricula that include rigorous, broad-based courses on the great works of Western civilization as well as courses on American history, America’s Founding documents, and America’s continuing struggle to extend and defend the principles on which it was founded. If institutions fail to do so, alumni should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees should demand action. (page 7)

This is disturbing parallel between what is happening in academia now and the educational scenario of Germany during the Nazi build-up and consolidation of power. After Hitler came to power in 1933, political resistance was crushed. Dissent was to be silenced; professions like law and institutions that might challenge the new regime were to be subdued and recast. Eventually, the Nazi Party dominated the teaching profession by dictating who entered it and who got promoted. By the 1940s, the Nazis had a completely compliant cadre of teachers and professors.

When CU President Elizabeth Hoffman made comments suggesting that a McCarthyite atmosphere was being fanned in connection with the Churchill case, she was pressured to resign and was succeeded by one Hank Brown, who is coincidentally a co-founder of ACTA. Now that the decision is up to President Brown, there can be no doubt that ACTA and Horowitz are licking their chops waiting to see Professor Churchill get the ax.

Since September 11, 2001 many forms of mainstream liberalism have been denounced as anti-American. Anyone who believes in the democratic value of academic freedom, who understands that protecting unfettered scholarly inquiry is crucial to developing and sustaining a healthy democratic society. Without the First Amendment, we would be stuck in one way of thinking, frozen in a single moral code, and dissuaded from collective introspection and change. Freedom of speech is part of what keeps us moving forward, and we all have a responsibility to protect it.

10 replies »

  1. Unfortunately the Churchill case is a lot less black and white than it probably seems. There’s precisely zero argument here with your description of the assault from the right – it’s been cynical, uninformed demagoguery from the git-go, although if you actually live up here (as I do) it was pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

    However, the Churchill piece that got it all cranked up was a far cry from “scholarship.” I own a PhD from CU and have a damned good feel for what does and does not count as scholarship, even on the neo-marxian “social theory” wing of things. There are certain requirements not only for intellectual and research rigor, but also for tone and tenor.

    Churchill’s piece wasn’t intended as scholarship, I don’t believe. It was intended as inflammatory polemic, and was way out past all the buoys even by that standard. The actual points about the relationship between state and economic/industrial complex that underpinned what Churchill was saying are arguably valid. There are ways in which that system helped fuel the context that has produced Islamic extremism, although there are certainly plenty of valid arguments that somebody on the “pro-American” side of that debate could offer in rebuttal.

    But Churchill didn’t write a piece of scholarship that made the argument. He wrote a flamethrower that inserted phrases like “little Eichmanns” where a measured, substantive point might have been made instead.

    All of which makes this a complex case – far more complex than apologists on either side will acknowledge. Even if he did intend to incite a rhetorical riot, I’m still not sure that justifies whacking him – academic freedom shouldn’t only apply to what is written for and published in prominent academic journals.

    At the same time, those of us who are duly suspicious about political oversight of the intellectual mission at CU (and let me be clear that there are and have been substantive issues here, as well as at other campuses around the country) would probably have hoped for a little cleaner test case.

    Even if Churchill deserves to be retained, let’s not pretend for a second that he’s a choirboy. There are other valid questions about his vita, according to the last report I read, and as much as I treasure intellectual and academic freedom, I loathe the prospect of having to go battle for somebody like Churchill.

    So yeah, the Right is wrong. But there are no hosts of angels gathering around Churchill, either.

  2. You have a point that, if Prof. Churchill were guilty of academic misconduct like plageurism, it should have been caught at his tenure board reviews, but I’m afraid that this fact may speak more about the crummy quality of the review board than of Prof. Churchill’s scholarship. And I say this as someone who generally supports the technical arguments made by Prof. Churchill (namely the idea that we were attacked not because the Islamists hate our freedoms, but because of our prior behavior in the region – see my long-winded original post on the subject here).

  3. As another holder of a doctorate from CU, I tend to agree with Sam. Mr. Churchill isn’t the lodestone I’d hang my First Amendment hat on.

    But I appreciate the read and the time you spent on this. It’s illuminating in many ways. Thanks.

  4. And really, what E has done here is provide us with an opp to look at two things, not one. At least two, maybe more. I want to make sure the two aren’t conflated so that we lose focus on things that matter.

    So even if Ward is a bad case, as Denny and I both believe, the deeper issue of academic freedom and the attempt to undermine it by the Right remains critical. In fact, the problem with the Churchills of the world is that they make is easier for the Right to erode the foundation of academic freedom because they’re so hard to defend. And in the hands of a Karl Rove type, ALL progressive academics get painted with the same brush.

    I’d personally like to see all university oversight unhitched from partisan politics. I don’t want elected GOP or Dem officials having any say in tenure approvals and I guess I’d have to go a step further and say I don’t want anybody appointed BY a political partisan in that role, either. I guess this points to non-partisan elections of regents or something – I’m sure my solution wouldn’t be perfect, but anything is better than allowing the Colorado Springs/Focus on the Family crowd any say-so at ALL in the process.

  5. I have spoken about this issue with father is who is a full prof and is currently serving on the university wide tenure and promotions committee. I have seen him deny faculty in several occasions when he served on the one for his college and this is way before Churchill. So I go back to my original question, which he agreed with me. Shouldn’t all this have come out during his tenure review process which would have requested external and internal review from his peers (not chosen by him) who have already achieved senior status and national recognition?

    If Churchill’s tenure is now considered a “mistake,” the next question is “who gave it to him?” The fault would lie on both the college and the entire university.

    There is a bigger picture than some wanker who said some off the wall stuff. I would like to think the American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement still has meaning when it comes to tenure and academic freedom and how it contributes to the common good through the search for truth and its free expression.

    This spirit of academic freedom within the university has a value which goes beyond protecting the individual’s broad scope of thought and inquiry. . . . If a university is alive and productive, it is a place where colleagues are in constant dispute; defending their latest intellectual enthusiasm, attacking the contrary views of others. From this trial by combat emerges a sharper insight, later to be blunted by other, sharper minds. It is vital that this contest be uninhibited by fear of reprisal. . . . [“On Tenure,” AAUP Bulletin,” Winter 1972, (Vol. 58, No. 4) pp. 382-3.]

    I would hate to see my father on some blacklist because some conservative disagreed with his point of view.

  6. Eduardo said: “I would hate to see my father on some blacklist because some conservative disagreed with his point of view.”

    This is exactly why, though loathesome the Churchill case is in many respects, it must be treated like any other academic freedom/free speech case. The Right is always looking to create a “slippery slope” effect for its own purposes – mainly the restructuring of American democracy to suit their own narrow minded agendae.

  7. It seems like the things I agree with you about dramatically outnumber the points of contention that we might have, and even on those you’re asking good questions about why we didn’t find out about Ward’s skeletons sooner. Knowing CU as I do, I can offer a guess as to how his record might have gotten glossed.

    Boulder is a town that pays lip service to every progressive opinion in the book. But it’s also – what’s the term I’m after here? – whiter than all the bread at all the church picnics in Alabama and Mississippi combined. I have often noted that it’s a city with the most high-minded liberal ideologies of any city of rich white people in America.

    Up the hill at CU they have a problem – strong belief in diversity but a hell of a time attracting minority faculty. I was on a search committee and we had to issue special invitations to black candidates and nearly beg them to apply. When we brought one guy in – GREAT candidate – we loved him but no way in hell were we going to get him to take the job. He had no interest in being the only black guy in town.

    This wasn’t the only issue in play, of course – I exaggerate for effect, maybe – but the truth is that a school that has a hard time attracting and retaining minority faculty is perhaps not going to be as aggressively rigorous about vetting the records of a guy like Churchill as they would about a group where they have people lined up around the block trying to get in.

    This is not an opinion I can back with hard data, so I may be completely off base here. It’s one that has made a lot of sense to CU folks I’ve talked with about it, if that counts for anything.

    But here’s the bad part – what I just said makes it sound like minorities get a free pass, and that then translates into the suggestion that the minority profs there are less qualified. And THIS is a proposition that I can’t support. The minority faculty I knew and worked with at CU were simply exceptional. I cannot look back and point to a single minority prof or instructor that I thought was substandard (although I’m sure there were less capable blacks and Latinos there, just like there were less capable whites – inept comes in all colors).

    So maybe this largely comes down to an issue where reality and perception are at odds. I don’t know. I try to ask good questions and sift the best answers I can from the info I can get my hands on.

    I do want to add my thanks here – you’d done a great job launching a worthy discussion of an important issue.

  8. I say they way overreacted to Churchill’s essay. You can read the whole thing with commentary here:

    I hear people, including academics, make comparisons of all sorts of current and historical figures to Hitler, Eichmann, etc., quite often. It’s overdone and not always exactly accurate. But Churchill was singled out and this was not a scholarly essay, it was an opinion piece. And this country *is* responsible in more than one case of genocide.

    I think it had to do with the way we were all *supposed* to feel about 9/11. We were *supposed* to be terrified, and horrified that this could happen *in the U.S.* It was supposed to be worse that this had happened here than elsewhere. If *Americans* died, it was more serious than if anyone else did.

    My reaction was the wrong one. I would have been just as sorry if the bombing had happened elsewhere, and I did not think that American dead were worth more than other dead. I still think this is the more mature attitude but I knew at the time that it was sacrilege, and I did not speak up because it did not feel safe to do so.