Subacademic Discourse

Ward Churchill has become a poster child for the incredible dysfunction of America’s universities. Churchill is the University of Colorado professor who, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, described the victims as “little Eichmanns.” Their deaths, he argued were a “penalty befitting their participation in . . . the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved.”

These comments went largely unnoticed until Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College — he frequently lectures in exchange for a six-figure fee. (It’s an easy way to obtain the wherewithal to denigrate the hard working businesspeople and restaurant workers in the Twin Towers). The outrage that resulted from Churchill’s remarks forced Hamilton College, quite rightly, to cancel his speech. And now it has emerged that Churchill — who, for years, has traded on his supposed status as a Native American — isn’t actually a member of any tribe at all. He is a fraud.

If any other professional had brought disrepute on his organization even comparable to the disgrace Churchill has visited on UC-Boulder, he’s be out of a job already. But the university has only taken the first step in initiating a six-month process that might (or might not) result in Churchill’s dismissal.

Proponents of tenure have long argued that it protects academic freedom. That argument has proved to be as fraudulent as Ward Churchill’s Native American heritage.

Tenure does little or nothing to protect academic inquiry from the right. Even Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard, feared for his job in the wake of eliciting feminist outrage by hypothesizing the existence of inherent differences between the sexes. Those remarks weren’t “radical chic,” like Churchill’s; instead, they challenged one of feminism’s central tenets — that there are no differences between men and women. And for that, there can be no tolerance in the left-wing academic world.

In fact, tenure’s existence serves only to lock a new generation of conservatives out of academia by permitting the radicals who dominate the academy to maintain their jobs long past the time when they are either productive or relevant. Harvard’s Summers ran into trouble once before — when he had the temerity to suggest to Cornell West (a star of the African-American Studies department) that he might be well-advised to stop making rap records and start producing a little more scholarship. In a huff, West decamped for Princeton.

It’s not surprising that West found Princeton to be a refuge. After all, it’s the home of Professor Peter Singer — a proponent of animal rights who nonetheless believes that parents should have the right to euthanize their own handicapped children up to 28 days of age. But Singer can have confidence that he’ll never be held accountable; he can spew amoral garbage far beyond the pale of academic discourse — and then, if challenged, can scurry to the safety of his tenured position in the ivory tower.

The tenure system like this serves neither the students, the parents paying tuition, the universities who pay salaries, nor our society in general. The only people who benefit are the academics themselves — who may, perhaps, sense that they couldn’t enjoy the same protection, perks and privileges in a more robustly competitive system. It is a system that is perfectly congruent with the left-wing, even anti-capitalist views of the overwhelming majority of today’s university professors.

This is America, and academics have the right to say whatever they please. But at some point, conservative or liberal, they should be responsible — like every other professional and politician is — to the people who pay their salaries. Good — or even provocative and important — ideas will lack neither marketability nor defenders (look at the “shadow university” world of the think tanks established by the conservatives), and at the same time, evil and destructive ones can claim no right to subsidy without accountability. And in a true marketplace of ideas, there should always be at least some ideological balance.

Ward Churchill has told his students that if he’s fired, he’ll sue: “They really don’t want to do that unless they want me owning this university.” Under the law right now, maybe he would. And that’s part of the problem.

Discussing the possibility of Churchill being discharged, the President of the University of Colorado said, “I hope we don’t do anything for which future generations will have to apologize.” Unbelievably, he’s concerned that firing Ward Churchill might be the wrong decision.

If anyone doubted that moral relativism, ethical blindness, and intellectual laziness dominates America’s major universities, the furor surrounding the Ward Churchill affair should eliminate any uncertainty.