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 freedom.”
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 speech.
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 and colleges.
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.