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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cave paintings and primal screams are not dialogue

The coming week will be busy for Ward Churchill. He is the former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado who got fired from his job two years ago. He and William Ayers, the U. of Illinois-Chicago professor of education who was a member of the Weather Underground, will be speaking at a student-organized forum on academic freedom this Thursday at CU. The Republican presidential campaign tried to use Pres. Obama's casual acquaintance with Ayers against him in the election campaign. Next Monday Churchill's law suit trial against the University of Colorado to get his job back begins.

A major news source that tracked and did some investigative reporting on Churchill will be missing from the coverage. The Rocky Mountain News, which was interred Friday in the mass grave to which popular tastes are consigning many newspapers, wiill not be there. But some evidence it found against Churchill might be.

The Churchill case is a confusing one. In an essay, he called some of the people killed in the 9/11 attacks "little Eichmanns," charging that they were clerks in offices that administered oppression against American minorities. Churchill could not be fired for stating his opinion, but the anger generated caused people to take a closer look at his scholarly writing and editing, and some complaints made about his work were revived and examined in detail.

Academic panels that consisted of 25 professor peers found Churchill's work at fault and recommended his dismissal. There are a number of acts for which a tenured professor can be dismissed, and Churchill was found guilty of them: gross incompetence, plagiarism, academic dishonesty (particularly in misrepresenting and misquoting the work of others), scholarly slovenliness, and general mendacity and deceit. As a member of a professors' organization that makes academic freedom and academic due process a prime area of activity, I was among a number of professors asked to review the reports and the procedure for dismissing Churchill. We unanimously found the charges against Churchill to be well documented and carefully presented, and the recommendations for his dismissal were based upon careful verification and analysis. Particularly convincing was the testimony of writers and scholars whose work Churchill plagiarized, misrepresented, and otherwise misused, including copyright violations.

Churchill is represented by civil rights lawyer David Lane who has assembled a roster of supporters, including some conservative professors, who claim that Churchill was fired for his unpopular statements regarding 9/11. Lane released a deposition from the former Colorado Bill Owen in which Owen said it was a good thing that the university ignored his recommendation to fire Churchill for the 9/11 comments because that would have been a violation of Churchill's civil rights and academic freedom. Owens stressed that Churchill was fired for academic misconduct.

Churchill claims that the charges of academic misconduct were contrived. However, William Ayers makes the point that many other professors have been found guilty of the same charges as Churchill but have been censured and otherwise punished, but allowed to go on with their careers. That is true. Some very prominent writers with academic rank have been shown to have plagiarized in recent years and allowed to continue in their positions.

As a former officer in a professors' organization that monitors issues of academic freedom, I was one of a number of people asked to review the charges against Churchill and the process that led to his dismissal. I found the charges were carefully documented and the process fair. So did all the other reviewers.

Where there was some disagreement was in the severity of punishment. I think that professors who violate any rules of academic honesty and basic competence should be dismissed. False and misrepresented information turns higher learning into lower lying. It destroys the reason for universities to be.

Over the years, I have witnessed the firing of many professors. Most of the firings had to do with professors getting caught poinking students, or each other. Quite a few involved matters of academic honesty. However, most of the professors fired for academic misconduct were untenured. Their contracts were simply not renewed. They had the right to appeal, but as in the Churchill case, charges of academic dishonesty are based upon written work, and such documentation is hard to refute or explain away. On the other hand, spurious charges of academic dishonesty are dealt with harshly, too. When someone makes charges that are found to be frivolous or false, they are the ones who receive the discipline. In higher education institutions of integrity, matters of acacemic dishonesty are taken very seriously.

But many institutions do not operate on that level of integrity. They are very quick to get rid of professors who get involved in some kind of sexual peccadillo, but they take cavalier attitudes toward matters of academic competence and honesty.

When professors blog or otherwise publish work. what they write comes under scritiny. Even if they claim that what they say does not represent their institution or profession, what they say does reflect on their university and their profession. Nearly every university subscribes to a set of rules for academic conduct which makes that clear. They have a right to express opinions and engage in political activity off campus, but the public still associates what they do and say with their college and the teaching profession. They can't get fired for unpopular opinions, but they can be disciplined if they use their position in their institution and their profession as a base of authority from which they launch their opinions.

What they cannot do, at least in professionial theory, is violate the rules of competence and honesty, even on blogs.

Some blogs are very careful not to engage in the kind of exchanges that are scurrilous, hateful, and defamatory. But for many, false claims, malice, and personal attacks are their total mission. My own writing has often been the subject of derogation both in comments it elicits and in other blogs. That is the nature of blogs. The ignorant, unprincipled, and--frankly--stupid have the right to express themselves. But when professors misrepresent what other people say, whether because of incompetence or artifice, they should be called into account. And that is a job for their institutions and their colleagues.

I don't think Ward Churchill has much of a chance of getting his job back. The competence and integrity of work he did while serving as a professor is the issue, not his offensive comments about 9/11 victims. (Ann Coulter made similar comments.) The regents and officials at the University of Colorado took measures to restore the integrity of their institution. That is how universities of integrity operate.

For institutins that do not take acdemic integrity seriously, we can only put them on notice that we will not support them or recommend them to students. And do what we can to either reform them or put them out of business.

As an excursion through the blogosphere shows, the verbal currency of our nation is in the same shape as our fiscal currency. Both are in a state of deterioration for the same reason: An intellectual and moral bankruptcy. . Restoring the integrity of the higher learning profession is essential to restoring the integrity of the nation.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States