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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The biggest threat to higher education--and democracy-- is business

I have been hard on some fellow professors in the past.  Some of the most vile humans I have come across, in the magnitude of Donald Trump, have been professors.  As an officer in professional faculty organizations,  I have dealt with them.  Some professors have egos that are much larger then their intellects and find it difficult to refrain from stroking their nasty egos in public--acts which often show a meagerness of mind but an abundance of self absorption.  They are simply assholes but nevertheless are found competent in their chosen discipline.  The ones that I rage against the most are the ones who practice academic dishonesty:  plagiarism,  fabricating or misrepresenting data,  misrepresenting their accomplishments, and other acts of mendacity.  They harm the profession and do damage to their students, their colleagues, their institutions, and the country.  However, the profession has standards and measures to use for eliminating these people from the profession, and I fully support their implementation and use.   I have participated in such actions.

On the other hand,  most professors are people of competence, integrity, and industry. I have been proud of their professionalism. They work hard for their students and to meet the requirements of research, scholarship, and service required by institutions to hold the rank of professor.  And often, they work effectively despite attempts by administrators to manage them.  The idea of running colleges like businesses instead of organizations in which the members have shared responsibilities has created an overlay of practices that are more befitting of a sales force  for vacuum cleaners than of an intellectual enterprise.  Instead of setting standards of performance that individuals strive for,  many administrations pit professors against each other in competition for promotion and tenure.  Some professors fall into the trap.  Most, however, maintain the role they have chosen, to learn and teach and stay true to what it means "to profess" a discipline.  That desire to stay true to the academic tradition has saved institutions from abject fraud and made it possible for students to obtain real educations.

However, there are professors who fall into the corporate mindset and become the instruments of a subversive value system.  I made a mistake by placing trust in some who betrayed their profession and engaged in a campaign to oust a professor who had incurred the wrath of the corporate-driven segment that purports to run our universities.  The mistake I made was in not maintaining my skepticism about the integrity of higher education boards of directors and their administrative lackeys.

It began when Ward Churchill,  a well-known professor of Native American studies,  wrote an essay the day after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in which he referred to the people who occupied those buildings as "little Eichmans,"  a reference to a key facilitator of the Holocaust.  The point of his essay, titled "Some People Push Back," was that the attack on the Trade Center and the Pentagon was an act of war in response to the massacre of a half million children in Iraq by American forces and the corporate structure which supported them.  Using a phrase from Holocaust historian Hannah Arendt,  he called the corporate technocrats who were aiding and abetting the war on Iraq "little Eichmans," the term Arendt used to describe the good Germans who did the same for the Holocaust.  His contention was that 9/11 was American foreign policy "coming home to roost."  At the time,  the essay received little attention.  

About four years later, some academics brought the essay to the attention of media types such as Bill O'Reilly, who expressed raging offense at the "little Eichman" designation and began the call for Ward Churchill's firing from the University of Colorado.  They were in a fury because they thought that Churchill had insulted the memory of innocent victims of terrorism.  However,  CU officials recognized that Churchill could not be fired for using his protected rights of free speech,  so they looked for other pretexts to dismiss him.

An academic opponent of Churchill's had made complaints about his scholarship previously, but they were ignored.  They were then grasped as a means to go after him and he was charged with academic misconduct.   A committee of faculty was assembled to investigate the charges  against him, and it recommended his dismissal.  Churchhill was fired, but fought the case against him in the courts.  He won the case to get his job back, as the circuit court found that his comments on 9/11 were the actual reason for his firing.  However, he lost on appeal and the Supreme Court declined to hear his case.  

The mistake I made, as did many professors, was to think that if the committee composed of his professor peers found Churchill guilty of scholarly fraud,  it must be so.  We put  our trust in academic due process, believing that the thorough examination of the evidence and a critical discussion of it by experienced professors would arrive at the truth.  What we did not understand is that the Investigative Committee which issued the report was not comprised of people who were well qualified to examine the scholarship in Churchill's particular field of study.  Some had declared opposition to Churchill. The committee was stacked to create findings against him in retaliation for his exercise of free speech.

However,  Churchill's fellow professors in Colorado understood this.  The Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors undertook a critical examination of the report which supported Churchill's firing. It found that the committee and its findings were contrived and that it committed the very acts of "plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of evidence" that they accused him of committing. 

In the executive summary of its report,  the Colorado Conference observed:

  1. As this report will demonstrate, the allegations against Churchill for fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are almost entirely false or misleading; the slivers that remain standing are trivial in the extreme, given the volume of Churchill’s work and the high regard in which it is held by other experts in the field. Few scholars’ work would survive under the microscope held to Churchill’s work. In our opinion, the members of the IC would be condemned as academic frauds if their report were subjected to the scrutiny that they applied to Churchill’s work—and if they had said “little Eichmanns.” 
    According to experts in the field of American Indian Studies, the IC report, upon which disciplinary recommendations against Churchill were based, is an extended series of falsifications and fabrications offered in the name of correcting the scholarly record. 
Colorado's universities are among the best and most productive in the world.  But that is because of the abilities and integrity of its faculty,  despite the actions of politicians and the lackeys they hire to run them.  The University of Colorado at Boulder has a reputation for being a party school, but at the same time is a prestigious leader in the arts and sciences,  as is its sister institutions.  It's administration has racked up some serious demerits, however.  The handling of the firing of Ward Churchill is one of them.  

CU also hired on  its faculty another leader in Native American studies,  Vine DeLoria, Jr.  He taught law and history there from 1990 to 2000, when he retired.    During the period  of time around 2001, a football scandal hit the campus.   The universities football coaches had recruiting parties which hired escort services from Denver and at which a number of coeds charged they were sexually molested and raped.  It had a woman place kicker on its football team who said that she had been raped by  teammates.  The coach responded by belittling her abilities as a player.  The University tried to make the business look like trivial incidents that occur occasionally.  However, when the University of Colorado wished to recognize Deloria's work  with an honorary degree and a special citation,  he rejected it.  He said, "It is no honor to be connected to these people."

The American university system is an asset that has driven the nation to its position of prominence.  Its advancements rest on the accomplishments of thinkers who were provided a venue for carrying on their work with the establishment of the land grant colleges.  However, the history of that system, as with the history of the University of Colorado,  is studded with attempts by commercial interests to subvert the universities into schemes of greed and wealth.  Recent history in South Dakota with the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals demonstrates further how business interests try to pervert universities to their own uses.  

As long as there are professors such as the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors to confront and expose the nefarious at work in their system,  the universities will be good places to study and to work.   But when business and political interests have their way,  the universities become a danger.  Universities cannot be run like businesses.  When they do,  they become intellectual and moral failures that destroy democracy and the spirit to advance humanity.  During this time,  professors of integrity have a strenuous job to conserve the true meaning of higher education.  Let's hope they keep working.  The business mentality would prefer that they didn't.  



Anonymous said...

Where does Northern presently stand in all of this? Have the standards gone up or down? Spotlight the political commentary show does not seem balanced to me. Any professors at Northern that fall within what you spoke of?

David Newquist said...

As a matter of policy, I generally do not post anonymous comments. However, as you raise questions that are on the minds of many, I post your query and respond.

Northern is on the watch list. In the 1960s. Northern was censured by AAUP for its firing of a professor in political science without following due process. When I came to Northern, I was a member of AAUP and urged the administration to take whatever action was necessary to get the censure removed. AAUP sent faculty investigators to see what could be arranged. I hosted them in my home. Most of the administrators involved were no longer on the campus, and most of the faculty were unaware of the matter until the investigators held meetings and asked questions. The result was that the censure was removed from Northern and placed on the Board of Regents, along with with a censure of SDSU. The censures were eventually removed after the professors involved made monetary settlements.

Northern had a series of presidents who operated as surrogates for the regents, not as academic leaders. Concern was raised when the Regents instituted the International Business Institute on campus. It was done so under an arrangement that exempted its director from any accountability to Northern, having a closer tie to the governor’s office of economic development. It is where the Eb-5 scheme was born and incubated. However, during a financial crunch, when President James Smith was reviewing the budget, he asked what relationship the Institute had to Northern’s academic mission and why it should be part of the budget. He severed the relationship and forced the Institute off campus. it moved to the Aberdeen Development Corp. Northern was saved from a serious tarnishment of its academic standing.

Over the years, Northern has fired people, mostly administrators, for cause, and it has been done under appropriate procedures and with good cause. However, it still flirts with scandal. The drain of the school of business was the recipient of “consulting fees” as an evaluator of the Gear- Up project. A member of the education faculty has filed a complaint for inappropriate dismissal. At this time, I do not know if the AAUP or any other professional organization has been involved.

I sat on the promotion and tenure committee for a number of years and noted that some individuals were promoted over those whose work and qualifications were superior. The suck buddies are cultivated, but sound work is done by professionals who resist getting drawn into competition for favor. I have been retired for many years, but am an active scholar connected with professional organizations. Programs in the arts and sciences have been diminished at Northern and it is falling behind other institutions in the quality of degrees it confers, but it does provide opportunities for a sound education. It could use administrators who are scholars, not regental henchmen.

David Newquist said...

That phrase in the next to the last graph should be "dean of the school of education," unless auto-correct knows something I don't.

Anonymous said...

Generally how are the state universities in Minnesota as a comparison to South Dakota?

I appreciate your reply to my post above! It saddens me to read about what has happened to Northern. I went to Northern and had a great experience there but had one terrible Political Science professor who did not last long. Given what I read in how Northern has been involved in scandals and your past postings along with watching the unbalanced Spotlight program when I am in Aberdeen I hesitate advising anyone to attend there. Perhaps they would be better off going to a Minnesota State University or under the U of Minnesota system.

Given my memories of Northern and Aberdeen being my hometown I would like to see Northern excel academically but the institution continues to be used and compromised by the corrupt political system in South Dakota.

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous with the two above comments. It is not just Northern that has been compromised but all of the public universities in South Dakota. It is too bad what has happened to my home state. When I visit with parents and high school students it would be better to advocate for those universities in Minnesota for example rather than any in South Dakota.

David Newquist said...

In the early 1980s, Bill Janklow eliminated the last professional educator from the Board of Regents. Since then, the Regents have been run largely with a business orientation, which is often in direct conflict with the purposes and principles of higher education. That is how the universities have gotten involved in the kind of fiscal predation and fraud that characterizes the EB-5 and Gear Up schemes. Students and sound education were not even considerations in the Gear Up fraud.

There is a terribly discouraging effect on places such as Northern. For over a century Northern concerned itself with offering opportunities for students and serving the purposes of education. For many years, for example, Northern teaching graduates staffed 49 percent of the classrooms in the state. Its provided those graduates with sound and well-rounded educations. Through its efforts it became what an accreditor terms “a classy little college.” But as “bean counters” took oversight of the system, it has eliminated and cheapened programs in the name of saving money and offering a salable “product.” Nevertheless, the faculty for the most part has stuck to purposes of learning and education and maintained the opportunities for students.

However, the reputation of Northern has been damaged, although one president took effective measures to halt the damage and restore the integrity of the institution. And most faculty are dedicated to offering a reputable, competitive education. An alumnus asked a group of former faculty where they sent their children to college. Within my circle of faculty, most went out-of-state. (My oldest daughter started at Northern, but graduated from Metropolitan State in Denver.) Minnesota seems to be a favored place.

You ask how Minnesota compares with South Dakota. There are very good programs in South Dakota that compare favorably with Minnesota, but Minnesota provides more and less interference. School boards and boards of regents are supposed to be the conduit of information and mediation between the professional staffs and the public, not a board that manages academic affairs. That is the essential difference between the two states. The regents in South Dakota, under the guise of controlling costs, have eliminated academic programs—my department was transformed into a service department rather than a powerful major department—and some transcripts do not compare well academically.

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