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Saturday, April 4, 2009

When malice collides with integrity

This was a week when one kind of wrong doing undercut attempts to deal with other kinds of wrong doing.

The U.S. Department of Justice decided to abandon its case against Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens because prosecutors violated requirements of judicial due process in the way they handled the case. The Justice Department did not exonerate Stevens, but it found that the prosecutors in the case had so perverted the judicial process that Stevens did not get a fair trial.

While some of the petulant party try to make a partisan issue out of the case, it is fundamentally a matter of people of integrity reviving a sense of justice in a government department that is supposed to set the standards for it.

The other notable instance occurred Thursday when six jurors returned a verdict that Prof. Ward Churchill was wrongly fired from his job as professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado. They awarded him $1 in damages.

A judge will later determine whether Churchill gets his job back.

The trial posed questions of academic freedom against academic integrity.

Churchill wrote an essay following 9/11 in which he called the victims in The World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" because they were doing the work of corporations that he thinks are involved in the exploitation and subjugation of people throughout the world.

The essay was written and published in 2001, but it was discovered by the rabid right in 2005 and used as the pretext for rage and revenge. As came out in the trial, the Governor of Colorado of the time called the university president and told her to fire Churchill or he wold retaliate by cutting funds. Regents also testified that they wanted Churchill fired over the essay. They came up against the rule of academic freedom that protects a professor's right to express opinions that others might find offensive.

When it became apparent that the firing of Churchill for the essay would violate protected academic freedom, university officials and professors were instructed to investigate some allegations that Churchill had committed academic fraud in his published writing. The charges were submitted to a panel of his peers and they found against Churchill, charging that he

  1. committed plagiarism,
  2. fabricated data and information,
  3. and misrepresented the words and work of others.
Although some members of the panel thought Churchill should receive lesser punishment, he was fired.

Churchill's suit against his firing was based on the contention that he was fired for the essay he wrote and that the charges of academic misconduct were merely pretexts for the firing. The jury believed that was the case. At the trial Churchill admitted some of the instances of misconduct and had explanations for them, and he contended that others could not be interpreted as academic deception or fraud.

The matters of academic integrity are troubling. One of the most difficult aspects of being a college English professor is teaching the research paper. Research papers do not only teach and test the ability to gather and document research materials; they test the character and integrity of the students. Much is made of plagiarism because it is the more common transgression of students. The punishments generally were based on the severity of the offense. When students submitted papers that they purchased, copied from other students, or lifted off the Internet, they were generally expelled from school with the offense becoming part of their academic record. If they plagiarized parts of the paper, professors tried to determine if it was deliberate or if it was the result of not understanding the writing process thoroughly enough. The paper could receive a failing grade, or the student could fail the course.

As computers came into use, professors were able to more easily review and monitor the drafts of papers as students wrote them, so that they could see that students were actually doing their own work and so that problems could be caught and explained before the papers were submitted for final evaluation.

If students are held responsible for their work, professors are held to stringent standards. At least that is the case in some places. Tenured professors can be fired, or otherwise disciplined, for plagiarism, falsifying data or information, misrepresenting the words and work of others, scholarly slovenliness, gross incompetence, and general mendacity.

I am acquainted with Ward Churchill's work, as Native American literature and life is one of my major areas of research. A professional organization I belong to was asked to intervene in the Churchill case, and some of us were asked to review the materials which Churchill was charged with plagiarizing or falsifying. Our findings supported those of his panel of peers. Some members of that panel thought Churchill should have received lesser discipline than firing, but all found his work at fault. There were questions about whether the fraud was deliberate or was a matter of slovenliness, but the result is the same, and professors are supposed to be above such mishandling of materials.

I have served on many panels over the years t;hat have examined charges of scholarly misconduct. In some cases, the charges against professors were contrived and motivated on personal malice. In those cases, the people who made false charges were the ones who deserved the discipline. In other cases, professors were found to have violated the rules of integrity. Having served on editorial boards, I can say that where a procedure of editorial review is in place, plagiarized and misrepresented information is routinely identified and dealt with. In reputable publications, it just does not occur. The source and fact-checking is too rigorous to let it slip by. Consequently, I am very skeptical when established professors plead innocent mistakes.

I think professors who get caught plagiarizing and falsifying information for any reason should be dismissed. They compromise the very integrity of higher education.

However, I am in an increasing minority. The kind of transgressions Ward Churchill was accused of are the standard fare of blogging. Perhaps half of the bloggers make careful and accurate attributions and write with some sense of decency and accuracy. The other half sees blogging as an opportunity to subject people of differing viewpoints to scurrilous and malign attack.

I have academic colleagues who strongly disapprove of my blogging, because it puts a retired professor in association with what they regard as the antithesis of what the academic profession upholds. People whose blogging maintains high levels of thought, expression, and integrity unfortunately do not shape the general perception of blogs. And the negative side includes members of the academic profession.

There was a time--and there still is in some places--when professors were told that even in their private pursuits, they represented their profession and institution. In voicing their personal viewpoints, they were expected to show respect for others and to exhibit integrity at all times. If they did not, they could be disciplined in ways to show that their profession and/or institution did not approve of or support their transgressions.

I have misgivings about blogging. I recognize the dangers of being associated with a practice that has at times earned the disdain and contempt of literate people. I have no misgivings about warning students away from those institutions where teachers contrive attacks and misrepresent the work of others. Many of my professional colleagues and some high school counselors do the same. My children and their friends have followed our advice in choosing their colleges.

The University of Colorado, while having a bit of a reputation as a party school, also has some of the strongest academic programs in the nation. Some of the people who recommended the dismissal of Ward Churchill did so out of concern for the integrity of the institution.

Now the judge must decide if Churchill gets his job back. Clearly, he was fired for his unpopular expression. Now it is time to see how responsible he will be held for his academic transgressions.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

[blockquote]However, I am in an increasing minority. The kind of transgressions Ward Churchill was accused of are the standard fare of blogging. Perhaps half of the bloggers make careful and accurate attributions and write with some sense of decency and accuracy. The other half sees blogging as an opportunity to subject people of differing viewpoints to scurrilous and malign attack.[end blockquote]

The problem is not blogging, it is the inability of blog readers including politicians and academics to separate truth from fiction.

I fully realize that some blogs are filled with trash, but so are some "news" broadcasts and some "news"papers.

Incidentally, do Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have blogs?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States