pageok
pageok
pageok
Ward Churchill:

Ward Churchill is the University of Colorado professor who wrote the horrific screed praising the murder of the people in the World Trade Center (on the grounds that they were "little Eichmanns"). His article reveals him to be a depraved person, much as people who applaud the butchery of innocent people are generally depraved. (I see no way of reading "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it" as anything but applauding the deaths.) I realize that he doesn't think they're innocents — but that a Nazi thinks Jews culpable and therefore meriting death, or a Klansman thinks blacks culpable and therefore meriting death, hardly absolves him of charges of depravity.

Firing for his views: Nonetheless, I agree with Glenn Reynolds and Steve Bainbridge that he ought not be fired for this depravity (and there is talk of that happening).

I think Justice Hugo Black was right to say that First Amendment rights "must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish"; and the same is true of academic freedom principles, flowing both from the First Amendment rights of public university employees and from their tenure contracts and professional norms. If the Ward Churchills of the world are fired for their speech, disgusting as it is, that would be a perfect precedent for left-wing faculties and administrations to fire right-wing professors for much less offensive statements. And given the political complexion of universities these days (and the fact that most of the decisions will be made by university administrations and not by elected officials), this will end up happening to conservatives much more often than to liberals. So I think that protecting Churchill from being fired is both good in principle and good in practice.

Stripping him of chairmanship: Nonetheless, there is no reason that the University had to keep him as Chair of his department, had he not resigned that post. The chairmanship of a department is an administrative post; while a professor's job is to publish his own work and his own views, the chair's job is to advance the academic mission of the university. (Teaching is a separate and complicated matter, but as best I can tell none of Churchill's offensive statements were made in class.) See Jeffries v. Harleston (2nd Cir. 1995), which sensibly draws this distinction.

If the University concludes that keeping a person such as this as the administrative face of the department will cast the department and the university into disrepute, it can properly remove him as chair, while retaining his right to say whatever incendiary things he likes as professor. And of course I'd say the same as to department chairs who said things I liked: A university should have fairly broad authority to strip them of their chairmanship, though not of their posts. Firing him for lying (if he had indeed lied) about being an American Indian: But all this speaks only of whether Churchill could be fired for his views. There is also the question whether he has knowingly falsely claimed to be an American Indian and a member of various tribes (see this story). If indeed it turns out that he lied — and the lies, even if not in his scholarship, were attempts to build credibility as a scholar and public intellectual speaking on behalf of the American Indian community — then I think he ought to be disciplined, and quite possibly fired, for that.

As readers may recall, "Joseph Ellis, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, admitted [in 2001] that he led his students at Mount Holyoke College to believe that he had served as a paratrooper in Vietnam, when in reality his three years of service had been spent teaching history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was also accused of embellishing his role in the civil rights and antiwar movements. He was subsequently suspended from Mount Holyoke for one year without pay and stripped of his endowed chair. Ellis won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for history for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation." (Quote from infoplease.) As I recall, there was no reason to think that this lie really misinformed Ellis's students about important historical questions; but it is still highly reprehensible, and properly punishable, behavior in a scholar. Ellis was only suspended for a year, but he's a Pulitzer Prize winner and, as I understand, a historian of substantial quality. Had he done less good work, his bad acts may well have led to his being fired, and quite properly so.

Moreover, knowing lies are generally not protected by the First Amendment; and though we usually don't imprison people just because they lied about their own biography, I see no First Amendment problem in firing such people, even tenured academics, based on that. Moreover, as a matter of academic freedom principles, I don't think there's anything especially dangerous in enforcing basic requirements of honesty in one's public statements, particularly about one's own life history. There is some risk of error in adjudicating such controversies, but much less than the risk involved in deciding which viewpoints are so heinous as to be beyond the pale of academic tolerance.

If Churchill actually lied about his racial affiliation in an attempt to get a job — or his chairmanship or similar posts, including temporary ones — then that's outright resume fraud, and may even be criminal (especially if the lie was in the service of getting something of financial value). But even if he knowingly told a falsehood simply to get more credibility, that would be serious professional misconduct.

Of course, all this assumes that he in fact claimed to be an American Indian (or a member of particular tribes), that he knew that he is indeed not an American Indian (or a member of the claimed tribe), and that the statements were unambiguous enough. (There can sometimes be some ambiguity: For instance, if someone who is Jewish only on his father's side claims to be Jewish, I would surely not call him a liar just because the strictest definitions of Jewishness require that one's mother be Jewish, at least unless he was speaking in a context where he knew that his statements would be interpreted using that strict definition.)

But if these charges are true, then they would warrant punishment, including possibly firing. Naturally, whoever fires him for this or supports such a firing must be prepared to apply the same standard regardless of the professor's viewpoints. But I certainly would be prepared to apply such a standard across the board, since academic dishonesty is culpable whether it's done by people with evil political ideologies or good ones.

Thanks to Sabastian Niles for the pointer to the AP story cited above.