The Tenure of Roosting Chickens

Unless you've been limiting your media intake to one issue of People a week, you've probably heard about Ward Churchill. Churchill compared people in the WTC to "little Eichmanns" in an article written back in 2001, shortly after the WTC bombing. Since this "news" (it's been in the public domain since 2001 so it hardly qualifies as "new") was broken by a right-wing weblog recently, various people have been calling for Churchill's apology, his resignation, his firing, and/or his head. There have also been investigations into his claim that he is Native American - a serious issue. During this time, hardly anyone has defended what Churchill said, though there has been much discussion about his right to say it.

There are, as I see it, at least three distinct issues in the Churchill case. One is academic freedom/freedom of speech, the issue I'm addressing here. Another is whether or not he is Native American, a thorny issue that has been much discussed in the pages of Indian Country Today and elsewhere. Finally, there's the content of his essay, which is not nearly as controversial an issue as it might appear because so many people, right- and left-wing, have condemned it. There are nuanced readings of it (written by some of the few people who've actually read Churchill's whole article, rather than just excerpts) here and here, but really, the first thing anyone who wants to talk about the content should do is go read the original article.

The issue of academic freedom, which is distinct from the other two issues, boils down to whether Churchill can or should be fired for his opinions. Churchill teaches in the Ethnic Studies program at the University of Colorado, where he is tenured. Being tenured means, essentially, that you can't get fired unless you break the law; more specifically, it means that you can't be fired for stating your opinion, regardless of how controversial your opinion might be. (This, of course, is also why it is so difficult to get tenure.) What's become clear in all the furor about Churchill is that some folks would dearly love to limit the security that tenure affords.

This is not a purely academic issue. Universities are (ideally, at least) a prime breeding ground for ideas and innovations, and some of these ideas and innovations turn into strategies and technologies that change the world as we know it. Infringing on academic freedom by firing tenured professors for controversial stances will also infringe on the output and quality of ideas and innovations.

Let me 'splain.

The idea behind tenure is, at its root, generally the same as that behind lifetime Supreme Court appointments: if you are relying on people to speak the truth as they see it, you must put them in a position where speaking the truth as they see it cannot carry repercussions. Andrew Jackson couldn't fire the court when they told him in 1831 that Indians had a right to be in Georgia. (In the end, of course, that didn't stop the Trail of Tears from happening - Jackson just told the court to screw themselves - but they did record, for future reference, that the State of Georgia acted unconstitutionally in expelling Indians.) The court knew that their jobs were safe, and so they interpreted the law as they saw just and fair - not as they thought would preserve their jobs.

Professors get similar protections, for similar reasons. We as a society assume that college professors are going to be passing on knowledge to their students, and we also assume that at times, such knowledge may be politically uncomfortable. For example, were it not for tenure, biology professors who teach evolution might, these days, be afraid for their jobs, and might face the question of whether they want to teach what's right or what's politically acceptable. Then, knowing that their professors might not be teaching what they really believed, biology students would rightly wonder whether they were really getting the best education they could, and whether they might perhaps be better off elsewhere.

Now of course, what's "right" and what's not is subject to enormous amounts of debate, and no one assumes professors know The Truth (well, actually, one student of mine did, but I set her straight); we just assume that professors will tell The Truth As They See It, and that they, having done substantial research in the area, will likely see a truth that's worth learning about.

It's not easy to get tenure - you have to publish in recognized journals, you must be reviewed by your peers in the field, you might need to publish a book. People who are off-the-wall wackos don't, as a rule, get tenure. Whatever else you may say about him, Ward Churchill is not an off-the-wall wacko. He is a radical; his ideas are far to the left of political discourse in this country, and he does not shy away from inflammatory rhetoric - which is what got him into trouble in the first place.

Here's the thing about academic freedom, as with all freedom of speech: you have to take the good with the bad. (And for everyone, "good" and "bad" will be different.) As soon as you start setting limits on what people can say, you're limiting free speech - and you're setting limits on academic inquiry. Disciplines are often driven forward by people who say or do things that strike a lot of people as crazy. Because the thing about crazy ideas is that sometimes they really are crazy, but sometimes they're visionary, and often you don't know the difference until years later.

So the question is not at all about whether you think Ward Churchill is right. It's whether you think he has the right to say what he believes is true, without being fired for it.

That is, at its base, what academic freedom is all about. Professors speak the truth as they see it, and investigate each others' truths, and challenge and debate and encourage each other, and gradually we all figure out what's truly crazy, and what's visionary. After all, as soon as someone says something that sounds even vaguely crazy ("superstring theory!"), fifty people are jumping all over the idea to check it, so an idea that is truly nutty won't tend to have a long shelf life (though sometimes it will - see, for example, phrenology), and things that are truly visionary tend to get recognized eventually, although that can be a slow, plodding process. Sometimes, the debate itself will give rise to brilliant ideas, ideas that wouldn't have happened if someone hadn't started off by saying something that sounded crazy.

Progress in academia, in science and in the humanities, comes about through the kind of open, no-holds-barred debates made possible by academic freedom. Cut out parts of that freedom, and you don't know whether, down the road, you've cut off an interesting debate that could've led someone to remarkable ideas about how to end poverty, or improve literacy, or get Indian land back .

So you cannot be half-assed about academic freedom. Once you start regulating the content of professors' speech, once you start setting rules about which ideas are acceptable and which ones are off-limits, academic freedom is gone. You've lost the free discussion and debate that move us all, as a society, forward. We need academic freedom, and that freedom includes Churchill's ability to call anyone he wants "little Eichmanns," and it also includes anyone else's right to debate Churchill about whether that statement is correct or not.

Once you commit to academic freedom, you have to accept that you will see some ideas that just sound crazy to you, like Churchill's article sounded to many of its readers. It's all part of the process of moving knowledge forward. Because you'll also get ideas that are brilliant, and ideas that are visionary, out of that same process. And in order to get the visionary, you have to make your peace with what seems crazy to you - because it's part of the process too.

2. March 2005


Return to Journals index

Return to main page

© 2005 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved. Ask before you borrow!!