I came home from teaching Tuesday night (great class, btw– we met at Ypsilanti’s fine coffee shop, Bombadil’s), and in the course of my surfing by the mid-level cable channels at around 10 pm, I came across some right-wing show (“Scarborough Country,” I believe it’s called) talking about a tenure controversy at the University of Colorado (Boulder) involving Ward Churchill. In the nutshell, Churchill wrote an essay called “‘Some People Push Back’ On The Justice of Roosting Chickens,” which is more or less about how the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. was (as the title suggests) an example of the chickens coming home to roost, so to speak. In other words, Churchill says it’s not surprising that the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 considering the various invasions and repressions that the U.S. has inflicted on the Islamic world, especially since the first war in Iraq.
It is Churchill’s way with words has really gotten him in a bit of trouble. Let me quote at length here from the above link:
“As to those in the World Trade Center . . .
“Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved, and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in and in many cases excelling at it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. 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.
“The men who flew the missions against the WTC and Pentagon were not “cowards.” That distinction properly belongs to the “firm-jawed lads” who delighted in flying stealth aircraft through the undefended airspace of Baghdad, dropping payload after payload of bombs on anyone unfortunate enough to be below including tens of thousands of genuinely innocent civilians while themselves incurring all the risk one might expect during a visit to the local video arcade. Still more, the word describes all those “fighting men and women” who sat at computer consoles aboard ships in the Persian Gulf, enjoying air-conditioned comfort while launching cruise missiles into neighborhoods filled with random human beings. Whatever else can be said of them, the men who struck on September 11 manifested the courage of their convictions, willingly expending their own lives in attaining their objectives.”
Now, the line that’s really gotten Churchill in trouble (judging from what I’ve found on the ‘net) is that one about the “little Eichmanns.” Personally, I could only make it through about half of the article, not because of the points that Churchill was trying to make (more on that in a second), but because I just thought the essay was pretty poorly written.
Anyway, Churchill published this essay (I think) on September 12, 2001, a date on which I think it is fair to say that emotions were running mighty high all across the country, regardless of your political bent. And now, three and a half years later, he has suddenly landed on the proverbial hotseat. The Colorado Board of Regents is meeting today or tomorrow to decide whether or not to fire him.
There have been plenty of calls for his dismissal– here is an editorial from the Rocky Mountain News and a column from the Naples Daily News by Paul Campos (a law professor at U of Colorado), and here is a letter written by the governor of Colorado which walks an interesting line about firing Churchill. And you can imagine the smirking remarks on conservative talk TV. Essentially, these guys (and many of the editorials and columns) just cannot believe that this Churchill guy can get away with saying this stuff because he has tenure and cannot be fired. Can you believe it?!
Well, as a tenured and happy academic myself, I have a few thoughts:
- I don’t know where these conservative editorial writers, TV guys, and columnist (though I don’t think Campos is easily identified as a “conservative” per se) have been, but the idea that the World Trade Center was a “military target” and that we “asked for it” on September 11 is not exactly new. No less than that radical magazine Newsweek ran a large cover-page article called “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” by Fareed Zakaria, who is a frequent commentator on ABC News and a pretty good writer. Now, obviously, Zakaria’s approach is much more gentle and level than Churchill’s. But the point I’m trying to make is that the idea that, from the view of the Islamic world, especially countries like Iraq, the U.S. deserved being attacked is not that unique. And at least this guy, Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson, seems to get it.
- The fact that Churchill is an American Indian who was (until he recently resigned over all this) chair of the department of Ethnic Studies and who has been involved in a variety of leftist causes isn’t endearing him to the “everyman” crowd in Colorado. And the fact that his scholarly work has included writings about the genocide of Native Americans, Marxists organization and American Indian communities, and about justifiable violence that leads to positive change aren’t exactly helping his cause either. Indeed, I have to think that if this would not be a story at all if Churchill was a white guy working in (for example) the Political Science department.
- The folks calling for Churchill’s head keep asking some version of what they think is a rhetorical question: “Shouldn’t this guy be fired for saying this, even if he has tenure?” But in my mind (and lots of other happy academic minds, I suspect), the clear answer is “no.” The writings and thoughts of Churchill are precisely the reason for the tenure system.
Contrary to popular belief, tenure doesn’t make it impossible for a professor to lose his or her job. For example, if Churchill didn’t show up for his teaching and meetings, if he showed up drunk, and so forth, he could get fired. If he committed a crime or sexually harassed his students or colleagues, he could get fired. If he actually committed an act of terrorism, he could get fired. If the school went “belly up” financially, he could get fired (that almost happened at a place where I us
ed to teach). And these things, my non-academic friends, are the sort of reasons why people in the “real world” get fired, too.
However, the point of tenure is to protect the free exchange of ideas, especially when those ideas are controversial and they incite such powerful reactions. And that’s because it is the exchange of ideas, controversial or not, that makes the whole concept of a university work.
Look, I don’t agree with Churchill. I don’t agree with academics like Kevin MacDonald either. He testified in an infamous Jewish holocaust denier case and he has written about the vast Jewish conspiracy, arguments which, based on the summaries I’ve seen, seem pretty bizarre to me. And he too was in danger of losing his tenured-position because of his views. I think a lot of Noam Chompsky’s political views are a bit crazy too, though I’ve never heard of Chompsky being in danger of being fired. There are lots and lots of academics who have controversial ideas. But the answer is not to fire him. The answer is to engage these ideas and writings with counter-arguments that take on the various case.
And again, that’s why it is important in academic settings to have controversial ideas: the debate and exchange of different ideas and views furthers “Knowledge” itself, and without this exchange, higher education is pretty much pointless.
We’ll see what happens. But one thing that does concern me is that when I did a Google search for “Ward Churchill” blog, all I came across were blog entries and other posts from folks on the right and/or not understanding the point of tenure suggesting that Churchill does indeed deserve to get the boot. I don’t want to be an alarmist here, but it isn’t too much of a leap to suggest that if folks like Churchill are going to get fired, then happy academics (like me) who have less controversial but still not “popular” views might be vulnerable, too.
Er, maybe I ought to keep my happy academic mouth shut.
BTW, no kidding, I really did finish posting this at “9:11.”
I came across this press statement from Churchill, where he tries to explain himself. A bit more reasonable than what he’s trying to explain, IMO.
The Denver Post is reporting that the board of regents at the University of Colorado almost certainly will not ask to fire Churchill. A couple of interesting points the article:
- ” Lawmakers in the state House on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution denouncing the Boulder professor…” Oy vey. I hope after that they decided to once again denounce Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction and then unanimously approved God, apple pie, and the fourth of July.
- “[T]he regents cannot strip Churchill of tenure without due process, [CU regent] Carrigan said. At their meeting today, they will speak out against Churchill’s essay and receive legal advice, he said.” This regent goes on to point out that the reasons for dismissal are pretty much spelled out, and they don’t include having disagreeable opinions.
- About the possibility of being fired, Churchill said “They really don’t want to do that unless they want me owning this university,” and, pointing out that if he were fired he would sue, “My problem would be fighting off the number of lawyers that would want to be involved. This is exactly what I’m protected from – an attempt to take my job on the basis of a difference of opinion on a burning issue.” I hope he’s right….