Two more quick things about the whole Ward Churchill matter

* While surfing around today, I came across this post from Timothy “Easily Distracted” Burke. He makes a lot of good points, like this:

Churchill’s scholarly oeuvre is practically a guided tour of every trope of identity politics: polemical extensions of the concept of genocide into every possible institutional or social interaction between the colonized and colonizer, erasures of any historical or programmatic distinctions between colonizers in different eras or systems, reduction of all history and contemporary society into a sociologically and morally simple binary schema of colonizer and colonized (hence the remark that the people in the Twin Towers were “little Eichmanns” while Iraqis are literally infantilized into starving babies and nothing more), pervasive indictments of systems of representation, and aggressive assertions of exclusive cultural, moral, political and economic ownership of anything and everything connected with a particular identity group (Native Americans in this case).

Of course, if this polemic approach to identity politics in scholarship were grounds for dismissal from a tenure-track position, then there would be a lot of pretty famous and not so famous academics looking for work. And as polarizing as Churchill seems to be, that is not a reason to fire the guy for speaking his mind.

* Here’s a copy of an email I sent to the University of Colorado Board of regents:

Dear Colorado Board of Regents members:

I am writing for two reasons. First, I applaud the fact that you did not give into public pressure and “simply fire” Professor Ward Churchill because of the controversy surrounding his scholarship and speaking engagements. Second, as you follow your procedures and review Professor Churchill’s tenure at CU, I urge you to recognize that the concept of academic freedom and the system of tenure are designed to protect Churchill’s rights to pursue controversial ideas. To fire Churchill for saying disagreeable things would be completely at odds with this important ideal.

I don’t agree with the arguments that Professor Churchill presents in his now infamous essay “‘Some People Push Back’ On The Justice of Roosting Chickens.” However, I also think that this essay has been widely misread, and I think Churchill has clarified his position in a number of other statements, most of which have been ignored in the popular press.

But in my mind, the key issue here is not Churchill’s message, but rather the ideal of academic freedom and tenure. Simply put, the fact that Churchill published an essay that is disagreeable– or even “wrong”– is not grounds for his dismissal. As I am sure you are all aware, the point of tenure is to protect the free exchange of ideas, especially when those ideas are controversial and they incite such powerful reactions. This is because it is the exchange of ideas, controversial or not, that makes the concept of a university work. I realize that standing up for Churchill is problematic; but to not stand up for the principle of academic freedom endangers the future of academic thought itself.

This matter brings to mind another news story about free speech that was widely reported just a few days before the Churchill controversy became national news. According to a study John S. and James L Knight Foundation, high school students are woefully ignorant of the protections granted to all Americans by the first amendment. As reported in their press release, three-quarters of high school students thought flag burning was illegal, half believed that the government can censor the Internet, and a third of high school students surveyed thought that the protections of free speech outlined in the first amendment go “too far.”

There was widespread outrage at the ignorance of “today’s youth” regarding one of the fundamental principles and ideals of this country for well over 200 years, free speech. Yet, just a few days later, because Churchill exercised his rights to free speech, there were many calls Churchill’s dismissal in the media (which, of course, is protected by the first amendment) and even in the Colorado legislature (which, one would presume, is familiar with the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution). An even greater ignorance was demonstrated regarding the concept of tenure and academic freedom from all quarters.

My point here is it seems that it is not just high school students in the U.S. who are unaware or even “ignorant” of the concept of free speech.

In closing, I would like to suggest that this current situation gives you, members of the Colorado Board of Regents, a unique opportunity– a “teaching moment,” if you will. I urge you to uphold Churchill’s right to free speech and to honor his tenure and his rights to academic freedom. In doing so, you will have the chance to remind the citizens of Colorado and the U.S. about the importance of free speech, and you will have the opportunity to protect the ideals of academic freedom at both the University of Colorado and beyond.


Steven D. Krause
Associate Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

Eastern Michigan University * Ypsilanti, MI 48197

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