February 5, 2005

Admirable consistency and the morality of universities

The Democracy Project entry on the Ward Churchill controversy is showing that several conservative academic bloggers are standing behind basic academic-freedom principles. Once Churchill was both hired and tenured, he has a property right to his position, and there needs to be due cause for hiring him—and controversial professional writings and public statements are generally insufficient cause. The University of Colorado non-action this week (setting up an investigatory committee) is an extraordinary action in the sense that most investigations of faculty misdeeds are by administrators or fellow faculty. (Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Bellesiles at Emory, administrators outsource the issue to off-campus faculty.) Whenever trustees get into the game, there is political pressure afoot. These days, it is as likely a politically astute way to defer pressure as it is to overrule faculty. The trustees could have taken the extraordinarily stupid step of trying to fire him this week, or asking administrators to—my own university took that step with Sami Al-Arian in December 2001. The fact that UC trustees didn't go down that path suggests that they understood the political problem they had both off- and on-campus. So they went from extraordinarily stupid to just extraordinary (if not too wise). The conservative commentators have correctly pointed out that the responsibility for giving tenure to Churchill (or any faculty member) resides with the faculty and administrators. In the end, great universities are larger than individual faculty members.

But I want to consider the ideas of those who call for Churchill's immediate dismissal based on what he has written and said. The general argument has been to acknowledge his first-amendment rights to his opinions but to claim that public funds should not be paying him at the University of Colorado. The assumption here is that a university has an obligation to conserve values, and that paying faculty a salary in essence endorses some part of what they write and say. One aspect of this moral argument for on-campus censorship concerns the educational mission of universities: we're teaching the young, in some sense, and have an obligation to make sure that their education is properly shepherded.

This moral argument conflicts violently with the definition of the university as a place to explore a diversity of views and create new knowledge. One cannot simultaneously define correct views and also explore new ones—unless you have the precognition of knowing who will be exploring the "right" ideas. (Please don't assume that I have a pragmatist's view of knowledge; that's a separate topic, though most of the problems with pragmatism stem from its early proponents' defense against the charge of relativism.)

At the same time, universities have a far greater moral crisis in its sponsorship of semi-professional athletics at the expense of academics and, for many, the corporatization of universities. Which is more corrosive of academic values at the University of Colorado, the continued salary of Ward Churchill or the coverup of the athletic-recruiting scandal?

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Posted in Academic freedom on February 5, 2005 1:45 PM |