July 24, 2006

Defending Ward Churchill??

A group of academics have now started signing a petition defending Ward Churchill, calling themselves Teachers for a Democratic Society. Essentially, the petition makes the argument both that the process leading to Churchill's dismissal has been flawed (and presumably will be flawed even though Churchill is in the middle of an appeal process with the third peer group that has looked at the case) and that the substance of the research-misconduct report is wrong:

In addition to these misgivings about context and process, the report contains other substantive problems. These include (1) an unreasonably broad and elastic definition of "research misconduct"; (2) a near-obsessive interest in dissecting a small number of paragraphs and footnotes from an otherwise "impressive" and "unusually high volume" of academic work, an analysis that virtually guaranteed the discovery of errors, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies even as it reaffirmed the validity of several "general points" and a core of "historical truth"; and (3) a failure to fully appreciate the "scholar activist" and "public intellectual" roles—roles that, on balance, expand and enrich the academic and journalistic enterprises—that Professor Churchill was clearly expected to fill when hired by the University of Colorado.

Let's skip over the misplaced modifier (a report doesn't have misgivings) and get to the fundamental issues:

  1. What was the definition of research misconduct used by the committee? Maybe I misread the report, but I think it was plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. That also happens to be the standard definition used in federal regulations, which is narrower than an older definition. Pray tell, what definition would be less broad and still have some basis in reason?
  2. Can one find research misconduct in the details of footnote use? Maybe it's my bias as an historian, trained in linking arguments to primary sources, but I have to say yes. There are two issues here, one of substance and a second of proportionality. As an historian, I should be insulted that someone calls a methodological interest in references "near-obsessive," but I simply find it sad. How else should we work? The second issue is one of proportionality—was there enough "misconduct" given the scope of Churchill's writings? I'm not sure if we read the same report—the scholars' description of errors went to the heart of Churchill's argument about the behavior of the U.S. military, among other things. Nor is this a matter of ordinary mistakes (which we all make) and which most of us are willing to acknowledge. When confronted with the errors, Churchill could have come clean and said, "I was terribly wrong in these instances." But that was not his response.

    To excuse the misconduct as being on the margins of the work, moreover, is to suggest that we only need to be accurate and careful when we're at the core of our argument. Plagiarism doesn't matter if it's not our central thesis? Falsification is irrelevant when we're only misstating someone else's work? And, even if this outrageous claim of disproportionality were accurate, it would not excuse the conduct given everything else we know (especially Churchill's failure to acknowledge error). Incidentally (or maybe not), this disproportionality claim was the same argument Jon Weiner used in Historians in Trouble—that Bellesiles was unfairly brought down by a few footnotes. Maybe some research-misconduct committees decide to act in a way similar to a careful prosecutor, focusing on a few slam-dunk incidents. That doesn't clear the person involved, especially if they have had plenty of opportunities to issue errata. (See Timothy Burke's take on Weiner.)

  3. Should scholar-activists be excused from research misconduct because they're politically active? Er, um, no. Someone who's a self-respecting academic could even entertain this argument?

Things start to look bad when Timothy Shortell is organizing this. What's especially embarrassing about the list of signatories is that it includes Mona Baker, who has been at the forefront of the loony side of British academe who want a boycott of Israeli academics. We should be worried about her views of academic freedom? Sheesh.

More at Inside Higher Ed's coverage. Update: My USF colleague Kathleen de la Peña McCook has signed the petition and explains her reasoning in the comments. Kathleen's actively defended academic freedom as a faculty member, inside the union, and as a member of the American Library Association. I suspect some of the other prominent signatories (not Shortell or Baker) are fairly close to Kathleen's position. Noon update: Definitely an interesting thread in comments. Join the fray!

Errata: In the IHE article comments, I erroneously referred to Timothy Shortell as the organizer of the webpage for Teachers for a Democratic Society. I assumed that from the fact that all of the blog entries on the front page were by him. Mea culpa. (See, Ward, it's not that hard to acknowledge errors...) Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on July 24, 2006 7:29 AM |