March 25, 2005

Is the ABOR language a fig leaf?

I've written before that Florida's House Bill 837 (our version of the David Horowitz ABOR) does not write into law any insulation of the curriculum from legislative meddling (such as the attempt to foist a chiropractic school onto Florida State last year). This Tuesday, the first committee hearing the bill recommended it on a party-line vote, and Students for Academic Freedom National Campus Director Sara Dogan wrote a glowing article about the event for FrontPage (Horowitz's online outlet).

Regardless of the wisdom of the ABOR in toto, it seems that to enshrine only a portion of it (that giving students the apparent standing to sue professors and universities), but not all of it, is only paying lip service to academic freedom. Is the flowery language only a fig leaf for intimidation of faculty? Let's test that:...

This evening, I wrote the following to Ms. Dogan, to see whether she'll stand up for the principles that her organization says it supports:

As national campus director of Students for Academic Freedom, you must be aware of the full text of David Horowitz's ABOR, and I do not know if you have noticed the important differences between ABOR and House Bill 837 currently pending in the Florida legislature. HB 837 puts much of the BOR in the "whereas" clauses, especially one crucial bit about noninterference in curriculum matters, such as the use of state appropriations bills to affect the curriculum.

You may not be familiar, however, with the history of academic-freedom encroachments in Florida. There was last year's attempt by the legislature to force Florida State to create a chiropractic school regardless of the faculty's opinions on this, coming on the heels of the legislature forcing new graduate schools onto FSU and Florida A&M a few years before. I could list a number of other incidents, but this should be sufficient at least for now. This is precisely the type of meddling that the Horowitz language is supposed to bar, or so I assume.

Yet that language is not written into statute with HB 837. Regardless of what else we may agree or disagree with [sic—ouch], I hope you will agree with me that academic freedom requires that the legislature not interfere with the curriculum, and that a bill that does nothing to stop such practices is far from a true protection of academic freedom. For that reason, I urge you to distance yourself from HB 837 as the bill's language currently stands.

We'll see how she responds.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:20 PM (Permalink) |

Ward Churchill news

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing out that the University of Colorado has released its preliminary report on the accusations against Churchill. The university decided to forward some of the allegations to the standing faculty committee on research misconduct but not to act on three matters:

  • His writings about the 9/11 terrorist attacks
  • One misconduct allegation made by Churchill's sister-in-law
  • Whether Churchill had gained an employment advantage by misrepresenting his ethnicity (a matter previously investigated, according to the report)

What's left is a set of research misconduct allegations with at least some documentation. The committee's procedures are fairly standard (in part because the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have minimum requirements for research-misconduct committees). The narrowing of the allegations still under consideration allow everything to be considered by an existing committee with existing procedures, and that's all to the good in terms of separating out the substance from the political pressures, no matter what your impression on the allegations might be.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:36 AM (Permalink) |

March 23, 2005

New twist on Florida HB 837

A report by the Gainesville Sun on yesterday's Florida house committee meeting on our local version of the so-called Academic Bill of Rights made clear one additional twist: according to the report, the bill would go further than just requiring grievance processes but would give students legal standing to sue professors over what they say in class.

One additional note: Florida has a broad public-records statute. According to the news report, the bill's sponsor refuses to name the students who have supposedly corresponded with him about being abused in class or victimized by propogandizing faculty. Of course, anyone can ask his office for that supposed correspondence, and he has to provide it.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 10:20 PM (Permalink) |

March 21, 2005

Blind reviews for search committees?

In a fascinating story about Stanley Fish's successor as Arts and Sciences dean at UIC is a little nugget: the chemistry department is trying the first stage of search committee portfolio reviews blindly, after a staff member strips identifying information about names and institutions from the submitted material. I'm curious; what do you think?

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Posted in Random comments at 9:33 AM (Permalink) |

March 20, 2005

The value of the blogosphere

Jonathan Dresner is wrong when implying that a key value of the blogosphere is in its quick turnover of factual criticism that leads to clarification and new evidence. In this case, he was using the fuzzy (some said apocryphal) story David Horowitz was touting about a University of Northern Colorado student forced to write that Bush was a war criminal. Within a few days, there were accusations that Horowitz was touting an urban legend, then some details came out about some incident, and then the professor in question responded, and ... (for details, see Dresner's post and the relevant links). A bloggish postmortem by Corie Schweitzer brought a short debate between him and Dresner in the comments, and I want to focus on Dresner's broader claim in those comments that the hours-long "blog cycle" results in factual clarification—

It means that we draw the most plausible conclusions from the available data and revise those conclusions when more data is made available. Mr. Barnett (whose name you also misspelled) did not find the case I was interested in on his own: David Horowitz and SAF posted new materials documenting their claims, which is precisely what I wanted them to do, if those materials existed. It means that we can now have a discussion of the facts of the case, instead of wondering whether the case is a case at all.

—as opposed to the discussion of philosophy and logic, which Ralph Luker points to regarding the Volokh bloodlust blog entry and the way that Mark Kleman's response pushed Volokh to change his mind (also see Volokh's later post on the topic).

In the Horowitz story-telling case, Media Matters made a row not because of its incredible accuracy but because it was rude and widely read. Here I mean rude in the sense of being raw and forceful, and I'll stand by that term as a description both of David Brock's blog project and also of the blogosphere's relationship with reality. Academic and other intellectual bloggers are at their best when exploring perspective and logic, as evidenced in the Volokh torture-execution controversy. Blogging allows writers to get ideas in circulation in a far faster time-frame than even electronic journals allow (and I say that as the editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives, the elder sibling of education-research electronic journals). And part of what makes great researchers and teachers is the ability to provide expert perspective. In many ways, I think of myself as having been hired and given tenure for my professional judgment.

But that perspective is only part of the story. Great researchers and teachers are also careful about facts and the genealogy of ideas and factual claims. That care is only rarely exercised in the rough-and-tumble world that the blogosphere currently is. Don't mistake my meaning—in many ways, I love the bare-knuckles arguments when they focus on ideas and issues. But as historians like Dresner and myself should know from all our experiences in archives and other research environments, getting a sense of the facts—or, given the paucity of information all too often, a sense of a bare outline—requires time.

The desire for a quick retort is often the enemy of both accuracy and perspective. Yet the blogosphere careers on. In this case, we still don't know the whole story about the incident at UNC. In the case of Ward Churchill, we still don't know the whole story. Bloggers can be wonderful at poking holes in stories and tracing a conversation, but documenting a factual record is something entirely different. Dresner is right in needing to focus on facts but wrong that bloggers are currently doing much more than poking holes and patching together information from other dubious online sources.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 8:45 AM (Permalink) |

March 18, 2005

Move over, Ward Churchill

After reading portions of Churchill's interview comments at CNN, I have one reaction: move over, poster boy, and let us professionals do the heavy lifting to defend academe. An example:

Look, man, I riveted the entire nation on—what did I rivet the entire nation's attention on? It's just boilerplate now ... there's no analysis of the content of what I said.

My gut instinct is that this statement shows either a blithe ability to ignore the world of academic criticism or blithe disingenuousness. There has been analysis of Ward's writings on the subject, my current favorite being Mark Grimsley's (part I ,part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, and his broader comments on l'affaire Churchill). If he had wanted to talk about the value of his writings, he could point to other writings with some self-deprecation and express some delight that at least the controversy has led to a reexamination of the basic ideas in the hands of academics with diverse views. But, no—at least as reported by CNN, he may be glorifying in the academic-freedom martyr role. That may be just an illusion crafted by the editing, but I wouldn't be surprised, either.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:40 PM (Permalink) |

March 15, 2005

Surprises from Cambridge to California

In a few days, the University of Colorado at Boulder lawyers stop negotiating a buy-out with Ward Churchill's lawyer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education blog goes a bit overboard in making factual claims about the Foothills College imbroglio over a student's paper, there's a big online todo about whether David Horowitz has been fudging information about evil liberal professors, and there's also the new blogspat or blogrumble between Michael Bérubé and Robert KC Johnson, not to mention the fact that Harvard's Arts and Sciences faculty express no confidence in President Larry Summers, presumably over his management "style" in the last several years more than his specific comments about women in science (which was likely the last straw rather than the primary reason).

I'm not going to comment on anything extensively until I nail down this edited book manuscript we're trying to get out the door, however. Someone else will have to save academe, or it'll have to survive on its own, until then. The only teasing line I'll leave for my loyal 1.63 readers is that my USF colleague Greg McColm has a wonderful metaphor to explaining the piling-on in the Churchill case (and with Sami Al-Arian), much better than the term piling on. But I won't spoil the surprise. Just hope that he gets a book contract to explain it!

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:31 PM (Permalink) |

March 13, 2005


I've now committed syllepsis unintentionally—in my entry yesterday on Ward Churchill, I meant to explain separately that fraud allegations are not all honest and that institutions and colleagues must therefore be careful, but I was sloppy and out came, "Academics can lie about each other and requires some care in investigation." Does this now put me in the class of Flanders and Swann?

She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes. (Have Some Madeira, M'Dear)

And would I want to be?

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Posted in Writing and editing at 11:04 AM (Permalink) |

March 12, 2005

And now, the plagiarism accusation

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing out new allegations that Ward Churchill plagiarized work by a Canadian writer; according to the report, when she refused to have her work in one of his edited works appear in a second publication, he wrote something under his name that was remarkably similar. This may be part of a larger pattern of sloppy scholarship, if journalists' reports are accurate.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: what has Ward Churchill's behavior been like as an academic? In my experience, good journalists "get it right" about 70-80 percent of the time. After all, if Phil Graham was correct that news was the first draft of history, that means there's plenty of rewriting to be done. So we take the allegations as printed in the media with a grain of salt. With claims of fraud, it's sometimes tough to find the truth, and as I've written before, academics can lie about each other and requires some care in investigation. Plagiarism is much easier to discern: compare the material. Sloppy footnoting is one thing, but stealing words is another.

If Churchill has come close to or crossed the line over to plagiarism, I suspect he'll quickly agree to a buy-out now that these allegations exist.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:28 AM (Permalink) |

No longer funny to me

Via Bitch, Ph.D. came notice of another academic blogger's cynical universal disclaimer for students in courses. Hmmmnnnn...

I guess I don't feel the need to gripe about students these days. Maybe it's because there are bigger fish to fry in my professional life, or maybe I just have thick skin, but sarcastic or griping comments by students just aren't my problem. If a bunch of students complain, I figure they know something is wrong in the course, but it's my job to figure it out. Sometimes students have great suggestions, but if not, the next step is up to me.

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Posted in Teaching at 7:14 AM (Permalink) |

March 10, 2005

The devil's in the details

So I've looked at the "academic bill of rights" introduced in the Florida legislature, and there's something very curious about it, as I noted earlier: there's absolutely nothing in it either about the academic freedom of faculty or about the freedom of the institution from legislative meddling, which does appear in the so-called model language on the Students for Academic Freedom site: "Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget." I'm not surprised that language doesn't appear in the Florida bill, since our legislature is infamous for that exact meddling.

But the bills in other legislatures—Colorado last year and Ohio this year—are similarly narrow in focus, with no pretense that they want to make sure the institution's curriculum is free from political pressures.

If the "model" is sloppily written, what does it say about the bills that they don't include any pretense at balancing things?

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:04 AM (Permalink) |

And it just keeps coming

Two news stories reminds us all that the attacks on academic freedom and campus speech can come from anywhere. The sloppily-written so-called Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) has been introduced in the Florida legislature as House Bill 837—something I need to write about, given my views about faculty needing to advocate for universities. For now, I will just note that the introduced bill omits the provision of the ABOR about legislators' not meddling in curriculum!

Do students have a right to academic freedom? Of course. The ABOR doesn't touch issues on private universities, but LeMoyne College has dismissed a student for advocating corporal punishment in schools, presumably because my teacher-education counterparts there believed that the A- paper indicated he couldn't follow state law forbidding corporal punishment. FIRE has gotten involved in this case, and they're right. Folks, what someone advocates in a paper is not necessarily related to their propensity to violate legal expectations.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:13 AM (Permalink) |

March 5, 2005

Working for boba...

I'm currently in the north Tampa Boba Internet Cafe, having fled my office after a few hours of isolation (and good work on my chapter for the Imagined Communities book). I've seen it several times while driving past and decided to try it. It serves "bubble drinks," or sweetened teas or fruit drinks with tapioca pearls. Very sweet. It also has one of the pop radio stations on (tending towards rock but not too interesting), so I'm glad my work consisted entirely of setting up a reviewing-queue table for Education Policy Analysis Archives, copying titles, authors, and contact information into a table. I suppose I could have set up the next set of reviewers (my original intention, since I still have a backlog I inherited from my first day as editor, plus more manuscripts that have come in since), but I decided a good mindless task was appropriate, so I came up to the present on the titles and whatnot. I'll print it out and start assigning tentative reviewers over the next few days and start the next wave of reviews. Earlier today, I finished reading through the graduate-student editorial board applications (three dozen applicants, each with recommendation letters!), and the next step is consulting with the board. And there are two or three disposition letters I need to write—Monday, I think. I can't neglect my classes tomorrow, when I hope to get a bunch of teaching stuff done.

Anyone have a spare week or so?

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Posted in Random comments at 6:43 PM (Permalink) |

On academic fraud and credentials

In response to one of the allegations swirling around Ward Churchill, Ralph Luker has a poignant and thoughtful story about Martin Luther King and Luker's mentor at Drew University that raises some good questions about academic credentialism. I'm not sure I agree with Luker's conclusions, but he's right to point out the mote in our own eyes.

No, this isn't my promised entry about Churchill—I looked at my obligations this weekend and have to scramble to catch up with a bunch of work. But since Luker used a personal story as a counterpoint to Churchill, I'll explain briefly why I'm hesitant to wade into the argument over academic fraud with free-swinging arguments.

Some years ago, a very close friend in another field was accused of fraud. There was appropriate debate over her research—did it really hold, were there extraneous factors that she wasn't considering—but then there came allegations that her conduct went far beyond the normal human frailty of research. She had just made it up, two researchers said. Her university conducted an investigation—a very long drawn-out affair, in which she needed legal representation to make sure due process was followed—which supported my friend's account. On some investigation, it turns out that at least one person who had made the allegation had a record of accusing other researchers of fraud. If my friend hadn't had tenure or hadn't used legal representation, her career would now be over. As it is, she spent thousands of dollars on lawyers, and she has largely soured on conducting the type of well-funded research that she made her name on, all because some academic yahoos decided to screw her over with loose allegations of academic fraud.

Fraud certainly exists, but it's not something to be judged through the blogosphere. I'll be darned if I'm going to play games with someone's career based on news reports and blogging.

(For obvious reasons, I've fudged some of the details to protect identities.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 8:28 AM (Permalink) |

March 4, 2005

On taking things out of context

If I'm going to slam a conservative for taking my writings out of context, I should note that it's not a feature of life that's bounded by partisan or ideological leanings. As Dispatches from the Culture Wars makes clear, the criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith's appearance at a Harvard University forum on diversity is as utterly absurd as what Jacob Laksin wrote in his e-mail correspondence. Apparently Smith said we should not be bound by conventional ideas and said, specifically, that women should feel they shouldn't have to compromise on their professional and personal lives. Apparently for mentioning the word "husband," one gay coalition at Harvard castigated her as heteronormal. Didn't they listen to what she actually said? Sheesh.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:14 PM (Permalink) |

March 3, 2005

Jacob Laksin correspondence

My e-mail to Jacob Laksin and his reply appears in the full entry. (See this morning's entry for more information about his column and the entry he was commenting on.)

First, me:

I saw the FrontPage puff piece on academics writing about academic freedom and Ward Churchill this morning—thank you for spelling my name correctly (even if you got "corporatization" wrong).

Now, the next time you mention me in an article, could you actually take issue with the core argument I'm making?

And Mr. Laksin's reply:

I’ll happily take your compliments about my spelling in the spirit with which they are intended (I can feel my conservative knuckles rising, ever so slowly, from the ground). I wish I could return the compliment, but having looked on your website this morning, I see that you have misspelled by name in the link you so kindly provided to my piece. (Laksin, not Lakson) [SJD: He's absolutely correct: I misspelled his name. We're now even on misspellings.]

As for not engaging your argument, I offer in my defense that I was constrained by two factors: One: that it was an article about the patently idiotic humbug our leftwing professoriate were proffering in Ward Churchill’s defense, not the putative merits of same. Two: that your argument was, excuse me for speaking frankly, patently idiotic humbug, and I therefore decided that by engaging it on its merits, such as they are, I would have been risking incalculable damage to my (already embarrassingly mean) intelligence.

Basically, professor, what it comes down to is this: A depressing number of academics may thrill to the notion that insert-your-leftwing-fad has a more deleterious effect on an institution of higher learning than the hiring of an academic fraud who boasts no obvious qualifications to teach a subject, and is thus compelled to turn his classes into a forum for anti-American indoctrination and conspiracy mongering. For the rest of us, however, the primary concern of a university should be serious teaching. The university must be nothing less, to borrow from Thomas Hardy, than a “school where we must give/our lives that we may learn to live.”

So you must excuse me for being more concerned about things that imperil this mission, like the Ward Churchill’s of the world, than the latest anti-corporate fashion to find an enthusiastic audience among academics like yourself.

All right. I was snarky in the e-mail. No question there. But I'm astounded at Laksin's biting and worrying at seven words out of an entry. Surely a conservative would agree that the athletics recruiting scandal at the University of Colorado is a serious danger to its main academic mission. A conservative just might take issue with my claim that there is a conflict between the university as moral conservator and the university as a place of ideas. A conservative who has read William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale should certainly have something to say about my comments on trustee politics. C'mon, Mr. Laskin. All I'm asking for is for some honest-to-goodness close reading of a source. So my latest epistle:

I'll take responsibility for misspelling your name, of course, and I apologize. I'm a little curious how you could miss everything except seven words in a piece of writing—surely there's more for a conservative to disagree with than my statement that the coverup of soliciting athletes with sex and other inducements is a greater threat to the educational mission of a university than Ward Churchill. I suppose it's your American right to focus on (or obsess about) any snippet you choose to. I just was hoping for a somewhat higher level of discussion, or at least an accurate reading. Darn it all, hurl calumny at what I actually wrote, not what you think I wrote!

Oh, and about his larger question about Churchill's qualifications and teachings: That's a separate post, but I think that's two allegations, only one of which have been made at the moment (except in this e-mail by Mr. Laskin).

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Posted in Academic freedom at 5:02 PM (Permalink) |

On Nixon's enemies list at last!

Okay, I didn't quite make Nixon's list—far too young for that. But I've been excoriated on David Horowitz's Front page magazine article by Jacob Laksin about "supporters of Ward Churchill" for my blog entry about conservatives who defended academic freedom. Hmmmn... Now, I wish Laksin had taken issue with my analysis (that would have been interesting), but I guess he was too busy writing a slam piece. The most curious thing is that the article misspelled corporatization when referring to one piece of my entry. Did he mean to imply I couldn't spell (I certainly did spell it correctly) or that he couldn't? At least they spelled my name correctly.

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing me to this. I forgot to credit his blog earlier this morning as I was writing this up. Mea culpa (which, for those slang slingers among you, is Latin for "my bad").

Note (5 pm): Jacob Laksin has pointed out that I misspelled his name. My apologies! I'll let him have his own word in a separate post.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:06 AM (Permalink) |