Dissent in the ivory tower

By Michelle Chen Apr 07, 2009

The college campus is supposed to provide a nesting ground for lively debate. But some recent controversies hint that political polarization is making the ivory tower unsafe for dissent. The case of University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill ended last week in a personal victory as well as a win for free speech. A jury found that he had been wrongfully dismissed after publishing an incendiary essay. The article suggested that the victims of the September 11 attacks were in some sense complicit in the destruction, as part of a system that rendered political violence a “natural and inevitable response” to American hegemony. Activists called the investigation a witch-hunt sparked by Churchill’s outspokenness on America’s legacy of racism and political oppression, particularly against indigenous people. The trial dragged out arcane details of the scrutiny Churchill received leading up to his firing in 2007. Members of the Board of Regents admitted they launched the probe out of concern about possible “anti-American” sentiment in Churchill’s writings and speeches. The decision to dismiss Churchill reportedly went against the recommendations of the university’s Privilege and Tenure Committee, which called only for Churchill’s suspension. The evidence suggests that Churchill did engage in some sketchy scholarship. But its doubtful that issues taken up by the committee—for instance, a supposedly weak argument that the U.S. Army deliberately infected Indians with smallpox—warranted Churchill’s firing. Stanley Fish noted on his NY Times blog, “if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs,” and asked,

"Had the governor not called [university president Elizabeth] Hoffman, had state representatives not appeared on TV to call for Churchill’s head, had commentators all over the country not vilified Churchill for his 9/11 views, would any of this have happened.? The answer seems obvious to me and it has now been given authoritative form in the jury’s verdict."

Churchill may not be the poster child for academic censorship, but his example is one of several that exposes the constraints professors may face when countering mainstream political orthodoxy. Middle East studies has produced even more complex politicization of the academy. DePaul University professor Normal Finkelstein, a well-known critic of the Israeli government, was denied tenure and resigned after a long battle with the administration. Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian professor of anthropology at Barnard College, came under heavy political fire when she was considered for tenure, because her scholarship challenged popular assumptions about Israel’s territorial claims. Abu El-Haj was ultimately granted tenure despite an online smear campaign. In a commentary in the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, Dan Rabinowitz and Ronen Shamir wrote, “like an American citizen who is arrested for the offense of ‘driving while black,’ Abu El-Haj seems not to be forgiven for her sin of ‘writing on Israel while Arab.’ " Intellectual attacks may not have the same sting as racist police practices, but the academic world should be the one place free thought is allowed to flourish. If politics can undermine the most cloistered community of ideas, imagine the ideological hostility that stalks our public schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. Think at your own risk. Please. Image: Darin McGregor / The Rocky Mountain News