Jul 25 2007

Ward Churchill, 9/11, Tenure, and Academic Freedom vs Standards

Yesterday Ward Churchill, the tenured professor at The University of Colorado, was fired by an 8 to 1 vote for academic misconduct. Churchill came to fame for making comments about 9/11, specifically comparing the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks to Adolf Eichmann, who was complicit in the Nazi holocaust. This case raises interesting questions about academic freedom, the role of tenure, and the implications of pseudoscience and pseudohistory in academia.

Although the Churchill case raises these issues, as is usually the case in real life, it is not a clean, perfect “Hollywood” ending or climax. It’s a bit more messy. Churchill was not fired for his comments on 9/11. His comments were not even part of the 2-year long review process. Rather he was fired for academic misconduct, including falsifying research and plagiarism. The universities investigation into Churchill activities, however, was triggered by his 9/11 comments.

Churchill says he now plans to sue the University of Colorado for violating his freedom of speech. This raises the issue of what the relationship is between a professor’s free speech, the role of tenure, and the rights and responsibilities of a University to discipline their faculty and maintain quality control.

This topic comes up in reference to many topics with which skeptics (and this blog) often deal. For example, proponents of Intelligent Design claim that their academic freedoms are being oppressed. They claim that unless they toe the party line on evolution, they cannot get published and cannot succeed in an academic career. We hear the same exact thing from global warming skeptics, paranormal researchers, holocaust deniers, and now 9/11 conspiracy theorists.


The purpose of tenure is to protect academics from being fired because of their political views or the nature of their research or other academic pursuits. Originally it was designed to protect them from influences outside the university – namely trustees or donors who would try to use their money or influence to block or fire academics they didn’t like or disagreed with. However, it was never intended to protect professors from discipline from their colleagues within the university. Such discipline is necessary to maintain standards, which every institution has a right, and some even a duty, to do.

Over the years the application of tenure has evolved, sometimes by tradition, at other times through legal precedent. (The Wikipedia entry on tenure gives an excellent overview.) At present the guiding principles state that a tenured professor can be removed for, “professional incompetence, neglect of duty, insubordination, conviction of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude… or sexual harassment or other conduct which falls below minimum standards of professional integrity.”

Professional Incompetence or Intellectual Maverick

This standard sound reasonable, but the devil is in the details. How the standard is applied in specific cases can be tricky. I have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

First, I think that academics should be free to pursue whatever intellectual course they wish outside their official academic duties. In the case of Courtney Brown, for example, he pursued his UFO hunting on his own time, and Emory University decided that he was free to do so. They also decided that others were then free to criticize such activity, and I heartily agree.

Of course, committing a felony or other such crime, even outside of official academic duty, should still be fair game as grounds for dismissal. Universities are under no obligation to harbor felons. There is a lot of gray area here – what constitutes “moral turpitude?” – but life is gray and distinctions can be made.

The conduct of a professor in the classroom, however, is a different matter, for now the very real concern of quality control comes into play. I think that academics should have the freedom to design their own curriculum. But the university or college has a right to demand standards, and to use a professor’s curriculum as a criterion for review for professional competence.

To take an extreme example, a history professor should not be able to make up their own history from scratch and then pass it along to their students as knowledge. I should not teach medical students incompetent and substandard medical practice and then defend such teaching with cries of personal academic freedom.

The gray area here is the distinction between, on the one hand, content that represents an unpopular minority opinion, a politically, socially, or religiously “heretical” view, or a cutting edge claim, and on the other hand nonsense and intellectual rubbish. In making such distinctions it is possible to dismiss the merely unpopular as nonsense, or to defend rubbish as if it were truly innovative or politically inconvenient.

Also, when in doubt, which side should get the benefit? Should maverick academics be considered visionary until proven to be quacks, or charlatans until vindicated? The system we have now seems to favor the former.

Personally, I think we need to take the “innocent until proven guilty” approach, but should not set the standard of proof so high that any nonsense can thrive without check. For example, intelligent design is simply not science, and this has been established to such a degree that we can forbid biology teachers from teaching it as science without violating their academic freedom. The same is true for holocaust denial, and for 9/11 conspiracy theorists?

We also have to consider what the purpose of the classroom is. It is not, in my opinion, the place to experiment with cutting edge or untested ideas – at least not at the undergraduate level and not without placing such information in the proper perspective. Students should learn the collective distilled wisdom of our culture. Information should pass through some quality filter before reaching the classroom. If a teacher wants to supplement this with a discussion of new and untested ideas, in that context, that is fine and would probably also be very stimulating. Advanced work at the graduate level and beyond should deal with the cutting edge, as such students are learning how to acquire new knowledge. But, new, personal, quirky, untested, or discredited ideas should not be passed onto students in a basic course as if it were established knowledge.

Who should decide what is established and what is not? There is no perfect answer, but the best we have is a consensus of opinion from appropriate academics and experts.

I should also say that in general the system we have works fairly well. Most professors are well trained and have, at their core, fairly conventional views, although flavored with their own perspective and insight. This is a good balance. There is also a reasonable balance between freedom and quality control, although I think a bit more emphasis on quality control would be nice.

The area where I think the system has broken down is with so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Here, ideas that are anti-scientific, disproven, intellectually bankrupt, and sometimes just utter lunacy are making their way into academic medicine under the banner of freedom, multi-culturalism, openness, and political correctness. Because medicine is a profession and a trade (not just an abstract academic pursuit) the standards for quality control are far more important and should be given greater consideration.

As I said above, I should not be allowed to teach medical students incompetent medicine or substandard care – and neither should anyone else, no matter what you call it.

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