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January 29, 2005

Ward of the State U - II

Later, I had an extended discussion with Ms. Kent about academic inquiry, and the rights and responsibilities of the faculty of a university in policing itself. I should stress that during this part of the chat, Ms. Kent was emphatically not speaking as a school administrator, but as a faculty member and history professor. I'll do my best to represent her views fairly here, although this isn't a transcript.

Ms. Kent was quick to point out that she disagrees rather strenuously with Mr. Churchill's screed. As a member of an academic community, she finds it not only troubling, but extremely painful and disappointing that someone would write this kind of thing. She finds it outrageous, offensive, hurtful, and harmful. Any defense of inaction on the part of the university should not be seen as agreeing with Mr. Churchill's rant, but as a defense of the current tenure system.

The tenure system was created, Ms. Kent went on, to protect individuals who say controversial things from retribution by both outside forces, like congressmen who have called for Mr. Churchill's scalp, and the Chancellor or Board of Regents. It is, as she put it, "the First Amendment extended to the university."

While, again, Ms. Kent was speaking as a professor, the university administration does share her views:

Although Churchill has been tenured since 1991, CU spokeswoman Pauline Hale said, "We view this issue more as an issue of freedom of speech, than of tenure."

As for tenure, she added, rules established by the Board of Regents allow for a tenured professor's firing only for the following offenses: demonstrable professional incompetence, neglect of duty, insubordination, conviction of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude, or sexual harassment or other conduct that falls below minimum standards of professional integrity.

Ms. Kent also proposed that, as contemporary writing, Mr. Churchill's tirade could be used as a classroom text to promote discussion on the war directly, or on the Limits of Dissent, the title of the Hamilton College forum he'll be on a panel at.

Although the discussion was long, my point was fairly direct: faculty inaction would be an case of an institution supported, nurtured, and respected by a society, refusing to defend that society but instead attacking it. I do not believe the issue is one of hurtfulness or offensiveness - nobody has the right not to be offended. (I note with relief that CU has no speech code targeting hate speech.) This is a case of someone not criticizing the US in order to improve it but making common cause with its enemies, and were he to "win" the argument, it would result in the defeat of that society, and the murder of many, many of its members.

Moreover, there's plenty of writing that can be used to provoke thought, starting with Socrates, and I'd add that the punishment I'm proposing falls a little short of what was expected of him. In fact, having Mr. Churchill pack his bags and head for well-earned obscurity wouldn't keep someone from using his "text" in a class. Nothing says that a case study has to have a happy ending for its participants.

This is, quite clearly, a violation of the university's principles and its mission, and it seems to be most appropriate for a faculty congress, if such a thing exists, to hear the unrepentant Mr. Churchill out, and then give him 30 minutes to clear out his desk. If there are no current rules permitting that punishment, they should be adopted and enforced. Ms. Kent agreed that the question was one of how far a university faculty would go in governing itself. I would add now that if an organization effectively insulates itself from any form of outside governance, its members really have no choice but to govern themselves.

The fact is that universities make these sorts of judgments all the time. I described incidents on other campuses where newspapers had been stolen, conservative or religious organizations denied funding for ideological reasons, the abuse of sexual harassment rules, and so on. I got the impression that Ms. Kent was largely unaware of these incidents. This implies that there may be enough people of goodwill, even liberals, who are simply not aware of how bad things have gotten. That's a hopeful sign.

A less hopeful sign was her reaction to ROTC. "Twenty years ago, when I first entered academia, I wouldn't have been able to make the case [for it]. But by being around it, I see where both I and other students have learned so much from having it on campus, that I'm glad that it's here." Fair enough, if you look at ROTC as another extracurricular, albeit one with an attitude. And it's certainly refreshing to see ideological diversity extended to something that must look pretty conservative.

But the reason for having ROTC on campus is that it trains officers in a military sworn to defend this country. It's really as simple as that.

Just like telling a enemy of the country that his services are no longer required.

Posted by joshuasharf at January 29, 2005 08:13 PM | TrackBack

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