When ideas are merely bad, it is often best to ignore them. But when bad ideas are also dangerous and based on fallacious assumptions, and when they set up convenient straw men rather than dealing with the real problems, it is better to speak up against them. You appear to be deeply concerned about the type of education that hard-working college students receive, and you claim to be concerned about the "debasement" of higher education. In this we are in complete agreement.
With tuitions increasing at alarming rates; with federal research funding for higher education leveling off and in serious danger of decreasing due to a ballooning federal deficit; and with the value of humanistic inquiry and critical analysis needed as much now as at any other moment in history, we all ought to be actively fighting the debasement of education in the United States.
But the solution you offer is not centrally concerned with such trifling matters. Your solution is to pay students to tape or transcribe their professors’ lectures and provide you with other documentation of ideological “intrusions” into the classroom in order to help you gather momentum in the political sphere to impose restrictions on academic speech. There are several fundamental errors in your logic, and I would like to take this opportunity to address only the most egregious ones.
You claim to be most interested in providing students with a proper educational experience untainted by professors’ ideological intrusions, but in order to achieve this, you then ask the students to impose on their own educational experience by taking the time and energy to provide you with detailed information that you hope to use as evidence in support of your arguments about, as you say, “ideological issue[s] that have nothing to do with the class subject matter.” Can you explain how a student taking notes on other students’ reactions to statements made by their instructor, or taking particular care to transcribe an instructor’s “non-pertinent ideological comments” is not being diverted from the true matter of the class?
If your real concern is with burning away anything from the course that could be considered extraneous to the subject matter, one has to wonder why you think that paying students to perform tasks aside from their own reading, attendance, writing, studying, and participation would not also be a diversion from the true purpose of their class time. Because, as you argue, your “standards” for accepting evidence of radical proselytization are so exacting, “[t]he fees paid to students are truly nominal compensation for the extra work we demand.” This is particularly confusing. Is it the case that you are not interested solely in providing students with detailed information about which petitions a given professor signed, but with using these overworked and underpaid students as cheap labor for your own ideological ends?
Many students struggle daily to pay their way through college. In addition to the unpaid labor of their work as students, many of them work in demanding, low-paying jobs that are often insufficient to cover their expenses, even though many of them sacrifice precious study time, a social life, and even their own physical and mental health in order to attend college. I made similar sacrifices as a student, scrambling to keep up with my studies while also being concerned with how I was going to afford groceries each week. Your plan to dangle money in front of impoverished students is akin to the credit card companies that provide free pizza or T-shirts to those same students for filling out an application. In both cases, the parties that will benefit most from such transactions are not the students themselves, but those who have exploited their poverty for their own ends. Your offer reeks of opportunism. At the same time, you offer a crass material incentive for students to perform activities that they may not have had any interest in performing had they not been promised cash for their efforts. This approach sends a message to students that the relationship they ought to cultivate between themselves and their instructors is one based on surveillance, distrust, and economic gain rather than one based on dialogue and debate.
I will not deny that the power structure of the classroom can favor the instructor. The instructor is the person primarily responsible for the content and direction of the course as well as the grading of student work. The instructor is in many ways the person most likely to be heard in the classroom. But you imply a significant lack of agency on the part of students, when in fact they have at their disposal a myriad of resources. If they have legitimate problems with elements of the course that might be construed as “ideological,” as you are fond of saying, they can file complaints to course directors, deans, and chairs; write critical course evaluations (whether official college forms or the various online forums); offer helpful warnings to friends and neighbors; provide challenges and criticism in the classroom itself; and on and on.
Would I be wrong to assume that you or other acquaintances of yours have been subjected to what you characterize as ideological proselytizing in the classroom? If so, how do you explain the fact that you managed to emerge from the class without succumbing to the professor’s political propaganda? You should consider the possibility that you just might have a mind of your own, and that the same could hold true for other students. Of course, if this is true, then students are not the helpless victims you make them out to be in your many anecdotes, but in fact already possess sufficiency agency and power to deal with problems in the classroom. But admitting this would compel you to recognize yet another significant hole in your arguments and prevent you from using a convenient fiction about student/instructor relations to advance your own ideological goals.
Or perhaps you do recognize that students are not mere empty vessels, and that the real complaint is not with the particular political views you document in such lavish detail, but is simply a practical one: class time is limited and there is much to learn about the French Revolution or Baroque architecture, so kindly spare us your personal opinions of U.S. foreign policy. But this isn’t quite your complaint either, because it is not really the simple fact of “talking about” the war in Iraq or “any other ideological issue” that you believe has no bearing on the legitimate subject matter of a course that so concerns you. Rather, it is only criticism of President Bush’s policies or the war in Iraq (to name but two of your examples) that compels you to castigate professors for their views. In the elaborate profiles you have produced, I find no stinging indictments of professors who dared to say something laudatory about those same subjects when they should have been lecturing on anthropology, law, or Germanic languages.
Since you say your concern is with the deviation from the “true subject matter,” perhaps we can expect similar efforts on your part to expose such dangerous expressions once you have finished scouring the Internet for names of people who signed petitions that you, coincidentally, would never sign. As your project gathers steam, I look forward to reading the accounts of professors who interrupted their lectures on Stoic philosophy or South American history (or perhaps more likely their lectures on business strategy or advanced economics) to interject their criticisms of Michael Moore’s voiceover techniques or Noam Chomsky’s obsessive interest in the U.S. military-industrial complex. It will be useful to know which professors have a penchant for praising the incisive commentary of Bill O’Reilly or the profound wisdom of U.S. reliance on extraordinary rendition and the torture of prisoners. Better yet, in order to relieve our hapless students of distractions and restore higher education to its vaunted purpose of delivering content, we also ought to expose those instructors who cannot help but burden their students with endless anecdotes about their family dogs. Surely there are cat-loving or pet-hating students in the audience who must be rescued from such blatant pro-canine ideological claptrap.
In addition to the dissemination and memorization of names, dates, and key ideas, the true subject matter of the college classroom includes the cultivation of an environment of open discussion, critical analysis, and intellectual inquiry that lends higher humanistic education its particular value. You seem to recognize this when, in one of your articles, you fault certain instructors for intellectual partisanship. Your main complaint here, however, is that such an approach does not give equal time to competing viewpoints. So is it the intrusion of anything you consider extraneous that is the real problem, or the fact that there isn’t enough space devoted to the other sides of an issue?
Here is where the disingenuous nature of your rhetoric manifests itself most clearly, for your real complaint is neither of these. If you were in fact concerned with eliminating extraneous ideological viewpoints from the classroom, how could you also want more space devoted to competing views on those same subjects? This would mean these competing views would also be a distraction from the “true” subject matter, or it would mean that the original views expressed by the professor do in fact connect to the matter at hand. As it turns out, your general complaint is not that these ideological views cut into class time or that they are not situated alongside contrary perspectives, but that the particular views being expressed are radically different from those you or your supporters endorse. By virtue of that fact alone, such ideological intrusions are worthy of opprobrium.
I cannot remember the last time I proselytized (according to your definition) in class, if I ever did; nor have I found it necessary to offer a disquisition on any of the particular subjects you consider off-limits or ideologically suspect, but this has nothing to do with the fact that I think your entire approach is wrong. In fact, all of what I have said thus far is really only a relatively minor criticism of your ideas, the faulty assumptions behind them, and the dangers inherent in your approach to solving this perceived problem. In the end, the greatest weakness in your investigative project is that your own ideological investment in curtailing academic freedom to express views you disagree with has blinded you to a whole set of profound crises that are in fact debasing higher education and shortchanging generations of hard-working students.
While you target professors whose political views conflict with your own and attempt to paint a shocking portrait of the corrupt ideologies that are eating away at the very foundations of higher learning, you ignore the legitimate problems most students face and instead direct your energies toward the worst sort of partisan whining and straw-man argumentation. If you were genuinely interested in preventing students from receiving a “debased education,” you might want to devote some of your estimable energies to dealing with the following crises in education: the increasing burden of debt being carried by students; the skyrocketing costs of attending college (from tuition increases to the lack of affordable housing); restrictive immigration policies that prevent many excellent international students from attending American universities; the corporate takeover of the university; and so much more. In order for me to continue to talk about these issues, however, I may find it necessary to mention something other than Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, or the assorted subjects you are willing to grant me license to discuss. If I do, perhaps I can monitor myself, and provide you with all the materials you need to add another profile to your archive. For the sake of convenience, please make the check out to “Cash.”
Brian Thill is completing his Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Irvine.
The cure for bad information is better information.
There’s a lot of unhappiness among college faculty members about RateMyProfessors.com, a Web site containing student ratings of professors. Many college students use it to help pick their classes. Unfortunately, the site’s evaluations are usually drawn from a small and biased sample of students. But since students usually don’t have access to higher-quality data, the students are rational to use RateMyProfessors.com. Colleges, however, should eliminate students’ reliance on RateMyProfessors.com by publishing college-administered student evaluations.
Bad information flourishes when good information is suppressed. RateMyProfessors.com allows students to label a professor as “hot,” gives prominence to how easy a professor is and allows students to publish obnoxious and irrelevant comments about their teachers. When colleges withhold their own internally administered student evaluations from students, they have the effect of colleges' boosting the importance of RateMyProfessors.com.
That’s not to say that student evaluations of professors are perfect; far from it. Students sometimes punish professors for being tough graders, for assigning relatively large amounts of work or even for wearing unfashionable clothes. So it’s not illogical for some colleges to prefer that students not see evaluations of professors. RateMyProfessors.com, however, has eliminated this option.
Most colleges already administer high-quality student evaluations of professors and they should release these data so students could make more intelligent class choices.
Not publishing college-administered evaluations might be unfair to many professors. For example, a student wishing to damage her untenured professor’s career might do more harm through posting a negative review on RateMyProfessors.com than by giving her professor bad marks on the official college-administered student evaluations. RateMyProfessors.com has only a few evaluations for many professors. On this Web site, therefore, one student can have a huge impact on a professor’s averages.
True, colleges will almost certainly ignore RateMyProfessors.com when making promotion decisions, . But many college promotion committees do take into account how many students a professor attracts to his classes. So a disgruntled student who uses RateMyProfessors.com to reduce a professor’s enrollments might end up playing an oversized role in his teacher’s promotion prospects.
Some adjunct professors would benefit from the publication of high quality student evaluations. If college search committees could easily obtain the student evaluations of adjuncts working in their city, they would be more likely to recruit those with stellar marks. In a well functioning market, teaching-star adjuncts would make more than average quality full professors. But markets only pay for quality if that quality is observable by many potential employers.
Publishing high-quality student evaluations might improve college teaching. Professors care greatly about their reputations. Just imagine how much less time most tenured professors would spend on research if all academic articles had to be published anonymously. Tenured professors usually have little financial incentive to satisfy their customers. Perhaps if colleges published high-quality student evaluations, professors would put more effort into obtaining good teaching reputations.
The current generation of college students consults customer reviews before buying books, seeing movies or downloading music. We should expect and perhaps even encourage them to also use customer reviews when picking classes. And students care so much about obtaining reviews of their potential professors that they are willing to turn to an obviously flawed rating service. Colleges should therefore allow students to see the official evaluations that the students fill out and ultimately pay for.
James D. Miller
James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal in Hosty v. Carter lets stand a disastrous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that threatens the autonomy of campus newspapers. And although the decision directly applies only to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, it will be used by public colleges across the country to censor student expression.
The Hosty case dealt with the administration’s prior restraint of a student newspaper at Governors State University, whose officials had been criticized by the publication. But the ruling will have an enormous impact on college students’ rights. The ruling marks the first major backward step in legal protections of the rights of college students, and it may be the start of an ominous trend. If student-funded newspapers can be censored, then so can student-funded speakers. In loco parentis, the legal concept giving administrators the power to regulate college students as a parent controls immature children, is making a comeback for the first time, decades after it was killed in the 1960s.
The global protests over these drawings have given us the horrifyingly un-ironic term “cartoon death count.” But in America, the key question is whether newspapers should print offensive content, especially when that content itself is in the news. Most American newspapers have refused to reprint the cartoons -- despite their importance in the news, claiming that readers can understand the cartoons without seeing the images.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that most of the campus newspapers that have published the Danish cartoons are at public colleges in the Seventh Circuit, including The Daily Illini (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), The Indy (Illinois State University), The Northern Star (Northern Illinois University), The Communicator (Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne), and The Badger Herald (University of Wisconsin at Madison). The Hosty case has raised the awareness of student journalists at these campuses, and perhaps made them more sensitive to issues of freedom of the press that are central to this debate.
Sensitivity is the question at stake with regard to the Danish cartoons. Should we be sensitive to the feelings of Muslims who have a sincere religious opposition to visual depictions of Muhammad? Or should we be sensitive to news values that dictate that our first instinct should never be to conceal something from our readers?
As the author of an article that included the controversial Danish cartoons in The Indy, an alternative newspaper at Illinois State University, obviously I have taken a stand on this question. It’s unfortunate that Muslims are offended by these images. But once anyone’s sense of being offended becomes the standard for determining publication, we will have lost much of the liberty essential for a free press.
The principle of freedom of the press holds that these decisions should be made by individual newspapers without government intimidation. But the Hosty ruling now gives administrators the power to impose bans on cartoons such as this, and we can only imagine how many college newspapers will face censorship -- and how many student editors will think twice about printing a controversial story or cartoon.
Of course, the fact that it is legal to print cartoons doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea. However, the attempts to suppress these cartoons by violence and censorship have made this a question of free expression. It is important for journalists to publish these cartoons no matter how offensive they are, to make the point that journalists should not be intimidated. Newspapers have a duty to print offensive images when they are newsworthy, whether these images are offensive cartoons, or Abu Ghraib torture photos, or the bloody victims of suicide bombers. Sensitivity is reflected in how we react to the racism directed at Muslims, not in our willingness to censor news in order to appease religious traditions.
At a time when media consolidation makes the mainstream media more and more reluctant to offend anyone who might threaten the bottom line, student journalists are the ones who can stand in defense of true freedom of the press. The fact that more student editors than professional ones have dared to print the cartoons should be a matter of quiet disgrace -- not for the students, but for the professionals.
But the Hosty case puts liberty of the campus press at risk. Even if few colleges openly crack down on student newspapers, the threat will always be there. And self-censorship is the greatest danger under a repressive regime. In the wake of the Hazelwood decision by the Supreme Court, which now applies in the Seventh Circuit to colleges, the high school press has been devastated by censorship. Principals across the country routinely censor even the most modest attempts at critical journalism, and many more student journalists simply give up because of the knowledge that they are not free to publish important work.
The response to the cartoon has already brought censorship on campuses. In Canada, Saint Mary’s University philosophy professor Peter March posted the cartoons on his office door, prompting the university to ban them. At Century College in Minnesota, an adjunct instructor who posted the cartoons on a bulletin board was told by a department chair not to replace them after they were ripped down. Other have suffered worse consequences. The Danish editors have faced death threats.
Cartoons have often had a remarkable ability to offend, and the right to print offensive images is fundamental to our constitutional rights. In the 1973 case Papish v. Curators of the University of Missouri, a graduate student was expelled for "indecent conduct or speech" because she handed out a newspaper, The Free Press Underground, that showed a cartoon of a policeman raping the Statue of Liberty. The Supreme Court made the case a cornerstone of student rights and ruled, “the mere dissemination of ideas -- no matter how offensive to good taste -- on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" Now it can be shut off -- for decency, or any other reason.
Cartoons have frequently caused controversy on campus. In 2001, the University of California at Berkeley’s Daily Californian sparked protests because of a cartoon mocking the 9/11 terrorists by depicting them in hell. In 2002, a syndicated Oliphant cartoon showing Muhammed at a cocktail party sparked outrage when Purdue University’s student newspaper printed it. Other cartoons have caused protests or censorship because they mocked university officials or utilized racial stereotypes. In 2005, the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini suspended a cartoonist, Matt Vroom, because of one of his offensive cartoons was deemed anti-Semitic and got published accidentally.
The Daily Illini has also been the focus of debate over publishing the Danish cartoons. After Muslim groups protested the decision, the publisher suspended the editor-in-chief and the viewpoints editor (ostensibly for violating “process” by failing to consult other editors, although it’s hard to imagine any other topic where anyone would object to the viewpoints editor running a column by the editor-in-chief). The Daily Illini followed this up by enacting a new policy banning discussion of the newspaper on blogs by any students who work for the paper.
This incident is particularly troubling because it foretells what could happen to many more editors who dare to offend. The Daily Illini is an independent corporation unaffiliated with the University of Illinois. In theory, this should mean greater freedom. But independence means that these editors have no First Amendment protections against their overseers, as campus newspapers had until the Hosty case. As a former Daily Illini columnist, I can only view with sadness the idea that freedom of the press is being sacrificed at my alma mater on the false altar of religious tolerance.
College administrators have now been given the legal authority to censor any activities funded with student fees, which could have dramatic consequences. If sensitivity to Muslims (or any other group) becomes the prevailing standard, will right-winger Ann Coulter be banned from campuses? Speaking on Feb. 10 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (where Dick Cheney and Bill Frist were also prominent speakers), Coulter declared: “I think our motto should be, post-9/11, raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences." Although Coulter is an ugly racist, her sickening views need to be countered, not prohibited. However, the first step in condemning Coulter is to repeat her horrible words. If we want to condemn someone, whether a cartoonist or a writer, we must first see the work. And then we must understand that critique, not censorship, is the only way to convince people to comprehend the truth.
The College Media Advisers proclaimed in response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an appeal, “It is now all the more imperative that student publications establish clear operating guidelines as designated public forums, if they already haven’t.” The presidents at Illinois State University, the University of Southern Indiana, and the University of Wisconsin at Platteville have signed declarations protecting freedom of the press on their campuses, but according to the Student Press Law Center, more than 75 public colleges in the seventh circuit have taken no action. Advocates of liberty on college campuses need to convince these campuses to protect their student newspapers, and they also need to persuade state legislators to pass “reverse Hosty” laws to protect the rights of students at campuses like Governors State University that will never voluntarily grant First Amendment rights to their students.
Some critics may see the decision by campus newspapers to reprint these cartoons as a good reason to impose more control by administrators over students. But even those who see publishing the cartoons as a terrible error must understand that the liberty to make mistakes is essential in a free society. It is also essential for students to learn. At campus newspapers across the country, the cartoon controversy has been a tremendous learning experience for student editors, whether they decided to print the cartoons or not. They have learned something about Muslims, and about whether it is wise to offend readers. And, sadly, student editors have learned in the past month that freedom of the press is not so secure as they might wish.
One indisputable fact about my new book The Professors is that it has upset a lot of people. Indeed a veritable army of detractors has formed to attack it. Thus it has been denounced by a coalition of left-wing organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, People for the American Way and George Soros’ children’s crusade, Campus Progress. It has been assaulted by the left-wing blogosphere and by radical sites like Counterpunch.org, 17 of whose contributors appear in my book.
The theme of these attacks is monotonously and in an oddly self-refuting fashion the same: “The book is a McCarthy blacklist and as a tenured radical I’m upset that I’m not in it.” The point of these attacks appears to be to dissuade other academics from reading The Professors or considering its argument. Therefore a principal tack of the attackers is to avoid mentioning its argument at all. Scott McLemee’s attempt at a review (“ D’Ho!”) in Inside Higher Ed conforms to this pattern.
You would never know it from McLemee’s article, but The Professors is not about any threat from left-wing ideas as such. It is about the intellectual corruption of the university, and the intrusion of political agendas into the academic curriculum. I know this statement will come as a surprise to those familiar only with the attacks themselves, so here is what the book actually says: “This book is not intended as a text about left-wing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom. But they also have professional obligations as teachers, whose purpose is the instruction and education of students, not to impose their biases on their students as though they were scientific facts.”
The “dangerous” theme, which has provided critics with a federal case is a marketing motif dreamed up by the publisher and is confined to the subtitle and the flap copy. The word “dangerous” does not appear anywhere in the 112,000 word text, and the notion that these professors are dangerous forms no part of the argument of the book. I will grant that since the book is marketed this way, and since the radicals portrayed are all on the left (are there any right-wing radicals left on university faculties?) the idea is fair game. But if left-wing academics think they can kill The Professors by focusing fire exclusively on this target (it’s a revival of Red Channels), they should think again.
The Professors was published on February 13, and at its present rate of sale, approximately 60,000 individuals will buy a hardback version of the book in the coming year. Among them will be students, parents, university administrators, faculty members of an independent mind, trustees, donors and politicians sitting on the education and appropriations committees of state legislatures and the federal government. They will recognize the attacks on the book as caricatures and will not be persuaded by all the noise.
To his credit, Scott McLemee, has actually read at least one page of the book, but unfortunately has failed to understand what he has read. The passage concerns my claim that using Harvard as a yardstick, about 10 percent of the faculty at any university probably hold the kind of radical views represented by the professors in my book, which would amount to 60,000 professors nationwide (I cut the figure in half in the book to provide the most conservative estimate). Says McLemee: “This statistic [the 10 percent radical representation at Harvard] rests upon a particularly subtle bit of accounting which I do not claim to follow.”
Allow me to explain it Scott. Larry Summers, the most powerful president in the history of the modern research university (now removed) was censured by 218 members of his faculty after expressing a view that the faculty left regarded as “politically incorrect.” Alan Dershowitz, a famous faculty liberal, has described the forced resignation of Summers as “an academic coup d’etat by one small faction … the die-hard left of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.” This die-hard left, which is powerful enough to fire a university president, is the subject of my book. I am confident that many people whose intellectual oeuvre is not (like McLemee’s) focused on an obscure Carribbean Trotksyist, will be interested in what The Professors has to say about them.
After failing to understand the fairly straightforward English of my text, McLemee resorts to ridicule and defamation. He cites Maurice Isserman, a leftist professor at Hamilton College who appears to want to eliminate me from the discussion altogether. “Why do we have to deal with him? This is someone with no credentials -- not just academic credentials, but no intellectual credentials. He’s never written a book that will still be talked about in fifteen years.” Brave commentary from a man who has not written a book that anyone talks about this year.
It is undoubtedly a futile exercise to dispute the meaning of my writings with a man like McLemee who has trouble understanding the plain meaning of words. But I will respond to his charge that I am an “ex-Communist” who has only one note to sing namely his conversion from the good old left to the bad neo-conservative right. By way of providing evidence for this silly claim, McLemee rehashes a bad joke from Michael Bérubé’s blog, which refers to my book “ Left Illusions, one of his six or eight of fifteen memoirs about his intellectual odyssey from far-left-firebrand to wing-nut crank.” Such elevated discourse from the literature professor. (I have replied here.)
In preparation for his Inside Higher Ed piece, McLemee wrote to ask me how many autobiographies I had written. I told him one. Refusing to accept the truth for an answer, McLemee suggests I have written four, including Radical Son, Left Illusions, Destructive Generation and The End of Time.
Radical Son is indeed an autobiography, the story of a life. Destructive Generation has only a single essay by me (the others are co-authored with Peter Collier) which is a letter to a former comrade on the left about why I have rejected the left. This is not an autobiography in any reasonable sense of the word (again I understand that McLemee has difficulty with both reason and words). Left Illusions contains a second letter I have written (in this case to my political mentor, the late Ralph Miliband) about why I rejected the left. It is also an argument and not an autobiography. Then there is the “memoir” The End of Time, which is a meditation on life and death that uses fragments of my life from the period after the completion of Radical Son. It is no more an autobiography than Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. But then McLemee concedes that he hasn’t actually read the book in order to comment on it (why does that not surprise me?).
Stanley Fish, who does not share my politics and is a literary man, has read the book and has this to say about and by implication about Maurice Isserman’s attempt to make me an unperson literarily speaking: “Most memoirs only mime honesty. This one performs it. Beautifully written, unflinching in its contemplation of the abyss, and yet finally hopeful in its acceptance of human finitude. And as a bonus, it gives us a wonderful love story.” Nor is he the only liberal to comment favorably on the intellectual quality of my work. Walter Isaacson has judged The End of Time “a poignant rumination on the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Horowitz faces his intimations of mortality with both emotional and intellectual depth. He has captured it all beautifully."
McLemee’s inclusion of some of my written responses to his queries and his ridiculous charges is commendable; his repetition of the false and malicious claims made by Bérubé and others about incidents like the Colorado exam is not so commendable. I have shown the shoddiness of these charges more than once and provided McLemee with references. Instead of letting readers know that these exist (one can be found here), McLemee links an article from Inside Higher Ed that was written in the middle of the controversy and was based on incomplete information, and of course reflects poorly on me. Par for the course. I would like one leftist to attempt to deal with the actual facts in this case and come out with the conclusion that McLemee and his friends do. But I’m not holding my breath.
McLemee’s attack on Discover The Networks is as lacking in intellectual seriousness as the rest of his piece. As I told him, I have written more than 20,000 words explaining the database, redefining it in response to critics on the left, inviting those critics into the pages of my magazine to explain their complaints and answering them. Discover The Networks is unique in allowing subjects to complain about their profiles and in making corrections where warranted (and posting them for all to judge). The complaints about Discover The Networks come from people who think the left should not be portrayed, defined or analyzed at all. As it happens, and as I pointed out to McLemee there are more than half a dozen leftist sites which exist only to smear conservatives and which refused to make corrections when these are pointed out. His outrage is hypocrisy and nothing more. And it will have no affect on visitors to the site who recognize its quality. In the last year the number of these visitors was five million.
In my correspondence with McLemee I explained that I was unaware of the comment on Holstun until he pointed it out to me. If he will give me the url, I will take it off the site. Will this change his attitude towards me? Hardly. But I will do it anyway. Perhaps he will remonstrate with his leftist friends who send e-mails to my editors to this effect: “Please tell David to slit his throat.” We live in rough times. And some people can’t resist making cheap political shots out of the material to hand.
McLemee ends his piece with the familiar wish -- shared by Isserman and Bérubé -- that I would just disappear. This is the wish of the inarticulate and the ineffectual, and it will not be satisfied.
David Horowitz is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
Recently, a New York Times reporter called me to discuss legal matters. He co-wrote a story about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the next day's Congressional hearing on domestic spying and other anti-terrorism matters.
The Times story briefly included mention of our conversation, outing me as a long-time friend of the AG, identifying me as one of his "supporters," and using a quip that I had used, that Gonzales was "one of my three Republican friends." He also printed one of several examples I had related concerning Gonzales' lawyering skills, and he accurately noted that he and I "disagree on almost every issue." Alberto and I came to Houston as professionals at the same time in 1982, and we have had many personal and professional activities in common, as young Mexican American lawyers in the same city will do.
The conversation had been nearly an hour, and the reporter accurately and fairly captured my answers to his many questions, which ranged from Governor Bush's DUI to whether or not the Geneva Convention covers al Qaeda. I get calls regularly from reporters, and thought nothing more of it. However, when I came into my office on Monday morning, I found about 20 e-mail messages from fellow faculty members across the country, condemning me in one way or the other about the remarks I made. The story had been posted on several faculty-driven listservs, along with public and private remonstrances and notes of support. One said, " Este buey no merese tu apoyo" (This mule doesn't deserve your support), while another was headed: "What are torture and war crimes against Muslims/Arabs/Asians of Color between friends?" Thinking that I could not address each one, I posted this note on a law professor listserv:
"All I have to say is that I have many friends, including most who wrote me. I have never required loyalty oaths of my friends, nor they of me. I disagree with many people about many things, but have never set as a precondition of friendship that we agree on social or political issues. I am not about to start doing so now."
We were off to the blogging/listserv races. Since then, I have received dozens of faculty responses, public and private, mostly along these lines: "Hell, Michael deserves this because he in effect endorsed Gonzales" to "Man, I disagree with his choice of friends but he clearly has the right to choose his friends" with all the degrees along this spectrum. The most vociferous have accused me of war crimes, guilt by association, and the like. The most cutting mistook my reluctance to respond further to each iteration as thin-skinned aloofness: "And it is really too bad that some people can be talked into shutting up or walking away just because their feelings get hurt."
A few lawyer friends and family members weighed in, uniformly positive, and reminding me how much they always disagreed with me on various matters. A few whose voting behavior I did not know revealed themselves as Republicans, and assuming I was counting them among the three I had thought I had; overnight, my Republican posse doubled.
After a week of this, I am astounded that people do not see the difference between friendship and politics. It is not often I need to guard my left flank; this whole thing has me baffled, and somewhat amused. I feel like I am in a Mark Twain novel, looking down at my own funeral from the church balcony.
In an odd way, this whole thing has been salutary -- being slimed by some of these folks in public actually helps (such as the "war criminal" calumny from one bozo who has kept carping), but some of the scorchers I have received (in English and Spanish) were of more interest to me. For example, a professor whose work I have always admired wrote me: "Michael, for what it's worth, I think that you are you entitled to have whatever friends you want to have, and to maintain your friendship despite some political disagreements. But further, such disagreements can deepen real friendships, and when the one or both of the friends are important political actors, maintaining the friendships can also improve national politics by giving those actors access to different information and opinions than they might get from their toadies."
That is my story and I am sticking to it. I am the oldest of 10 children, and we disagree all the time. How could it be otherwise with friends and colleagues?
At the end of the day, I have come to believe that Al Gonzales is probably more worried than I am about our friendship ruining reputations, now that he has been outed as my friend. The whole imbroglio with the nomination of Harriet Miers shows that Republicans can be fickle with friendships and affiliations, but I work hard to keep my friends. And as a postscript, the then-University of Houston president who hired me and with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, Barry Munitz, was in the news this week over the situation at the Getty Trust, where he resigned as president. I do not know Barry's political affiliations, but it has been a tough week for my few friends in high places.
But I will say this: when he returns to Houston, it is Al Gonzales' turn to buy.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.
It should not be the case that a victory for the Department of Defense is a defeat for academic freedom, but such is the outcome of Rumsfeld v. FAIR, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday in an 8-0 ruling favoring the government.
FAIR is the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, a group of prominent law schools whose policies forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. FAIR sought to restrict, not prevent, military recruitment because the military’s discriminatory policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is aimed at gays and lesbians.
The U.S. military, on the other hand, supported by the Solomon Amendment, claims that its rights to see potential recruits in law schools and, indeed, in all other components of the university, trump the rights of universities to be true to their mission. The Solomon Amendment was first passed in 1995 by Congress and has been revised three times since, with each revision placing greater pressure on universities to give military recruiters less restricted access to students or face the prospect of losing all federal funding.
FAIR’s mission is “to promote academic freedom, support educational institutions in opposing discrimination and vindicate the rights of institutions of higher education.” This is “starry-eyed idealism,” according to one Congressman who supported the Solomon Amendment that “comes with a price” -- lose all federal funding unless you support the military’s discriminatory policy.
In some circles, such threats are called extortion, but coming from the government they are called “funding leverage.” The roughly $35 billion in federal money now going to universities would be lost if any component of the universities -- e.g., law schools or medical schools or education schools -- defied the Solomon Amendment.
For Chief Justice Roberts extortion is not “compelled speech” because all the government seeks to regulate is “conduct.” I liken this to my mother’s threats of denying me dinner following my making a reasoned objection to some unjust parental rule: it is your conduct, son, not the logic of your argument that offends; obey or no dinner.
As a child, I lacked the autonomy that universities have traditionally enjoyed in the United States. Institutional autonomy was described by the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, which met a year ago at Columbia University, as “the guarantor of academic freedom.” Institutional autonomy includes “the right of the university to determine for itself, on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
The Roberts court ignores this tradition of academic common law and instead asserts that universities are “free” to determine their mission, including one that forbids discrimination, but only if they are willing to forgo access to the people’s money, the very funding that subsidizes new knowledge, new discoveries, and new policies, all for the purpose of assisting the public good.
The not insignificant crumb the Court did offer the academy in its Solomon [not Solomonic] ruling is the right of the academy to protest when military recruiters visit campus. Campus communities should vigorously exercise that right until such time as the US military changes its anti-discrimination policies to accord with the more enlightened of the academy.
Roger W. Bowen
Roger W. Bowen is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, which filed an amicus brief in support of FAIR.
The University of Colorado committee investigating Ward Churchill has found him guilty, guilty, guilty. And on some level, they’re right: Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of "research misconduct" far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of "research misconduct." According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of "research misconduct" and can be suspended or fired.
The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that "professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas." ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”)
ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses. Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.”
Compelling action is also the goal of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights legislation. In March, Horowitz testified before the Kansas legislature. He denounced women’s studies programs as a violation of academic freedom and standards. According to Horowitz, because the University of Kansas Women’s Studies program express a goal of educating students about “how and why gender inequality developed and is maintained in the United States and in our global society,” it should be banned. Since Horowitz thinks there may not be any gender inequality in the world, women’s studies programs “can in no way be justified as taxpayer-supported programs.”
Considering how effortlessly Horowitz misreads the meaning of academic freedom under the AAUP standards, one can only imagine how effectively he could distort "research misconduct" to pursue his crusade against left-wing professors like those in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If Horowitz fails to get professors fired for talking about politics in their classes, he could try to have them fired for expressing controversial views in their research.
That's the harrowing possibility raised by the irresponsible claims of the Colorado committee. They claim to be following the University of Colorado’s statement on Misconduct in Research and Authorship, which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other forms of misappropriation of ideas, or additional practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted in the research community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research."
Because Colorado’s policy explicitly exempts "honest error," the Colorado committee turned into a kind of character police. Noting their dislike for Churchill’s "attitude," the committee members seem to have concluded without the slightest evidence that Churchill intentionally deceived readers with his footnotes.
For example, the Colorado committee concluded, “Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.” This logic is repeated in four out of the seven charges against Churchill. The Colorado committee’s basis for the claim of fabrication depends upon a fundamentally narrow-minded view of what a footnote should be.
However, footnotes serve many purposes. A footnote is not always definitive proof of the sentence being noted. It is common practice for footnotes to be used in order to refer readers to general works related to the period being discussed (as Churchill does), and even to cite works which provide a different or contradictory view of the era.
In my forthcoming book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I include a quote by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer admonishing Americans to “watch what they say.” I have a footnote listing a news report about the statement. But I also include in the footnote a reference to a letter to The New York Times by Fleischer explaining why he is being misinterpreted. I do not comment on this claim, because every word in my footnotes counts against the word limit for the book, and I don’t want to waste precious space scrutinizing some political hack’s line of bullshit. But I thought readers might want to look at a different view.
According to the Colorado committee, I have committed "research misconduct." My footnote includes a source contradicting my interpretation of the comment. On the other hand, if I simply omitted the reference to Fleischer’s letter, and deprived readers of a chance to find a view disagreeing with my perspective, I would be a perfectly fine scholar in the committee’s eyes.
There is no reputable source for the Colorado committee’s claim that footnotes cannot include sources who disagree with the author. In order to evaluate the charge of research misconduct, the Colorado committee proclaimed that it would use the American Historical Association “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” as “a general point of reference.” However, the AHA statement is not intended to be a basis for punishing professors. Indeed, if anything the AHA justifies Churchill’s approach by urging scholars to be “explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one’s intellectual debts.” Nor does the AHA statement include anything about the proper use of footnotes which would justify a charge of falsification.
The Colorado committee provides a footnote quoting the AHA statement that “historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.” But there a vast difference between saying that lousy footnotes will affect your credibility and claiming that lousy footnotes can justify revocation of tenure.
In other words, the Colorado committee “proved” that Churchill was guilty of research misconduct for providing footnotes that did not support his claims by citing a footnote which did not support its claims. It seems strange that a committee which provides a thorough and fascinating account of the historical minutiae surrounding an 1837 smallpox epidemic would somehow fail to do any research on the meaning of fabrication and research misconduct. The Colorado committee’s shoddy work on the meaning of fabrication and misconduct stands in sharp contrast to its extensive research of the charges against Churchill.
The problem is that when a policy largely developed to address scientific misconduct is applied to the humanities, it must be properly interpreted. For example, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dismissed a professor last year for research misconduct, it was because he literally fabricated data. No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.
There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.
Last week the University of Colorado panel investigating Ward Churchill found that the controversial professor of Native American studies committed serious acts of research misconduct and plagiarism. It’s now up to the university to decide on an appropriate punishment for the tenured professor, who could be fired or suspended without pay. I don’t know enough about the situation to support or challenge the panel’s unanimous findings, or to suggest what the university should do about them, but one aspect of the committee’s 125-page report signals a chilling warning to academics: If you want to stay below the radar, keep your politics and your scholarship to yourself.
The Colorado investigation was prompted by the strong public reaction against an inflammatory essay in which Churchill called the people who died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 “little Eichmanns.” Prior to that, the university had ignored complaints about Churchill’s scholarship, and it had already concluded that his 9/11 essay was protected political speech. But the committee, which includes two law professors, justified proceeding with the politically-motivated investigation into allegations of research misconduct with this legal analogy: “A motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker ... is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer’s motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder’s exercise of her right to free speech.”
Maybe. But the courts have questioned selective enforcement of the law in First Amendment cases, and the motivation behind prosecution is hardly irrelevant in the case of racial profiling, an all too common cause of traffic stops. But even if the speeding-ticket analogy holds, how is this any different from Richard Nixon ordering the IRS to audit the tax returns or people on his enemies list, or J. Edgar Hoover shoring up his own power by compiling files on persons of interest?
The committee went on to suggest that Churchill might have been fine if he had just kept his head down: “Public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate.”
Ward Churchill certainly never kept his head down. He’s the kind of person that everyone has an opinion about, and that can be a good thing for drawing attention to issues, or a bad thing when the attention backfires. The University of Colorado hired Churchill as a strong political voice who would shake things up, and the investigative panel is right when it concludes that the university shouldn't be surprised to get what they paid for.
Perhaps Churchill shouldn’t be surprised at the scrutiny he’s received either. Every academic field has research standards, and we are always reviewing and evaluating one another’s résumés. That’s how we find the flaws in our arguments, and how we uncover the occasional fraud. I’m sure that the University of Colorado, like my own institution, wants faculty members to explain their work to the public. Sometimes that public doesn’t like what it hears. When I write about language and literacy in the press, topics that would seem to be pretty tame, I occasionally get angry letters, even threats. But now a select university investigative committee reminds professors: If you stray from the library, you’re fair game not just for the anonymous crazoids, but for the governor and yes, for your colleagues as well.
The University of Colorado investigation is not just about professional malpractice. It’s also about academic freedom. We’re experiencing a new wave of McCarthyism in this country, and academics who take unpopular political positions can expect to have their scholarship as well as their politics scrutinized. Two members of the Colorado select committee came out against firing Churchill because it would discourage other academics from conducting their research “with due freedom.” Whatever one thinks of the Churchill case, these concerns are well placed. Ideologues everywhere are trying to shape curriculum to match their particular orthodoxies. State legislatures are being encouraged to rein in liberal faculty (Pennsylvania has already established a Select Committee for that purpose). Now the distinguished members of the Colorado panel warn us not to step out of line or they’ll take yet another look at our résumés.
Dennis Baron is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report "How Many Ward Churchills?" has caused an uproar in some corners of the Internet. Criticism has centered on two issues: method and message. The report’s principal critics, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke and The Myth of Political Correctness author John K. Wilson, have attacked it, respectively, as a “casual, lazy, cherrypicking survey of whatever materials the author(s) were able to access on the Web,” and as part of “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses.” Both critiques share confused and erroneous assumptions about the report’s message and about ACTA’s right to criticize academic culture.
Burke complains that the report’s criticisms are ill-founded: They “see what they want to see,” they “ignore context or specificity,” and they “avoid REAL argument of the kind that scholars routinely engage in,” he grumbles. “The report talks about the need to guarantee that students have unrestrained rights to the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. Seriously, unless you bother to get off your ass and stop reading catalogues online, you have no idea what happens in classrooms.”
Setting aside Burke’s contemptuous tone, let’s examine the gaps in his reasoning. Burke’s initial objections are throw-away examples of faulty logic. The first, in which he accuses ACTA of post ergo propter hoc thinking, is itself an example of that logical fallacy: Burke sees ACTA seeing what ACTA wants to see because Burke wants to see ACTA that way. But the course descriptions ACTA cites are hardly unique or isolated. There are hundreds of similarly tendentious descriptions published by institutions across the country. They were chosen for their utter typicality, not their uniqueness.
Burke’s second objection is remarkably solipsistic -- context and specificity are whatever he defines them to be. ACTA quotes course descriptions verbatim, working from exactly what students (and interested parents) read to select a class. The reason? Course descriptions are designed to stand alone -- if they are all a prospective student needs to know about a class, then they are also all tuition-paying parents, taxpayers, and concerned citizens need in order to form a preliminary judgment.
This objection is part of Burke’s larger criticism of the report’s reliance on course descriptions. But his claim that these documents -- the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class -- do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. If true, this charge would mean either that professors routinely engage in false advertising or that the process by which students choose courses is a charade that fools no one but students themselves.
In so arguing, Burke has chosen to stretch a point ACTA freely concedes -- that course descriptions are neither courses nor perfect windows into the curriculum -- in order to avoid ACTA’s more fundamental argument about why course descriptions matter. They matter because they are professors’ own public representations of what happens in their classrooms. That so many professors describe their pedagogical aims in ideologically loaded ways raises entirely legitimate questions about accountability and balance.
Of course, ACTA has never claimed to know exactly what is happening in classrooms, and does not assume authority to determine whether a class is pedagogically sound. All ACTA’s report does is to urge college and university presidents, deans, and faculty to examine the issue themselves. ACTA has already outlined ways campus leaders can review departments and programs while still being fair, respectful, and sensitive to academic freedom and academic autonomy. Our 2005 report, "Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action," was praised for its sensitivity to academic freedom and self-governance. Burke’s hasty and intemperate critique studiously evades these points.
Burke’s other criticism, that ACTA avoids “REAL” argument because it does not argue in the same manner as scholars do, is self-servingly dismissive: ACTA’s argument need not be considered, Burke implies, because ACTA has not made its argument as Burke thinks arguments should be made. But the truth is that ACTA’s report is expressly not an academic paper. It is a report designed to initiate dialogue about the college curriculum by outlining some of the dominant terms and patterns displayed in course offerings across the country. To condemn it, as Burke has, for failing to maintain scholarly standards of data analysis is like damning an apple for not being an orange.
Burke thus badly misunderstands ACTA’s report. He both thinks ACTA isn’t qualified to judge the academic curriculum and complains that ACTA has not framed a satisfactory program of reform. But ACTA stresses that academics should address the problem of self-regulation, and that they should do so now -- in the face of mounting legislative interest in controlling the curriculum. ACTA’s report is as friendly to institutional self-governance and academic freedom as it is possible for a watchdog organization to be.
Now for Mr. Wilson.
Writing at Inside Higher Ed, John K. Wilson treats ACTA’s report as Exhibit A in “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses”: “The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom,” Wilson writes. “ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban [courses that mention social justice, sex, or race].” But Wilson’s scaremongering misrepresents the report to an audience who, he seems to expect, will not check his sources.
Nowhere does ACTA advocate censoring professors or banning courses. The report urges academic officials to address -- voluntarily, and in institutionally appropriate ways -- professors’ obligation to respect students’ academic freedom to learn about controversial issues. The report recommends institutional self-study, hiring administrators committed to intellectual diversity, careful vetting of job candidates’ work, review of personnel practices, post-tenure review, and -- most importantly -- fostering robust debate on campus.
Here are the study’s concluding paragraphs, which follow directly from the sentence Wilson quoted to argue that ACTA is endorsing censorship:
Ultimately, greater accountability means more responsible decision-making on the part of academic administrators, more judicious hiring on the part of departments, and more balanced, genuinely tolerant teaching on the part of faculties. It also means acknowledging--openly and unapologetically--that education and advocacy are not one and the same, that the invaluable work of opening minds and honing critical thinking skills cannot be done when professors are more interested in seeing their own beliefs put into political practice.Finally, it means defending the academic freedom of even the most militantly radical academics. Our aim should not be to fire the Ward Churchills for their views, but to insist that they do their job--regardless of their ideological commitments. We must insist that, in their classrooms, they teach fairly, fostering an open and robust exchange of ideas and refusing to succumb to a proselytizing or otherwise biased pedagogy. Only then will their ideas be subject to debate; only then will they and their students learn to defend their positions in the marketplace of ideas. Only then will other views challenge, complicate, and even displace theirs. Only then can we hope to create a truly diverse academy.
Far from calling for censorship or the banning of classes, ACTA urges transparency about what professors teach; far from trying to silence politically engaged professors, ACTA defends academic freedom while at the same time noting that 1) academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism or freedom from accountability; and 2) students have academic freedom too. Also worth noting: When the Ward Churchill scandal broke in 2005, ACTA defended Churchill from those who sought to fire him for his speech.
Wilson mistrusts definitions of research misconduct that include egregiously misleading citations -- and no wonder. His own argument about ACTA depends on the willful manipulation of sources.
Neither Burke nor Wilson reads ACTA’s report objectively, choosing instead to see it as proof of that worn professorial complaint, that no one outside the ivory tower understands academics. But what neither grasps is that it is not the public’s job to intuit the special worth of professors. Insofar as Burke and Wilson represent an academic consensus that outsiders are not qualified to judge -- or scrutinize, or question -- higher education, they signal the depth of the complacent insularity ACTA’s report takes to task.
If ACTA’s report has a take-home message for academics, it is that they urgently need to justify to a skeptical public why their work deserves special protections. Only then, ironically, will they have a chance of preserving the independence they cherish. With transparency comes respect; with accountability comes autonomy. That’s the paradoxical point of "How Many Ward Churchills?" -- that the more open one is about one’s practices, the more willing one is to allow one’s work to be scrutinized, the more responsive one is to legitimate criticisms, the more likely one is to be allowed to carry on without undue interference. What a pity that Burke and Wilson could not take off their ideological blinders long enough to see that.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Last fall in the section I teach of introductory microeconomics, I asked a student a simple question about the demand and supply of gutters. Nora had a blank expression, one that said, “I haven’t a clue of what you’re talking about.” If Nora had been struggling to understand economics, I wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. But Nora is a star, one who shines brightest when asked really tough questions.
Then it occurred to me. Nora didn’t know what the word “gutter” meant. It is easy to forget that Nora is Bulgarian -- her English is that good. I asked her whether she knew what the word meant, and looking embarrassed, she replied that she didn’t. How do you explain what gutters are without using the word gutter? It’s not easy, at least not for me. So, I broke into pantomime, with my fingers simulating raindrops heading for a cliff where they were caught by an invisible gutter.
Suddenly, her face lit up, and she quickly answered my original question. But it had taken her longer than I would have expected, even adjusting for my pantomiming skills. Still puzzled, I asked her, “How do you say ‘gutter’ in Bulgarian?” She said she didn’t know. Amazed, I said, “You’re pulling my leg, right?” She wasn’t.
Are there gutters in Bulgaria? I don’t know; I’ve never been there. Everywhere I’ve lived, gutters are ubiquitous. Are they common elsewhere, or are they just an American thing?
One student disliked my treatment of Nora, saying on her evaluation of the class: "Something that bothered not only me but other students (and I know this from talking to my classmates) was the way Professor Harrington picked on the international students. We had about five international students in the class, and one day Professor Harrington did a problem about gutters. The student he asked to answer the question was Bulgarian and did not know what the word ”gutter” meant, and Professor Harrington made a big deal out of this. He asked her how you would say “gutter” in Bulgarian."
She says, “He continued to [quiz international students about their understanding of English] in other classes, singling out the international students and making them look inferior to the rest of the class.”
If the student had listened to the quality of her international classmates’ answers to my questions, she would have realized that they were academically superior to the vast majority of their classmates. Indeed, their median grade was 4.0; they all spoke English fluently; and, their essays had fewer grammatical errors than most of their classmates. It seems implausible to me that any rational observer would infer that they were inferior based on my questions about their knowledge of a few English words.
But even Nora looked embarrassed when she “confessed” that she didn’t know what gutters were. She had no reason to be embarrassed, yet she was. Why?
Perhaps, it has to do with the power of gut feelings, which allow people to quickly categorize experiences without having to think too deeply about them. Following them can even save your life in situations where you need to make quick decisions, implying that gut feelings are probably hard-wired into us via evolution. Hence, gut feelings probably can’t easily be turned off, implying that Nora could have been embarrassed by the gutters episode regardless of whether it was justified. And this is a shame -- because good class interactions should be full of professors and students going in any number of directions, some of them uncomfortable, without worrying about appearances or comfort levels (or whether some comment is going to make you a poster child for the Academic Bill of Rights).
I was in a gray area with Nora, one that I did not perceive as being gray until I thought about the comments of this student. I feel badly that I might have embarrassed Nora -- it was certainly not my intention. Nevertheless, asking Nora whether she knew the word for gutter in Bulgarian was the highlight of the course for me. My intuition screamed at me to ask it and her answer rewarded the impulse -- not because I was happy to discover that she didn’t know the word, but because it made me think more deeply about the way in which languages compete with one another for survival. Indeed, many languages face extinction because they are cluttered with words that people no longer find useful. For example, some languages have dozens and dozens of different words for ice, which may not be a selling point in the coming age of global warming.
Nobel laureate Robert Solow argues that the most difficult thing to teach students is how to be creative in economics, followed closely by critical judgment. It is much easier to teach tools, such as demand and supply, than how to use them creatively, or critically. The first step in using economics creatively is to ask interesting questions, ones that naturally arise during genuine conversations sparked by observing differences like those concerning the acquisition of language. While these conversations are crucial in teaching students to be creative, they are also likely to tumble into gray areas and sometimes produce dry holes, two things that make some students uncomfortable.
Another way to be creative in economics is to apply economic reasoning to topics commonly thought to lie outside the realm of economics. Hence, I want my students to learn that there are no boundaries to the usefulness of economic reasoning. I mean NO boundaries, absolutely none. Boundaries smother creativity because they encourage students to turn off their economic reasoning skills whenever they cross them.
Last semester, I described how a San Diego abortion cartel in the late 1940s charged women different prices depending on the quality of their clothing and the characteristics of the person accompanying them, a practice that economists call price discrimination. For example, a young woman who was brought to the clinic by an unrelated, well-dressed Sacramento businessman was charged $2,600 for an abortion. If the woman had come alone, she would have paid something closer to $200. Four students have come to my office or e-mailed me with concerns over the use of examples like this one. For example, one student argued that abortion is too morally charged to be used as fodder for examples, especially ones that are so narrowly drawn.
Crossing the border into conversations about race is especially dangerous, because the border is patrolled by guards searching for insensitive comments. It takes courage and tolerance on the part of both students and professors to have genuine conversations about race. However, no topic is more important to discuss in economics courses given the glaring disparities in economic outcomes between African-Americans and whites. For another course I teach, students are required to read an article about the controversy that erupted when members of one middle-class community proposed naming a “nice street” after Martin Luther King Jr. The proponents wanted to weaken the correlation of his name with poverty and crime, while the opponents feared that naming a street after him would cause their neighborhood to decay. I admire the proposal yet empathize with the opponents. Since streets bearing his name are more commonly found in poor neighborhoods, (even unprejudiced) people might rationally "steer clear" of the area if they name a street after Martin Luther King Jr., a phenomenon economists call statistical discrimination.
Teaching students to use economics creatively requires having conversations that are not smothered by fears of saying something wrong or of stepping over some boundary beyond which economic reasoning is prohibited. But genuine conversations require that students have done enough of the reading to participate with intelligence -- and checking on that may also make students uncomfortable.
A student last fall accused me in his or her course evaluation of picking on students, saying that “if it was obvious a student was unprepared or had not done the assigned reading [Professor Harrington] would call them out on it.” It’s true. I admit it. Failing to read the assigned articles imposes spillover costs on other students that can be corrected by imposing penalties on unprepared students. For example, one student could not answer straightforward questions about the readings in two consecutive classes, prompting me to ask him whether he had ever heard of the expression, “three strikes and you’re out.” At the beginning of the third class, he joined the conversation, easily answering my initial questions and making a few comments of his own.
David E. Harrington
David E. Harrington is the Himmelright associate professor of economics at Kenyon College.Â