That question lingered above all others for some academics upon learning that David Horowitz, a conservative writer and social activist, would debate Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on Thursday night in Washington about whether politics belong in the classroom.
And many observers were still asking the same question after the relatively substance-free debate ended. “I think they both would have gotten a failing grade in a high school debate class,” said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.
The debate, which lasted for just under two hours, was sponsored by Young America’s Foundation, a conservative national student group. The organization seeks “to expose students to conservative principles and bring balance to the campus debate through [its] conferences, seminars, posters, and lecture programs.” Churchill said that he was not paid to participate in the debate.
Horowitz said that the initial idea was Churchill’s. “He had heckled me some years ago when I gave a speech at his campus,” recalled Horowitz. “Then one day, he called me up and said, let’s do this.”
Churchill, for his part, said Thursday evening that he had been approached by several young conservatives on the Boulder campus to debate issues surrounding academic freedom. “I’m not going to debate an undergraduate,” he said. “My response was, ‘Get me Horowitz.’ Well, surprise, surprise, they did.”
Cary Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, upon learning that the two divisive men would be debating such a topic, said, “Oh my God. What an appalling thought. Maybe the sky will fall on both of them.”
Nelson and other scholars said they saw the debate as a lose-lose situation, and that they did not relish the idea that Churchill, whose credibility has taken a beating during the more than year-long controversy  over his infamous remarks about September 11, would be trying to make a case that many of them believe in.
“Careful statements tend not to be his forte,” Nelson said. “Churchill’s capacity to represent everyone else’s point of view in higher education is doubtful.” He added: “The idea that they’re cashing in on their mock-celebrity is loathsome. I just can’t see anything good for higher education coming from this.”
Nelson’s point appeared prescient immediately after the debate when both Horowitz and Churchill appeared together on the FOX News "Hannity and Colmes" program. Sean Hannity spent the majority of his interview provoking Churchill with questions about his controversial post-9/11 essay, in which he argued that American foreign policies were responsible for the attacks. Hannity also made it appear as though Churchill had taught such doctrines in the classroom, which Churchill had rebutted during the earlier debate. “There’s a nice little subjective twist that’s presented as an objective fact, that my point of view is infecting people, as opposed to your own,” Churchill said during the interview. “I guess we’re a mutual contamination society here tonight, aren’t we?”
At one point during the live show, Horowitz said he was “beginning to feel like a potted plant.”
Horwitz said that Horowitz seems to be basing all of his ideas about contemporary academe on his experience at Columbia University in the 1950s. “Most of his arguments about professors being liberal are based on innuendo,” he reflected. “Basically, he was saying that any person or program whose politics he disagrees with is wrong.”
Regarding Churchill, Horwitz said that the University of Colorado professor did a poor job of debating the Academic Bill of Rights. “Churchill failed to engage him on these critical issues,” he said. In fact, Churchill spent barely any time speaking about that policy, but mentioned several times that there is no such thing as an apolitical classroom, which he feels is positive for fostering student engagement.
On one occasion when Churchill did challenge Horowitz on the apparent incongruity of conservative values with the concept of regulatory legislation on academe in the form of the Academic Bill of Rights, Horowitz said that there are already policies in place that are supposed to ensure an unbiased education, but administrators aren’t enforcing them. He said that the Academic Bill of Rights was meant to facilitate enforcement.
Many students at the debate cheered loudly whenever Horowitz decried liberal politics, though Churchill, too, received a fair amount of applause. Booing of either man was kept to a minimum.
At least one student in the crowd was less interested in the politics at hand than the clothing at foot. “I can’t believe he wore jeans -- and cowboy boots!” exclaimed one George Washington University student to a friend seated next to her, regarding Churchill’s mode of dress.
“Yeah, but he seems to be doing a good job,” was the only response she received.
When Churchill was asked whether he would consider doing a series of roadshow debates with Horowitz, he asked, “You mean like a circus?” When pressed, he said that he would consider the possibility.
Perhaps coming to an auditorium near you.