Two years ago, the University of Colorado found itself at the center of a national scandal involving one of its ethnic studies professors, Ward Churchill. His characterization of 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns”  rightly provoked condemnation from commentators across the country.
But Churchill is in the headlines today for something other than his opinions -- this time, because of Colorado’s attention to his scholarly record.
Despite having only a master’s in communications, Churchill’s Colorado career was put on the fast track -- landing him both a tenured professorship and chairmanship in ethnic studies. In subsequent years, charges of research misconduct began to surface. And in 2005, his university chose to ignore those allegations no longer. Having first made clear that Churchill was not being punished for his public utterances, the university launched a meticulous investigation centered on specific charges of scholarly misconduct. That is, it did what any institution claiming to care about academic standards must do. For this Hank Brown, who became president at Colorado after the scandal broke, deserves great credit.
When the Boulder campus’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct issued its report  on Churchill last summer, it unanimously found Churchill guilty of severe, sustained, and deliberate breaches of professional integrity. It further noted that the evaluative system that nurtured and rewarded Churchill needed an overhaul. Now, as Brown advises what sanction should apply,  the investigation has also galvanized an important discussion about what academic freedom is  -- and what it is not.
To Brown, accountability is a crucial component of academic freedom. In recommending that Churchill be dismissed, Brown noted that the university’s policies define academic freedom as a set of privileges and correlative responsibilities -- the latter often ignored in academic discourse on the topic. Academic freedom, he wrote, is “the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it. … Within the bounds of the definition, however, ‘faculty members have the responsibility to maintain competence, exert themselves to the limit of their intellectual capacities in scholarship, research, writing, and speaking; and to act on and off the campus with integrity and in accordance with the highest standards of their profession.’”
Noting that academic freedom entails both individual and institutional accountability, Brown observed that taxpayer-supported institutions have particularly binding obligations to the people. “The public must be able to trust that the university’s resources will be dedicated to academic endeavors carried out according to the highest possible standards,” he wrote. “Professor Churchill’s conduct, if allowed to stand, would erode the university’s integrity and public trust.” Churchill’s conduct, said Brown, “clearly violated the University’s policies on academic freedom.”
Of course, Churchill and his defenders claim that Colorado’s two-year investigation was an assault on academic freedom because it arose from a public scandal about Churchill’s speech. Churchill’s lawyer even suggested to The Rocky Mountain News that “[a]ny discipline is wrong” in this case. But to suggest that notoriety somehow exempts Churchill from scrutiny is risible. Scrutiny should be applied to scholarly work – as a matter of practice. And Brown -- himself a public figure -- has rightly pointed out that public figures cannot escape accountability by hiding behind their fame.
Crucially, disagreement on this very point is dividing the American Association of University Professors. As Inside Higher Ed has reported, Margaret LeCompte, an education professor who is also president of the Colorado AAUP chapter, calls the Churchill investigation “an opening wedge in the concerted effort to curb academic freedom and tenure.” But Jonathan Knight of the national AAUP’s academic freedom program has defended universities’ right to investigate allegations of faculty misconduct.
Historically the custodian of academic freedom, the AAUP is struggling to clarify, for itself and others, what academic freedom is. And that struggle centers on accountability -- which, unfortunately, explains much of why the AAUP is encountering such difficulty. Roger Bowen, the outgoing general secretary, has vocally defended the notion  that academics should not have to answer to anyone but themselves. “It should be evident,” he has written, “that the sufficient condition for securing the academic freedom of our profession is the profession itself.”
This is a far cry from Brown’s conception of academic freedom as part of a public trust. It’s also a far cry from the AAUP’s own foundational 1940 statement on academic freedom, which defines it as a set of “duties correlative with rights” and which sees academic freedom as the means by which colleges and universities serve the public trust: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher … or the institution as a whole.”
Colorado has acknowledged that its system of peer review and professional assessment failed in Churchill’s case. It has taken steps to repair that system. And it has urged academics across the country to learn from its example. As Brown observed  last March, “It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so.”
Noting that “much of the scrutiny we are under is of our own creation,” Brown urged academics to recognize how their reluctance to be accountable to the public has produced “the suspicion that higher education’s primary focus is protecting its own rather than guaranteeing the highly effective and productive teachers and researchers that students and taxpayers deserve.”
The arguments of Churchill and his misguided defenders do -- regrettably -- arise from a basic conviction that academics should be free from accountability. They involve manipulating the term “academic freedom” in ways that undermine a concept of foundational importance to the academic enterprise. They amount to an attempt to turn the concept inside out -- morphing what was originally a cluster of interlocking privileges and responsibilities centered on the public good into a justification for the false idea that academics have no obligation to the public at all. Finally, they stem from the profoundly mistaken premise – which Brown rebuts in his letter to the Board of Regents – that input from the public, from constituencies such as alumni and trustees, violates academic freedom as well. Why else would Churchill and his defenders absurdly claim that Brown’s advisory role with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni -- which ended a decade ago -- invalidates his opinion?
Far from being an “attack” on academic freedom, Colorado’s handling of the Churchill affair is, in fact, in defense of academic freedom. And if Churchill and his defenders win the day, their perverse redefinition of academic freedom will result in an immeasurable setback for that concept -- not to mention the academy itself.
As the decision-making process winds down in Colorado, Churchill’s career hangs in the balance. But so does the integrity of academia.
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a First Amendment lawyer.