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Boulder Won't Cancel Scholar Who Wrote Harris Op-Ed

August 25, 2020
 
 

Philip P. DiStefano, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, doesn’t like a faculty member’s recent Newsweek op-ed questioning Senator Kamala Harris’s eligibility for the vice presidency based on her parents’ immigrant backgrounds. But Boulder won’t fire or otherwise punish the professor. DiStefano said in a statement Monday that visiting scholar John Eastman’s Newsweek op-ed was “neither compelling nor consistent with my understanding of who is eligible to hold our highest elected offices.” DiStefano also condemned “the way his work has been used to promote a racist agenda against the historic candidacy of Senator Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother.” And he said that Eastman’s op-ed has “marginalized members of our CU Boulder community and sown doubts in our commitment to anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Still, DiStefano said he won’t rescind Eastman’s visiting appointment or otherwise “silence” him, for doing so “would falsely feed a narrative that our university suppresses speech it does not like and would undermine the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom that make it possible for us to fulfill our mission.” On academic freedom in particular, DiStefano said the concept is subject to the disciplinary standards “and the rational methods by which truth is established.” Many scholars have called Eastman’s argument against Harris’s eligibility bunk, since she was born in the U.S., even if her parents were not naturalized U.S. citizens or even permanent residents at the time, in 1964. DiStefano said that denying Eastman his right to speak out “would weaken our ability to defend our entire faculty’s pursuit and dissemination of scholarship without fear of censorship or retaliation, even when it offends the sensibilities of others and makes people uncomfortable.”

Eastman, a visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at Boulder and Henry Salvatori Professor of Law at Chapman University, said Monday via email that DiStefano's note said "my article’s conclusions do not comport with his 'understanding' of the Constitution’s eligibility requirements. That seems to me to be an admission that he has not read the original materials himself, nor the significant amount of scholarship that has come to the same conclusion I have. Pity; he might have learned that there is a serious constitutional dispute here, one that remains unresolved by the U.S. Supreme Court." He also said he'd heard that his article was being used to promote a racist agenda, but "as yet no one has pointed me to a single instance of that being the case. If there are some instances, I would be happy to repudiate the misuse in no uncertain terms."

Eastman added that he'd responded to others at Boulder who criticized his "legal analysis (which, I might add, I have consistently applied for nearly 20 years, long before Senator Harris was tapped as the vice presidential nominee) by offering to have a forum to debate the subject in a civil and scholarly manner. So far, alas, I have had nothing but silence in response."

Boulder announced its intention to invite conservative scholars to campus in 2008, following the Ward Churchill case and other criticism that the political environment there is too liberal. It officially began welcoming these scholars in 2013.

Newsweek has apologized not for publishing Eastman’s piece but for failing to anticipate how it is being used “by some as a tool to perpetuate racism and xenophobia.” The intent was “to explore a minority legal argument about the definition of who is a ‘natural-born citizen’ in the United States,” Newsweek’s editors wrote in an updated editors' note. Yet to many readers, they said, the essay recalled birtherism and “inevitably conveyed the ugly message that Senator Kamala Harris, a woman of color and the child of immigrants, was somehow not truly American.”

Chapman University president Daniele Struppa reportedly has refused to “endorse” or “refute” ideas from Eastman, or any faculty member, as doing so “would create a dangerous chilling effect on the culture of academic freedom that defines a university.” Struppa said he’s committed to a “diverse and inclusive community at Chapman.”

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