Ward Churchill, ACTA and Public Opinion

Roger W. Bowen writes that the AAUP's new survey of public attitudes on professors conveys a different reality from what people have been hearing.

June 9, 2006

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative advocacy group founded 10 years ago by the nation’s second lady, Lynn Cheney, recently released a report with the provocative title, “How Many Ward Churchills?” The answer, according to this unscientific “study” is offered early: “Ward Churchill in not only not alone -- he is quite common.” “Churchill” serves here as a metaphor for professors who allegedly use their classrooms for “push[ing] political agendas”; and also refers to the controversial activist professor of the University of Colorado who was found guilty by a faculty panel of egregious unprofessional behavior just days before the ACTA report was released. It is a safe guess that even if Churchill had been found innocent on all charges, ACTA’s report would have borne the same title. For ACTA, the professoriate is a beehive of swarming left-wing radicals.

ACTA says that the purpose behind its report is to “expose” professors.  Hence it is an exercise in outing that, imitating David Horowitz’s recent book [sic] identifying “101[sic] dangerous [sic] professors,” tries to identify left-wing professors and attempts to shame their employers -- Vassar, Duke, Stanford, Swarthmore, and Yale among other privates, and Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State among other publics -- into forcing faculty members to cease their “political advocacy and sensitivity training” and instead offer “objective and balanced presentations of scholarly research.”  

The ACTA report lists no author(s) but Ann Neal, a lawyer, president of ACTA, and wife of influential conservative Congressman Tom Petri, is the author of record of the “Foreword.”  For Neal academic freedom “is as much a responsibility as a right” and adds it “should end at the point where professors abuse the special trust they are given to respect students’ academic freedom to learn.”  

But who should decide what the students learn and the criteria used to determine “learning”?  By all customary standards of academic freedom, faculty professionals alone are qualified to determine curriculum and faculty alone are qualified to judge whether students have learned the material assigned.

The ACTA report avoids such issues. The report instead reads as a piece of political propaganda, built atop some anecdotes about courses bearing racy titles; and written by non-educators who object to college courses that deal with the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, globalization, capitalism, American hegemony, oppression, and the destruction of the environment. For ACTA such courses betray an unacceptable “political stance” because they are taught by “scholar activists.” ACTA objects to courses that, in one example, stipulate that students “respect cultures and traditions that are not their own”; and it excoriates all courses dealing with “justice,” whether environmental, social, or racial. ACTA warns that “’Justice,’ in all these examples, is synonymous with a specific social agenda,” an agenda that clearly differs from ACTA’s own. The upshot, says the report, is that many students are “not receiving a sound education” and students “are being exploited by professors…”  All Americans, says ACTA, “have a right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.” OK, but ACTA will not like what the public thinks about such calls for action.

The American Association of University Professors recently commissioned a public opinion survey with the support of the Spencer Foundation and Harvard University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. One thousand Americans aged 18 and older were chosen at random to participate; and the findings have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent. The focus of the survey is on public perceptions of political bias in the academy, but we also ask about the public’s views on tenure, academic freedom, and on higher education more generally.

The survey shows that nearly 90 percent of the public -- across all age groups, party identification, gender, ideology, religion, ethnicity, and state location -- have a lot or some confidence in higher education, ahead of the public confidence levels in organized religion, the White House, and the press, trailing only the public’s confidence in the military. An equal percentage of the public highly ranks the occupation prestige of college or university professors, well ahead that of lawyers and stockbrokers, a bit ahead of elementary school teachers, and only behind physicians. Most Americans believe “political bias in the classroom” should be of less concern than the high cost of college, binge drinking, and low educational standards. Almost 77 percent of all Americans agree that tenure is a good way to reward accomplished professors and 70 percent agree that tenure is essential to the faculty’s freedom to teach, research, and write without concern. About 80 percent of the public is opposed to government control over what is taught in the classroom or what faculty research. And, 71.5 percent of those polled say that most professors are respectful when students voice political opinions different from the professor’s.

ACTA’s message, according to our survey results, will appeal primarily to the elderly, those with low levels of educational attainment, conservatives, and Republicans: these groups all have markedly less confidence in higher education and in the professional integrity of faculty.     Although only 8 percent of all Americans say political bias in the classroom is the “biggest problem” of the academy, 37.5 percent nevertheless say that it is a “very serious” problem; broken down by party, 27 percent of Democrats think this, 39 percent of independents agree, and 48.5 percent of Republicans say political bias is a very serious problem. Moreover, the public’s support for tenure and academic freedom is soft. While a good-sized majority of the public does not favor government control of the classroom, 75.7 percent of all conservatives believe that professors who are communist or who support Islamic militants should not enjoy tenure and that taking such positions should be grounds for termination.

“Churchill,” as metaphor, resonates, then, with unreconstructed Cold Warriors, with conservatives, Republicans, and people who have not attended college or university. ACTA hopes this situation will change: “As public awareness of the problem mounts -- and as a movement for legislative intervention gains momentum -- it’s important to explore just how widespread the ‘Ward Churchill Phenomenon’ really is.” But if the AAUP public opinion survey is an accurate representation of public opinion, then ACTA’s campaign to force faculty to alter teaching and curriculum in a direction acceptable to cultural conservatives will fail. The public generally likes the professoriate as it is and believes that professors should be left alone to teach, and that “legislative intervention” into the classrooms is a very bad idea.  



Roger W. Bowen is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top