In Defense of Academic Freedom


Dear Steve Ludwig, Cindy Carlisle, Patricia Hayes, Michael Carrigan, Tom Lucero, Steve Bosley, Kyle Hybl, Paul Schauer, and Tillie Bishop:

I don’t envy your position as regents of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

On the one hand I envy the attainments that result in your serving on a Board of Regents. I myself am a mere professor of history. On the other hand, I do not envy your sitting on a board asked to produce a landmark decision in the history of academic freedom in this country.

That burden I believe is what is on your desk right now. A very weighty decision that places the deciders in the limelight.

As I understand the history of my vocation, scholars once got together, formed academic institutions, doubled as classroom teachers and administrators and built institutions of learning. At some point a professional managerial stratum emerged to facilitate the scholar’s classroom work, freeing up the scholar’s time by providing needed auxiliary services. As the college or university became more like a corporation, boards like yours emerged and wound up making or least approving the main decisions affecting academic life. Since then there’s always been an uneasy balance between "faculty governance" and the administrators’ role.

Professors, once masters of their institutions, became more like employees in a firm. Some people think that’s how it should be, or that it should be more and more like that. A favorite target for them, as you know, is the institution of tenure which operates to strengthen the faculty role. Some think professors ought to be judged on the product they produce, and how much of it they produce—for their employers (who, again, weren’t even there initially). They should be graded on how many tuition-paying students they attract to the institution, how big their enrollments are, how well they contribute to corporate America by influencing young minds to better contribute to that America and its global ambitions.

Some would like to apply an ideological litmus test to us academic employees: they might for example suppose that all professors, just to assume their positions in society, ought to agree and actively propagate that the U.S. is the best country in the world, its capitalist system generally admirable (maybe even "the end of history"), its history (while containing some unfortunate aspects) generally inspirational, its wars if sometimes mistaken always undertaken with honorable motives. There are some commentators hostile to us for being disproportionately irreligious, disinclined to believe with the majority of Americans in the literal truth of Bible stories, much more likely to understand science within the matrix of the theory of evolution, far less likely than the population at large to believe the government when it offers its explanation for its wars. But maybe we do that precisely because of our educational backgrounds.

As professors of languages, we tend not to believe that Hebrew was the original language and that others exist because God inflicted them on us when humans tried to reach Heaven by constructing the Tower of Babel. As professors of astronomy, we tend to reject the idea that the sun and moon ever "stood still" as the Book of Joshua records, or that the earth preceded the existence of the sun moon and stars. As professors of history, we tend to question whether human beings have only been around just 6000 years. We’re also less likely than the general population to believe in astrology, the geocentric theory, creationism theory, the flat earth theory, the theory that God gave America to His white people as a promised land. Yes, we are more critical of government and less inclined to identify ourselves as "conservatives" than the general population, although we have some fine critically thinking conservatives among us.

We don’t assume a need to obey past or consensus views. That as you know makes some people in Colorado and elsewhere uncomfortable. Some see professors generically as a big far-left problem and threat to "family values" and seek to shelter their children from all we represent. As guardians of an educational institution, I would hope such attitudes trouble you.

You are surely familiar with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded in 1995 by Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife Lynne Cheney and Joseph Lieberman, which thinks that America’s colleges and university faculty have been the "weak link in America’s response" to Sept. 11. And you may know that the vice president was a key figure in promoting the war on Iraq based on lies and the upcoming attack on Iran based on lies. That’s their notion of an appropriate response to 9-11, and they want you and me on board that program.

If you’re paying attention you realize that the neoconservative faction in the administration (of which Cheney seems the de facto head) has nothing but contempt for logic and reason as these pertain to U.S. policy. It promotes and perhaps lives in a world of myth and delusion.

New York Times columnist Ron Suskind reported in 2002 that one top administration official had responded to something he’d written with a contemptuous dismissal of "what we [the Bush administration neoconservatives] call the reality-based community." He alluded to people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But of course it’s precisely that judicious study that traditional academe has been all about. I’d like to think that you as a university regent are personally committed to that ideal. What is better, after all, in the life of the mind, than the judicious study of discernible reality? Can we advance on it through wanton abandonment of logic in the service of apocalyptically violent fantasies? Some people think so, and want academe to embrace their view.

"We’re an empire now," the above-mentioned anonymous source (in this era when anonymous sources say so many influential things) told Suskind, "and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

There in a nutshell—in this senior administration official’s statement—is the neoconservative argument against academia, and more broadly against the human mind, the thought process that you as a volunteer servant of a university ought to cherish, facilitate and protect. We create our own reality, he says. On the other side of this mad creativity is the will to destroy: to wipe out the Bill of Rights, the possibility for meaningful public discourse, the existence of universities like yours as credible forums for such debate.

The president of University of Colorado is currently Hank Brown, a Lynne Cheney crony and ACTA member. Do you suppose he wants the university to be such a forum for discourse? If not, might you be able—in a rare departure from regents’ traditional role as rubber-stampers—countermand him?

Professor Churchill became a public figure for a brief essay he wrote after 9-11 that compared some of the victims of the attack on the Twin Towers to Adolf Eichmann. Historians draw historical analogies all the time, some very appropriate, some not. (As an example of inappropriate analogies, I’d suggest comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are made routinely by politicians, journalists and others framing public opinion who somehow escape any consequences from their irresponsible speech.)

Churchill’s statement produced a little controversy during that immediate post-9-11 period, when ACTA issued a report which, according to Roberto Gonzalez of the San Jose Mercury News, "in a chilling use of doublespeak" affirms "he right of professors to speak out, yet condemns those who have attempted to give context to Sept. 11, encourage critical thinking, or share knowledge about other cultures." In that report "Faculty are accused of being ‘short on patriotism’ for attempting to give students the analytical tools they need to become informed citizens. Many of those blacklisted are top scholars in their fields, and it appears that the report represents a kind of academic terrorism designed to strike fear into other academics by making examples of respected professors."

Soon after 9-11 political satirist Bill Maher on his ABC show "Politically Incorrect" happened to agree with a (conservative) political commentator guest on his program that the 9-11 attackers were not, whatever else they were, "cowardly" as the Bush administration had suggested, and that U.S. officials had indeed "been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." Recall how in our free speech, free enterprise system FedEx, Sears Roebuck and other sponsors withdrew support for Maher’s show, ultimately resulting in its cancellation, while President Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer declared—in specific response to a reporter’s question about Maher—that people "need to watch what they say." Recall how this administration proceeded to say so many false things to justify a war of aggression against Iraq. Recall how central Cheney was to these efforts, insisting on an al-Qaeda-Iraq link that academics—people using reasoned analysis, people you are supposed to be there to support—have thoroughly discredited.

The really ferocious rightwing response to Churchill’s essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" began in January 2005. Fueled by anti-academics such as Fox News’ David Horowitz, it brought Churchill into the spotlight. Your president at the time, Elizabeth Hoffman (a Republican), told the faculty she feared of a "new McCarthyism" a week before resigning her post. Her successor Brown has campaigned tirelessly for Churchill’s dismissal and has brought this decision to your desk.

Boulder has rejected the student body vote for Churchill as "favorite professor;" your alumni association in an action unprecedented in the award’s 44 years withheld it from the recipient. Your Standing Committee on Research Misconduct under the strong influence of ACTA—which most of us in academia see as a dangerous, fringe operation—has determined that Churchill has engaged in "serious research misconduct" after a witchhunt. That investigative travesty would never have occurred had he not expressed a critical view of U.S. imperialism during a time when this administration was striving, with much success, to stifle dissent while cynically exploiting the emotions unleashed by the 9-11 attacks to seize unprecedented power while preparing for generations of war on multiple ill-defined enemies.

Churchill’s words of dissent, as you know, were constitutionally protected freedom of speech. So he could not be dismissed merely for the thought-crime of writing "The Justice of Roosting Chickens." But some people thought that despite his tenured status based on his prolific writings, student evaluations and record of service he had to be sacked on some basis, for some reason. As a practical matter they needed to get something on this professor. So they arranged to re-examine his entire career seeking some cause to sack him on grounds other than the nakedly political.

What do they come up with? A handful of accusations of plagiarism far less serious than those brought against presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin—those not raised by the presumed victims of such plagiarism but a zealous ideologically driven team led by a former assistant attorney general of Texas. Six controversial counts of fabricating or falsifying information pertaining to the history of Native Americans.

I’d suggest that is boards of regents in this country were to investigate and punish the falsification of Native American history by scholars, or if society in general were to investigate such falsification in the media, popular culture and political discourse, we’d all be in for a very time-consuming process resulting in a whole lot of people out of jobs.

The American Association of University Professors at Boulder has issued a statement of protest at this attack on Churchill. "We believe," they declare, "that the investigation now is widely perceived to be a pretext for firing Churchill when the real reason for dismissal is his politics." Your own Promotion and Tenure Committee report acknowledges that "but for his exercise of his First Amendment rights, Professor Churchill would not have been subjected to the Research Misconduct and Enforcement Process."

Isn’t that obvious to you? Isn’t it also clear that a vote to endorse the foregone decision of ACTA’s Brown to fire this professor will be viewed in the long run not as a vote for high academic standards, but a vote to baldly align your institution with the Bush-Cheney administration and its standard of "new realities" based on militarism, unquestioning nationalism, intimidation, and contempt for judicious study? A vote to, as Gonzalez put it, "strike fear into other academics"? Is that what a university trustee should want to do?

Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, has said it well: "All of us who value academic freedom should now stand in full solidarity with Ward Churchill. The outcome of his case at the University of Colorado is the best litmus test we have to tell whether the right-wing’s assaults on learning and liberty will stifle campus life in this country. Never in my lifetime have we in America more needed the sort of vigorous debate and creative controversy that Ward Churchill’s distinguished career epitomizes. We all stand to lose if his principled defense fails."

I urge you to end this travesty and avoid what will surely be a deep stain on the history of the university and academic freedom in general. This is a deeply troubled country in desperate need of more articulate dissent as its Cheneys in the halls of political and academic power arrogantly abuse that power, driving us towards more disastrous war. You can abet them by striving to silence one voice (although I doubt Churchill will be silenced and may if the country doesn’t descend into fascism perhaps get a good job elsewhere). Or you can just say no to McCarthyism. It’s your own shame or honor at stake. Think about how your kids, who might be like the students who voted Churchill best professor, will think about you in the future.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


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