March 12, 2005

Dave Kopel needs a chill pill

Take a look at this language from one of the Volokh Conspiracy's "lesser co-bloggers" in his latest Ward Churchill rant in Denver's Rocky Mountain News:

Why did the University of Colorado Arts and Sciences administration continue to promote and laud Churchill after the late- 1990s publication of professor Thomas LaVelle's articles alleging extensive academic fraud and plagiarism on Churchill's part? Are there other academic frauds and plagiarists at CU whom the administration has protected? How did CU become such a racist institution that a patently unqualified man was pushed for tenure in three departments because he claimed to be an Indian? How many other poorly-qualified teachers have gotten jobs at CU, based on their ethnicity or their pretended ethnicity? To what extent does the extreme left dominate hiring at CU, so that highly qualified applicants for teaching positions are rejected, whereas politically correct hacks get the job? How often do other CU teachers act like Churchill allegedly did by punishing students for expressing opinions contrary to the teacher? Has CU protected other teachers who have been credibly accused of making violent threats and/or perpetrating on- and off-campus violent crimes against people who disagree with them?

Thank goodness Dave Kopel doesn't chair a Senate committee with subpoena powers.

Kopel's incessant screeching about Churchill does make two good points. Kopel is probably right to worry about a double-standard among some CU faculty members when it comes to preserving academic freedom. I also agree with Kopel that it would be a disaster if the University of Colorado were to buy out Ward Churchill. This kind of spineless decision would waste taxpayer money and damage the school's credibility; the Churchill case is too politically charged for the University's Board of Regents to weasel out the side door with a buyout offer.

However, these high-profile public demands that Ward Churchill be terminated are the very reason why the University's Board of Regents should do the exact opposite of what Dave Kopel suggests. The Regents should not fire Ward Churchill so long as politically-motivated bloggers like Kopel (and more importantly, the Governor of Colorado) continue to howl for his head on a pike. No matter what the investigation into Churchill's alleged "scholarly fraud" reveals, to fire Churchill after an investigation that was initiated solely in response to criticism of what he said and wrote would do serious damage to the valuable tradition of free and open speech on campus.

If the investigations confirm what are now merely "credible accusations" (in Kopel's words), then Ward Churchill will be revealed as a fraud before the whole world. There will then be other ways to discipline Churchill, as Dave Kopel recognizes:

One can imagine all sorts of sanctions which the CU Regents might impose short of firing. For example, Churchill could be barred from campus until he successfully completes a therapy program for his inability to control his anger. He could be ordered to write formal retractions of the various academic frauds he has perpetrated. He could be ordered to pay full compensation to the copyright holders for the various works he has plagiarized.

Unless Kopel wants to make some really wacky argument that all the universities are crammed with complete idiots as well as adherents of the far-left, Churchill will suffer for any fraud he may have committed--if in fact the accusations turn out to be true.

But if the Regents fire Churchill, then the lesson for ideologues on both the right and the left will be that witchhunts work. Don't like what Professor X wrote? You might not be able to get him fired for that, but if you dig hard enough into his past for varied and sundry transgressions, and call for his head loudly enough and often enough on the internet, you might eventually get him fired for something. Better yet, if the Governor thinks he can score some cheap political points by pandering to the current majority and publicly advocating his dismissal, your chances are even better.

I don't think it's an unreasonable worry that this kind of climate might chill the willingness of professors to speak unpopular opinions out loud. The CU Regents need to boldly and publicly defend the value of academic freedom, because majorities are sometimes wrong. Even overwhelming majorities are sometimes overwhelmingly wrong, and we need to protect the freedom of at least some part of our society to say so when it happens.

As David Velleman explains, the decentralized system of publishing papers and awarding tenure occasionally results in mediocrities getting tenure. Ward Churchill may be one of these; he may even be a fraud. Were people like Kopel and Governor Bill Owens to keep silent, firing Churchill for fraud and plagiarism might not be the worst decision a University ever made. But, as David Kopel so regularly reminds us with his overheated and McCarthyesque rhetoric about the dangers of the far-left's influence over the CU campus, firing him in this situation would be a de-facto capitulation to a politically-motivated witchhunt. That would be far worse for this country than allowing a questionable professor to remain at his post. The more David Kopel complains, the stronger the argument for not firing Ward Churchill.

Posted by Carey at March 12, 2005 08:25 PM
Comments

Thanks for linking to the Left2Right post, a nice post at a nice site. While
thinking in terms of slime mold is useful, analogies have their limits.

In the case of Prof. Churchill, the problem is that whatever system for
ensuring 'quality' CU has, it seems to have failed. So I agree with you that
firing Churchill isn't a solution--it would be more like a distraction. The
problem isn't that there are people like Churchill, it's that there are
systems, and people in responsibility, who have enabled his hiring and
promotion. Is Churchill a hideous exception to an otherwise excellent CU
faculty? Then it would be damn interesting to know what special factors
facilitated his rise. Or, is Churchill not an exception? More
interesting still. (*)

The preferred administrative approaches are easy to predict--fire Churchill,
get him to resign, or buy him out. Then hope like hell that a fickle public
loses interest, so that things can go back to business as usual with minimum
disturbance.

Is that really what's in the public interest? In that broad sense, I think
Kopel's approach is more likely to bring about needed reforms than the
approach you seem to prefer.

* Rereading, I think you are defending Churchill on his merits, where I
have come to the tentative belief that his professional qualifications are
essentially nonexistent. If there are reasons to think he has a good record
of accomplishment for a tenured professor, that would change my opinion.

Posted by: Alastair Mackay at March 16, 2005 06:03 PM